The importance of including the body when working with mental health was put forth by Wilhelm Reich, a disciple of Sigmund Freud’s. He is considered the founding father of modern body psychotherapy and his work forms the basis of so-called Neo-Reichian therapeutic approaches, such as Bioenergetic Analysis, Biodynamic massage, Vegetotherapy and different types of Breathwork. His work on childhood trauma and the formation of character structures and body types provides a map that describes the survival strategies and energy flow patterns we develop as children in response to not having our emotional and developmental needs met consistently enough during our first 5-7 years of life. These patterns were put in place as children but continue to influence how we experience and perceive our environment and express in the way we think, feel, respond, behave and act in this world as adults. Furthermore, these patterns of energy flow even shape the body into recognizable holding patterns, held in place by chronic muscular tensions and “body armoring”. Wilhelm Reich looked at the character as an armor and referred to it as “the frozen history of the person.” Of foremost importance when approaching work with the “character structure” of ourselves and others is to keep in mind that these structures are not who we truly are, but rather they develop as defensive patterns at a younger age and continue to shape our experience of life, our bodies and our energy flow patterns. In other words, our character structure does not describe who we are, but rather it is a cover obscuring the essence of who we truly are.
The word “character” refers to our personality and ways of being out in the world, particularly our patterns of connecting with others and handling stress. We all have characteristic patterns that show up in the way we talk, our body posture, what kinds of feelings we are most comfortable with and are able to express, how we avoid or engage in relationships, etc. These patterns were first described by Reich as patterns of resistance to certain things in life that he saw his clients didn’t want to do – such as trusting others, expressing needs, or showing certain emotions like anger or sadness. Our character develops as a strategy to avoid feeling pain and disapproval and as an attempt to get our needs for safety and connection met in our family.
The word “structure” indicates that these patterns that can be seen and recognized in our bodies. These patterns show up in specific ways in the body and are called the “armor” – held actually in the fascia and muscles and influencing even the shape of our body. Armoring develops at a young age primarily as a response to painful feelings that we cannot bear to feel fully at the time, so we attempt to bury them and make them unconscious – like a layer of defense that locks away the pains of not having our needs met, as if they had never existed. But we all still broadcast those unacknowledged feelings all the time through our posture, expression, breathing and behavior. It is important to remember that none of this is our “fault” as this process of building defenses is entirely driven by the automatic parts of our brain doing their job in attempting to protect us.
When thinking of “trauma” in this context, we are referring to an event that is experienced as overwhelming and often leads to dysregulation in the nervous system of the child. This includes dangerous situations such as abuse and neglect, or emotionally devastating situations such as the loss or prolonged absence of a parent. However, it can also include situations in which the child’s needs of support, independence, connection and emotional attunement are not fully met by their caregivers. By this definition, trauma becomes relevant to each one of us as the very experience of growing up and meeting resistance from our parents can become traumatic. The nature and severity of the traumas we experience, as well as the developmental stage during which they occur decide which defense patterns we adopt and grow into.
So if this is something that affects us all, why is it so important to unlock those patterns? It is widely seen that our armoring is associated with limiting personal choices and freedom on the mental, physical and emotional levels. It locks us into a way of being. If the only thing we can do when having a conflict with someone is get angry and controlling, or our main way of relating is through seduction rather than intimacy, or when our response to feeling overwhelmed is to run away or dissociate then our ability to connect with others and express ourselves authentically in the world is limited. This causes tremendous stress and psychological suffering.
In the BioDynamic Breathwork & Trauma Release System® (BBTRS) we focus on connecting emotions and traumatic memories while staying present and connected to the felt sensations in our body. This allows the nervous system to contact the original feelings or experiences but with the key differences of being held in a safe and supportive environment. By successfully being able to complete or experience that which was too much in the past to be processed through the body, we are finally able to discharge and release the stress, tension and holding in the nervous system and body/muscular armoring. The key to “befriending” these strong sensations and memories is a sense of safety which was missing at the time of the traumatic events. This sense of safety can be created through the therapist’s presence in the process of the release, but importantly, it is established as a felt experience within the person’s own body during a breathwork session and beyond. With this newly formed felt sense slowly the experience of being in one’s body feels safe again, even when strong, painful sensations are present. With this sense of safety and trust we are able to let go of our armoring and come out of our defensive patterns, returning to presence and our true essence.
The BBTR System focuses on 3 key areas for the healing of trauma:
1) Awareness: This is a key tool for letting down the armoring. We use body awareness exercises so a person can start to feel and recognize their patterns. We must have insight into the present day function of our character defenses before we can let them go.
2) Relational field: The quality of the contact and relationship with the therapist is important to allow a grounded re-living of the original wounding but in a different holding environment.
3) Physical Release: The combination of breathwork, touch/massage, emotional expression, contacting/building somatic resources is the foundation of the healing of those wounds.
We will explore the 5 character structures and body types in more depth in our upcoming blog posts.