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Bioenergetics (Bioenergetic Analysis)
What is Bioenergetics?
Expanding the Relationship; Bringing the Body into Therapy
Marriage and Family Therapy from a Bioenergetic Perspective
Bioenergetics -- Translating the Body’s Language

Bioenergetics (Bioenergetic Analysis)

Bioenergetic Analysis is a form of psychotherapy practiced by licensed psychotherapists who have completed at least five years of specialized training and clinical supervision. Bioenergetics blends traditional therapeutic methods with body-centered techniques that help people resolve their emotional problems and therefore enhance their well-being.

Symptoms of unhappiness and stress, such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and decreased sexuality are often the result of blocked emotional expression and chronic muscular tension. This modality offers an integrated and effective approach to address these common manifestations of disease. Started in the 1950’s by Alexander Lowen, MD (1910 – 2008) with his colleague John Pierrakos, MD (1921- 2001). For more information, please access these websites: www.bioenergetic-therapy.com or www.bioenergetics-sciba.org

© Copyright 2001 by Tarra Judson Stariell, MFT, CBT

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What is Bioenergetics?

Bioenergetics is a kind of psychotherapy that facilitates accessing and reclaiming the authentic self, through exploring one's mind and the accompanying energies stored in the body. The Bioenergetic therapist is able to promote lasting change because the whole person is involved in the healing process—mind and body. Our capacity for joy, love, happiness, creativity, spirituality; our sexuality and aliveness—can all beexperienced more fully and freely with the tools and experiences Bioenergetics offers.

Bioenergetics was created in the late 1950s by Alexander Lowen, William Waller and John Pierrakos, all psychiatrists and students of Wilhelm Reich .M.D. who had discovered that a life force exists within inanimate as well as living objects that he named “bio energy.” Lowen and his colleagues formed their own psychotherapy practice and branched away from Reich who was also noted for his voluminous research concerning the inter-relatedness of the mind with the body and its emotional processes. An avid researcher, Reich was very controversial and promoted ideas that although common knowledge today, were in his time revolutionary and met with skepticism and criticism.

Reich had previously been in Freud’s inner circle of analysts and was among those who emigrated from Germany to the United States before the Nazis limited such departures. He taught at the New School of Social Research in New York, where he met Lowen and the others. Reich theorized that the body has a natural biological energy to it utilized for the expression of one’s emotions and aliveness. He believed these responses to be biologically hardwired, instinctive movements all mammals utilize for their survival. Reich proposed that these energetic/emotional responses could become restricted and held within the musculature of a person when his or her emotional environment was not nurturing enough to support that person’s developmental process and efforts towards flourishing.

While working with clients, Reich discovered the mind-body connection well-recognized today. He proposed that when a person’s psyche perceives a life event as offensive, that experience is registered in the mind of that individual along with the commensurate defenses that ensured the person’s survival—how they coped with the situation. These defenses can be considered behavioral patterns and are also recorded and stored as memory in the muscular tissues and organs of the body. Essentially, what happens to a body is registered in the mind of that individual, whether consciously or unconsciously as the body becomes a vault where the unprocessed experiences and unexpressed emotions of the person are stored.

Over time, this constricted energy held in the musculature of the body, creates chronic tension, or “armoring” in the muscles. Reich proposed that this armoring served as a psychological defense and contributed to neurotic behavior. When the muscular contraction was released through various therapeutic interventions, Reich witnessed how repressed emotions emerged in a cathartic manner, followed by a feeling of relief, aliveness and renewed vitality.

Since each experience in our lives is an event recorded within us in relationship to our selves, the experience, the environment, another--or others; relationship is an integral factor governing the perception and healing from any detrimental effects of that experience and relationship.

Lowen in of his numerous books describes Bioenergetic Therapy as a “way of understanding personality in terms of the body and its energetic processes

“…Bioenergetics is also a form of therapy that combines work with the body and the mind to help people resolve their emotional problems and realize more of their potential for pleasure and joy in living.” (Lowen, 1977)

Currently, Bioenergetics has evolved to become a relational form of psychotherapy, utilizing the therapeutic alliance as well as the information muscular contractions and tension patterns present. These bodily characteristics are usually directly related to a person’s emotional history, lifestyle and early childhood relationships. By exploring movement, breath, posture and emotional expression, a person is then able to reclaim their vibrancy and return to a more authentic state of being.

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Expanding the Relationship; Bringing the Body into Therapy;

How Does Bioenergetics Expand a Therapist’s Ability to Relate to their Clients?

