Body psychotherapy

Have you ever heard of body psychotherapy?⁣
It’s a form of psychotherapy based on the idea that people experience the world simultaneously through their mind and their body. ⁣

There are five essential concepts of body psychotherapy:⁣
1. Bodymind: the embodied integration of thoughts, feelings, and physical bodily experiences and sensations.⁣
2. Armoring and character: armor is a muscle tension that protects us from physical and emotional pain. The set of armors contributes to the development of character.⁣
3. Energy: is stored and released from the body and plays an important role in how people carry themselves, experience the world and interact with it.⁣
4. Body memory: the idea that memories are stored within the body, and for this reason need to be accessed through the body rather than talking therapy.⁣
5. Trauma: the idea that traumatic experiences can create energy build-ups and blockages that lead to physical and emotional issues.⁣

These concepts are used in body psychotherapy by a constant attention and awareness on both mind and body processes, which become integrated and are elaborated as a whole.

Four main techniques are used:⁣
1. Centering: using the patient to increase awareness on internal processes and stabilise them from the inside out.
2. Grounding: the attunement to the flow of energy between the body and the ground. Stretching, vibration and breathing help in experiencing a sense of connection with this flow of energy.⁣
3. Contact and bodywork: this can range from exercises that encourage relaxation, safe touch, that call attention on body tension, or even dance and movement therapy sessions.⁣
4. Breathwork: it’s believed that people often stop breathing when they want to block feelings, so learning to breath more regularly and consciously leads to more balance and relaxation.⁣

As with any approach, we don’t have to necessarily embrace all its concepts to see its validity. Body psychotherapy connects these often far-apart worlds of body and mind and increases awareness on one’s internal dynamics by focusing on both. Through this integrated approach, we can be able to connect more deeply with ourselves as a whole, and not just parts that work independently. 


The wisdom of our body: the state of FLOW

Sometimes the body knows things our conscience ignores.

And this is not only true for somatisation and trauma, it’s not only about expressing what the mind needs or lacks, it’s also much more.

When we approach the concept of FLOW, it’s useful to understand an important difference: the one between instinct and intuition. While the former comes from our past, the needs of our species, and acts within our present, the latter is an out-of-conscience act inspired by the present moment. It’s in the absence of thought that the action happens. 

Think of a spontaneous reaction in tune with the exigency of the external circumstances (maybe something that requires immediate action) or the synchronisation of athletes playing together, or even their abandon when they are fully immersed in the present moment of playing and being moved by something that seems almost external, transcendent to them.

In psychology we refer to this as ‘the flow’ or ‘being in the zone’. 

Taoism calls this ‘action of non-action’ or ‘effortless action’ (Wu Wei).

It’s not only stillness of mind, momentum, but also something that brings us back to the concept of public emotion, an occasion to free ourselves, even momentarily, from our ego. It’s like the emotion is already out there, as well as the action, and we become the intermediary for its manifestation. 

Our body inhabits something wider than our conscience, something collective, inspired and necessary as the present moment.

And this way, it holds a wisdom that our mind is not always capable of.

(Art by Nate Williams on

Watch this video for more information.

Trauma & body

Trauma has a way of ‘marking’ the body, other than the mind.⁣
M. Guidotti talks about the differences between humans and animals and their respective reactions to trauma.⁣

When experiencing trauma, animals often go through a limited freezing. After some time, they burst into an aggression (fight) or they run away (flight), manifesting an actual reaction to danger.⁣

Humans, instead, have a part of their brain which is much more developed compared to animals (the frontal cortex) and that, in some traumatic situations, impedes this reaction, and keeps the state of freezing by inhibiting the fight/flight response. ⁣

What happens as a consequence of this? The brain remains in this ‘lower state’ mode after the trauma, being stuck on this missed reaction and therefore making a continuous effort, as to replace that reaction.⁣

This might be at the roots of chronic pain, which is almost absent in animals, while very common in humans in the aftermath of trauma. This chronic reaction is often physical: muscular tension, eczemas, paralyses, somatoform dissociation (a feeling of dissociation that interests the body).⁣

Many of these symptoms were common in what was called hysteria, where a trauma caused unexplainable physical symptoms, and now can be seen in disorders such as ‘Somatic Symptom Disorder’, which involves having a significant focus on physical symptoms. The most common are: back pain, joint pain, bloating, food intolerance, abdominal pain, headache. ⁣

(Drawing by Noa Snir)⁣


Today we talk about somatisation.

Polyvagal theory is useful once again to see more in depth what are some connections between body and mind.

