Have you ever gotten so angry that you began to shout? Or so grief-stricken that wailing sobs simply poured forth?
Most of us have experienced such overwhelming emotions at one point or another in our lives. Unfortunately, in our culture such overt expressions of emotion are generally frowned upon. I say ‘unfortunately’ because in my experience using our voices and our bodies is the most effective way to release these powerful feelings.
Bioenergetics is a type of psychoanalysis that encourages people to express emotions in just this way. Developed by Alexander Lowen, MD, and based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, it is a true mind-body technique in that it uses the language of the body to heal the problems of the mind. Lowen postulated that unexpressed emotions actually become stored in the tissues of the body, and by consciously using the body to release these old emotions, we can heal traumas and approach full functionality.
Bioenergetics could thus be termed the first truly holistic therapy. By working with areas of chronic tension in the body’s musculature, one is able to access long buried emotions. These childhood traumas affect our adult functioning, both in our bodies and our minds. By releasing the emotions associated with trauma, we are able to release not only chronic muscle tension but also the dysfunctional patterns of relating we have developed for the protection of our psyches. The therapist guides this process both with talk and specific body movements.
Breathing is fundamental to bioenergetics. One of the first physiological responses to anxiety and stress is shallow breathing. Often as children, as we go through traumatic experiences, we get into the habit of shallow breathing; sometimes the muscles of the abdomen and thorax actually become chronically tense so that full breathing seems impossible. During a bioenergetics session, the therapist will keep the client focused on deep, abdominal breathing. Sometimes merely breathing in this manner will bring up emotions.
Grounding is another basic bioenergetics technique. Often our physical experiences as children are so painful that we disown our bodies, tending to live only in our minds. When the emotions we feel seem overwhelming, if we consciously connect our energy to the earth, we are able to feel safer. Thus during a bioenergetics sessions, grounding through specific exercises is vital as we release intense and long repressed emotions.
My first exposure to bioenergetics came at a time in my life when I was not only experiencing a lot of back pain but also was feeling very stuck. I wanted to write, but my creativity seemed inaccessible. I also felt a general sense of emotional numbness. Because the physical pain was foremost in my consciousness, I looked for a body worker to help ease me out of the pain. The woman I found used deep tissue massage similar to RolfingTM combined with the breathing and grounding techniques of bioenergetics.
I went to this woman weekly for about three months. What an intense time that was for me! As Jerre would do the massage strokes, I breathed deeply, exhaling with sound. Often anger or sorrow would bubble up, turning these sounds I was making into yells or wails. Sometimes Jerrre would have me pound my fists or kick my feet on the massage table, wring a washcloth, or just shake my head from side to side. Every bodywork session began and ended with grounding exercises.
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