Most research has revealed that approximately 94% of our communication is non-verbal. Some call it “body-language.” In Bioenergetics, we are able to read this language of the body and have a sense about its meaning to the client. We are given tools to help the client understand how they have organized their presence in the world. The emotional experiences from our developmental history and personal environment have heavily influenced the organization of our personality and the way we relate to and experience our bodies.

Candace Pert, credited for her research on endorphins and neuropeptides, wrote in her book, Molescules of Emotion (1999) that the body has capacity for memory all throughout, especially in areas where there are concentrations of neuropeptides.

Furthermore, Carl Jung is well known for his contributions to the field of psychology. He has been quoted to have said that “your unconscious becomes your process.” In Bioenergetics, we believe that the body holds that “process,” or stored energy in the body until such time that the individual is able to bring the energy of that experience to consciousness and therefore process and release the emotions.

Examples of this “Body-Mind Language”

Before therapeutic interventions, someone who has been battered or abused will have what is called an “exaggerated startle response.” They will unconsciously flinch or jump when they hear a loud noise or someone makes a sudden movement around them. This is just one example of a myriad of unconscious memories the body holds stored in its defensive repertoire.

Think of the expression “stand on your own two feet” as in asking someone to be grounded, responsible or capable of taking care of themselves. A person suffering from low self-esteem, a victim of abuse or trauma is most likely going to be challenged with this. A Bioenergetically trained therapist is able to see this.

In addition, a person who “shoulders their responsibilities” is probably someone who carries unneeded tension in their shoulders and neck because of unprocessed stress and psychological burdens.

Another example would be the expression, “hold your head up high” as instruction for keeping one disconnected from the feelings that might “bring you down.” It is almost impossible to cry and release sadness if you “keep your chin up.”

And, there are the sayings “to lose your heart, open your heart” or, “having a broken heart.” Energetically, these expressions can be used to describe the posture, emotion or experience that person is having. In Bioenergetics we know someone experiencing a broken heart will most likely have a caved in looking sternum and rounded forward shoulders.

These are just a few examples in an attempt to demonstrate the body-mind connection and how our language is used to express bodily states being. It is hoped you can see how the body’s energy patterns are directly related to an individual’s experiences in life. Just as the psyche organizes defenses according to the quality of an experience, a person’s body is present in that process and is energetically influenced by those thoughts, emotions and feelings. The Bioenergetic therapist is able to utilize this added information to facilitate the client in releasing past experiences, learn how to listen to those felt-senses in the body, and integrate this expanded awareness of self into each present moment of life.

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Marriage and Family Therapy from a Bioenergetic Perspective

Bioenergetics is a relational psychotherapy using the body and its energy that serves to inform the clinician on the relational patterns of the client. Marriage, Family Therapists are relationally oriented and yet we remain under-trained about the context or vehicle that brings the client to our office, that the clients live in and through which the client relates to his or her world---the body.

Using this theoretical orientation, a Bioenergetically trained therapist is able to expand their understanding of how the client’s defenses translate into bodily presentations. These somatic awareness tools add to a therapist’s understanding of the client’s reality. Thus, the nonverbal language presented in session is given translation.

With this expanded awareness, the Bioenergetic therapist is better able to offer the client psycho-education, insight, and alternatives to these characteristic dysfunctional patterns of being and relating in the world. Furthermore, the body’s energy patterns are directly related to an individual’s experiences in life. Just as the psyche has had to organize defenses in relationship to environmental responses, the person’s body has also been present and experiencing the gamut of emotions and feelings---all physical felt-senses. The Bioenergetic therapist is able to utilize this added information to facilitate the client in releasing past experiences and integrating her awareness of self into the present moment.

Tarra Stariell is a fully trained Bioenergetic psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over four years. She has two offices, in Solana Beach and Escondido. She has extensive experience working with children and adolescents, Vietnam Veterans, pregnant and parenting teens with substance abuse problems; adolescents in the juvenile justice system; substance abusing women and the homeless.

Tarra has also worked as the family therapist for a local agency that was the recipient of a research project on addictions, sponsored by Columbia University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In addition, she has participated in a research study on Attachment Theory with a local noted specialist in that area, Vincentia Schroeter, Ph.D.

Tarra’s specialties include addictions, dissociative disorders, bereavement, trauma, cult recovery and adolescents.

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Bioenergetics -- Translating the Body’s Language

By Tarra Judson Stariell, MFT, CBT

The English language uses many expressions involving the body that when taken literally, indicate attitudes regarding certain feeling states in the body. The colloquial term “holding one’s head up high” denotes a body posture that facilitates a person’s management of his or her composure. Focusing on holding taught our neck and maintaining a head held up against surrendering and softening to feelings allows disconnection with emotions the lower body is experiencing.

