Where did (Biodynamic) Body Psychotherapy come from?
The origins of body psychotherapy can be traced as far back as the early twentieth century with the increased emphasis on the body that came with the rise of the Life Reform Movement in Europe, including the beginnings of dance movement therapy. However, it is the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) who is most attributed with having initiated body psychotherapy. In the 1930s he broke with the established psychoanalytic school, and his friend and mentor Sigmund Freud, by focusing on an area that had been put aside by Freud, namely the relationship between mind and body.
Reich came to believe, and began to work clinically with, the idea that we hold unexpressed painful feelings in our posture and musculature, and that these psychological blocks can be released through direct loosening of the tension held in the body - the 'body armour'. While Reich's story then took a series of unexpected twists and turns, culminating in his pursuit of 'orgone' (universal life energy) and eventual demise in America, his theory of body armour was embraced and expanded on by the so-called neo-Reichians in the context of a growing humanistic movement that began in the 1950s. Many branches of body psychotherapy developed from that time, including Alexander Lowen's Bioenergetics, John Pierrakos's Core Energetics, Ron Kurtz's Hakomi, and David Boadella's Biosynthesis. One of these branches, Biodynamic Psychology, happened to take root in post-war Oslo under the Norwegian psychologist and physiotherapist Gerda Boyesen (1922-2005), eventually becoming Biodynamic Body Psychotherapy.
Boyesen began to explore the connection between mind and body when she experienced for herself Reichian bodywork, and saw the effect of particular neuromuscular massages on the mental health patients she worked with as physiotherapist. Already a qualified clinical psychologist, Boyesen was in a unique position of being able to combine what she knew of the mind with what she was learning about the body. Over time, and as her approach to body psychotherapy took shape, Boyesen came to believe that our true selves can be released from defensive structures by listening to what the body wants and facilitating movement that has become blocked. In this sense, biodynamic means free movement of the energy of life itself. What has emerged is a comprehensive technique that incorporates talking, specialised massage and focused attention on the expression of the body. Today Biodynamic Body Psychotherapy is underpinned and supported by theories of human development, neurobiology, attachment and trauma, as well as aspects from both humanistic and psychodynamic models.
Body Psychotherapy and Trauma
Any situation that involves extreme distress, fear, overwhelm, helplessness, deprivation, loss or inability to protect oneself can be carried as a trauma. These events may be one-off or repeated over time, in childhood or adulthood, and are generally felt more severely if there has not been an opportunity to digest what has happened with another person. If there was inadequate support at the time and if the individual was essentially alone with their distress and unable to cope, the body may hold the trauma, sometimes away from consciousness, until a time when it feels safe to process.
As trauma is very often held physically, body psychotherapists have an advantage over the solely 'talking therapies' in that they can directly address the body for areas of contraction, fear or defeat that may be hard for the client to access through talking alone. Using touch and encouraging the client to 'hear' what their body is telling them, together client and therapist re-encounter some of the original traumatic energy that has been frozen in time, transforming it through the safety and connection established in the therapeutic relationship.
The key here is safety and being in connection with an attuned sympathetic other - normally the two conditions that were absent when the original trauma took place. Body psychotherapists are also careful to work within the client's window of tolerance, meaning that the uncovering of traumatic feelings and sensations are only encouraged enough for healing transformation to take place, but not so much that the client feels re-traumatised. Again, feeling safe and supported is paramount to any trauma work.
When the client feels safe, he or she can begin to recover who they were before the traumatic event(s) took place, including impulses to 'fight back' or 'stand up for oneself' which are elements of autonomy and power often lost to overwhelming circumstances.