There’s a general consensus among practitioners and scientists alike regarding the relationship between the body and the mind, meaning that the processes in one may affect the processes in the other. However, the connection could definitely be further explored (Berger, 2002).
In psychotherapy, the body was, for a long time, looked at as just a window to our soul, or a place in which our mental states can be seen, and Freud usually describes the body as an expression of our mental state or desires (Miller, 2001). The shift in paradigm comes together with the father of body psychotherapy, Wilhelm Reich. He saw neurosis as certain blockages that form in our bodies when there’s a problem with the natural flow of our natural energy.
In his book, Character analysis (Reich, 1933), he emphasizes the way in which the client enters the room, says hello, sits (or lies) down, the way they speak, breathe, etc. Reich claims that each individual part of our body can create physical contractions that block the energy and excitement (Reich, 1933). We can see this body armor in the way we walk, talk, sit, stand… In his work, he would focus on what the client was saying, but also on how they were saying it and, in many cases, the latter turned out to be a lot more revealing.
How does it translate in practice?
In the process of body psychotherapy, the therapist openly looks at the client and their body becomes something that‘s observed and maybe commented on, it even becomes the center or the figure of the conversation. This was a big deal back in the day, a huge change from the analyst sitting behind the client, clients facing away from them. Here, the therapist directs the client’s attention to the points of tension in an attempt to release it and unblock the energy that‘s being wasted there (Perić-Todorović, 1990).
“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”
The shift to facing the client and acknowledging what’s visible in the here and now in their body, still holds a lot of value to this day. The influence of body psychotherapy is very present in Gestalt therapy, and my clients know this very well. The most important thing that we as “Gestaltists” accept is the notion that it‘s not only the matter of what the client is saying but also how they‘re saying it that carries a meaning with it. In fact, Laura Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt, says it’s impossible to claim Gestalt is an experiential, existential and experimental approach without paying attention to the immediate body experiences (Gregori, 2015). It‘s not only the speech, memories, dreams ,but also the physical inhibitions, tense muscles, seemingly inappropriate face expression and gestures (Joyce & Sills, 2014).
Body (and) Mind
For many clients, it is essential to increase their awareness of what they’re avoiding or what they’re missing, and a good way to access these contents is precisely through the body (Joyce & Sills, 2014). Gestalt uses Reich’s insights when interpreting how body tension can play a part in sabotaging people’s needs from being met (Miller, 2001). Gestalt therapy is very focused, not only on the past and on how our patterns may have been formed then and there, but also on how we continue to creatively adapt to the here and now.
And, what could be a better source of information than our bodies?
By way of looking at the client, listening to them, monitoring and commenting on changes in his demeanor, we catch subtleties that may escape the client otherwise. This is why, when a client says they’re feeling disconnected, or they feel absent, or they feel like crying but nothing’s coming out, we stop. We stop for a minute and pay attention to their bodies’ signals, usually by way of asking plain and simple: “What’s going on in your body right now?” or “Are you breathing?” We may ask the client to pay attention to their own body, we may comment on what we see, or we may ask them to create or emphasize a movement.
What does the body tell us?
By using the information available in the therapy session itself, we challenge client’s patterns and allow for a space to explore together and create something different and new that might serve them better in an attempt to become more connected. We only notice what‘s happening, we don‘t judge or try to change it, the client is the only one who can decide to do that if he chooses to. Through contact, clients become more aware of what they weren‘t aware of before. Only when we see how the client behaves and when we accept it together, can we allow space for something potentially new (Joyce & Sills, 2014).
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Berger, J. (2002). Psihološki potporni sistem: model bazičnih oslonaca ličnosti. Centar za primenjenu psihologiju
Gregory, S. (2015). Gestalt Therapy’s embodied styles. British Gestalt Journal, Vol. 24, No.1, 39-44.
Joyce, P. & Sills, C. (2014). Skills in Gestalt: Counseling & Psychotherapy (3rd Ed.). SAGE
Miller, M.V. (2001). The Body Speaking, The Gestalt Journal, Vol. XXIV, No 2, 11-29.
Perić – Todorović, D. (1990). Bioenergetska analiza. Klinička psihologija. 628-645.
Reich, W. (1933). On character analysis. The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 20, 89.