This would be especially helpful if one were struggling against feeling grief or sadness, offering a defense against surrendering to emotions held in the body’s core, wanting to be expressed through the natural pathway up the torso, throat and out through the breath. Disconnecting from our tears prevents the vulnerable states we fear but also requires the unexpressed emotional energy that naturally upwells from within our bodies to recycle and return to its source, getting warehoused and stored within the body’s tissues and musculature until such time that another opportunity for self-expression presents itself.

“Keeping your chin up” is another way of staying rigidly composed and insulated from letting down into whatever feelings might rush out of someone’s throat if it were relaxed and not stiff as happens when the chin is held upward. This posture is often used by someone fighting back emotion for a tight throat prevents these energies rising up from finding release through the throat and mouth.

“Keeping a stiff upper lip” offers the same defense as when we soften and relax the muscles around our mouth, our inner feelings show. A “poker face” is one held firm and rigid without allowing the muscles to reveal their emotional content.

It is nearly impossible to “let down” into grief or sadness with a tense chin or with neck muscles stiffly holding the head upwards. Tight shoulder muscles also betray their function as we believe in Bioenergetics that the person is “shouldering their responsibilities.” Denoting a person most likely carrying unneeded tension in their neck and shoulders due to unprocessed stress and psychological burdens.

These are only a few examples of the myriad ways our language belies the emotional process of the body and what mannerisms we take on in order to prevent our bodies from feeling emotions. Our body’s way of communicating with us is through feelings, emotions and sensations, all movements from within the body’s core wanting to reflect to us what the mind holds in its awareness. When a body is not able to process the energetic components to an experience, that energy is stored in the body as well as the unconscious mind. As the brain cleans house in attempt to balance the body/mind, the unconscious energies held in the brain and correspondingly in the muscular tissues of the body emerge to be recognized and subsequently released.

Bioenergetics offers such a process of healing and integration as it is a relational somatic (body) form of psychotherapy. The theory of Bioenergetics is that what occurs in the mind also manifests in the body. Our individual self, our awareness, inhabits the body and so any form of trauma whether developmental or shock trauma, loss, grief and the stress of daily living are all registered in both the mind and the body. We are designed to process whatever experience remains unexplored within us and therefore the unconscious becomes conscious in a process of learning from our experiences, allowing self-expression and exploring the automatic patterns and behaviors that we repeat in our lives.

This natural flow of energy from within us without is process ofas the body’s felt-sense awareness is the focus of the mind, an integration process ensues leading to an increase in our capacity for pleasure and well being.

Life in any body requires a certain amount of awareness and in fact the more attention someone pays to their body, the better that body usually feels. A body with chronic stress, muscular contractions and physical diseases, from a Bioenergetic viewpoint is asking for more attention from the person living within it. A body needs to move and when encouraged to do so in normally uncharacteristic (non-automatic) ways, a shift occurs in the energy of that body, releasing what was previously trapped and creating a pleasant sensation as what was blocked is now released.

Negative emotions like sadness, fear, shock and disgust are often considered unsightly and something to avoid or control. Our language demonstrates this belief as we use common expressions to encourage one another to suppress or ignore these so-called negative emotions. Sadly, our natural state, that of being filled with love, joy and self-satisfaction are then sacrificed in service of our emotions.

Acting out one’s emotions is equally as damaging as holding them in, or “acting them in.” Outbursts of anger, hurting and judging others are frequent examples of acting out our emotions. For example, being “outraged” is another way of saying the person was “outing their rage.”

Learning how to be aware of one’s emotions and expressing them in the context of relationship with self and other is available through Bioenergetics therapy. The therapeutic alliance offers a safe and contained environment that facilitates Self-exploration, healing from our experiences and learning new tools for dealing with life circumstances. Emotional self-regulation allows us to experience increased aliveness, joy and peace of mind which are our natural heritage when emotions do not cloud or distort our experiences. Learning how to mind one’s body and using self-awareness for self-regulation facilitate pleasure in life moment by moment.

© Copyright 2001 by Tarra Judson Stariell, MFT, CBT

Suggested Reading
Johnson, S. (1985). Characterological Transformation, The Hard Work Miracle.
Norton & Company.
Lowen, A. (1975). Bioenergetics. Penguin: Arkana.
Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of Emotion, The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine.
Simon & Schuster.
BodyMind, Dykland***

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