The crucial role of the body and life force in emotional healing

Although most people are familiar with Sigmund Freud, few have heard of his student in psychiatry, Wilhelm Reich. While Freud founded psychoanalysis as a method for gaining insight into unconscious processes in behaviour, Reich worked in a uniquely different way with his patients, focusing more on the body and non-verbal responses as a direct route to the unconscious. Reich discovered the relationship between body processes and emotional functioning, that the body and mind are really one, and that the body holds a frozen history of our life experiences.

One of Reich’s important concepts was “orgone energy” which is the life force that flows through the body. This flow can be blocked unconsciously in different parts of the body inhibiting our emotional experience, our ability to think clearly and our physical health. Reich was able to prove the existence of life force with a series of experiments he conducted and published, and he even built a device to capture life force from the atmosphere and use it on patients to help them heal diseases. Interestingly, Reich’s success in treating cancer with this device brought the wrath of the AMA down on him. His papers, books and devices were publically burned and he was sentenced to two years in prison where he mysteriously died.

The effects of the life force on emotional functioning

Dr Charles Kelley, an experimental psychologist and student of Reich, was devoted to furthering Reich’s work and our understanding of the life force. He named this force “radix” (meaning root or source) and much of his work focused on the effects of the rhythmic pulsation of the radix flow which has contributed significantly to our understanding of emotional experience and expression.

Radix is the natural force that animates the body and is the aliveness with which we were conceived and born. It flows through the body longitudinally, uniting body, mind and spirit, and is experienced as thinking, feeling and action. The life force pulsates and flows in a cycle of two strokes: the in-stroke which relates to our contact with ourselves; and the out-stroke which relates to contact with the world around us. On the in-stroke, there is a gathering in of radix to the core, and on the out-stroke radix flows out to the periphery of the body and out into world.

If the environment that we were born into did not support this aliveness, we learned to limit or block its flow. We may have tensed our muscles, restricted our breathing or channelled the life force to particular areas of the body. A child does what is best at the time for their emotional and physical survival, and intense emotions such as fear, pain and anger are often repressed. If these defence responses become habitual and unconscious, some of the radix is trapped, and as adults, these chronic blocks manifest in the body as inhibited shape, breathing, movement and expression.

Some people block the flow of radix predominantly on the in-stoke, some on the out-stroke, and some limit both. If we had to withdraw our energy from our body to protect ourselves from childhood trauma, the radix gets stuck on the in-stroke and doesn’t turn around and flow out. On the other hand, if our way of surviving was to push out into the world with a focus on action and achievement, the radix will be frozen on the out-stroke, in the periphery of the body, and there will not be an easy flow back to our core. We lose touch with ourselves, our true feelings and desires.

The body in psychotherapy today

Determined to empower people by focusing on health, not illness, Kelley founded the Radix Institute in the 1970s. Radix practitioners focus on the life force as the source of health and vitality, emphasising the empowerment of clients, and apply it not only to personal growth work, but also to clinical issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and interpersonal relationships.

In the early days of Reichian therapies, the focus was on freeing muscular armour and emotional catharsis. While clients do often experience emotional release in their work, now there is more emphasis and value placed on promoting aliveness and health through inner knowing, self-contact, emotional containment and boundaries.

Working with the eyes, breath, movement, sound and touch, clients discover experientially how the body participates in unconsciously interfering with the way they think, feel and act. They develop new ways of functioning, discover inner resources they didn’t know they had, and become conscious of the way they can facilitate the flow of life force to choose how to express their aliveness in the world.

Neuroscience has provided the evidence base for the importance of working with the mind-body connection in psychotherapy. The process of repairing the brain circuits involved in regulating emotions and resetting the chronic defence responses of the nervous system requires a focus on body and unconscious processes. A therapist who has done a lot of personal healing work is necessary to establish a safe, growth-facilitating environment.

Body-centred psychotherapy is especially important for people who have been traumatised. Cognitive approaches alone cannot resolve shock and trauma because these
 events often bypass the cortical functions upon which cognitive therapy 
depends. To treat them effectively, we must get back to the somatic sensory 
level using the body’s own language of sensation.

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