This theory tells us how, based on an internal or external stimulus that we perceive as dangerous or even life-threatening (so, something we elaborate with our brain), our internal system triggers a physical reaction, namely fight, flight or freeze. This can entail a variation on our heartbeat, a slowing down of our stomach, pupils dilation…

These connections between mind and body are very strong, and they are also at the origin of somatisation. Somatisation is the physical manifestation of a mental condition. This can happen in the form of symptoms that appear apparently out of nowhere (for example, we are anxious and start experiencing digestive problems) or even as a factor that worsens physical conditions (like what happens with stress and inflammatory bowel disease).

This relationship goes also the other way, where a physical condition triggers an emotional reaction (like when severe medical issues cause depression, and this co-occurrence makes the medical condition worse).

In all these situations our body acts to protect us or signal that something is wrong. 

This also happens in more subtle ways: have you ever had a bad day where your head is somewhere else and you end up falling, things slip off your hands, you hurt yourself by accident? It’s like distraction became physical.

The body is the “tough” one. We respect it more than our mind. Our culture has also educated us to only believe to “visible” symptoms, and we tend to take a day off from work more easily if it’s for a strong headache rather than for grieving.

So very often, somatisation obliges us to listen to our needs.

It’s our body that screams “listen to your mind!”.

March theme: BODY

Cartesian dualism stated that body and mind are fundamentally different, as the former is made of physical matter and the latter isn’t. This created a division that is still, to some extent, sustained by some today. In more psychological – and recent – terms: the mind cannot be reduced to neurobiology and physics.⁣
These theories all arise from the assumption that body and mind are fundamentally different in nature.⁣

Today, progress in neurobiology has increased our knowledge of how, in fact, much of what we call ‘the mind’ comes from the physical realm. Nonetheless, psychology has predominantly relied on the mind, leaving the body aside, in treating mental issues and emotional discomfort.⁣

This reluctance to associate mind and body might very well derive from our inability to accept the finitude of our body, which we know is subject to pain, decay and death. While our mind can represent freedom, self-determination, fulfillment, the body reminds us of our animal and mortal nature. Christianity and other religions have rendered the pleasures of the body a source of guilt, due to their inherent ‘inferior’ nature when compared to the spirit.⁣
Western societies are widely permeated by these morals to this day, and this has enhanced the division between our true and purest self (the mind) and the inevitably precarious and shameful container of it (the body).⁣
Luckily, psychology today increasingly includes the body. And that’s what we will see this month: how the body interacts with and expresses mental processes, how it’s included in therapy, what it can help us with and where it’s, instead, perceived as a limit, and much more…⁣

(See a previous post about this relationship).

Coping recap

We have reached the end of our ‘Torches’ month, dedicated to coping.⁣

The metaphor with torches is a fitting one because it explains the dual nature of coping: torches help us see in the dark but also help us avoid it.⁣

In the first part of the month we highlighted the main forms of coping and what they can be good for: trivial situations might require a concrete plan, uncontrollable ones might call for soothing our emotions, life-changing ones may be an occasion to find a new narration, and so on…⁣
Knowing how to cope is an essential survival skill, but also a facilitator of connection: it helps us move between states of protection and socialisation according to the circumstances.⁣

But Empatherapy values a complexity that requires us to look at concepts more critically. This allowed us to see how coping can also have its downsides. It can prevent us from having an insightful life, when it implies blindly moving forward and just functioning, without asking ‘why’. Coping can become an automatic process of adaptation that deprives life of its meaning and us of awareness.⁣
We also cope by replacing our needs with others, without realising, and this creates secondary issues and estranges us from our true selves.⁣

So, coping is ultimately about recognising whether or not to cope, how to do so, and being mindful about what things in our life are a form of coping towards something we don’t want to handle or look at. And, hopefully, find the strength to do so.⁣
Without a torch you will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.⁣

What happens when coping is unconscious?

Our psyche does that: it protects us from (real or possible) traumas, and as a consequence of this suppression, it ‘copes’ by creating secondary issues.

Let’s clear this with some examples.

▪️ You might have suffered from anxieties that despite interfering with your wellbeing, have remained relatively uncovered. They might be too much to handle, the context not safe enough to let go, and you start getting angry instead. Apparently, there is no reason. Why does someone else’s behaviour trigger you so much? Why have you snapped? Your anxiety is under the surface and pushing, your mind recognises the danger that would derive from letting it go, and creates another emotion, that arises with no apparent reason.

▪️ You have had a sexual trauma. You fear being sexualised and objectified and as a consequence, you date people whom you don’t like (even if you are firmly convinced you do), but that provide that sense of safety and trust you have been missing. The safety feels like happiness for a while, it replaces it in some way. But you feel like something is lacking, you feel unsatisfied, unfulfilled, but don’t know where these feelings come from.

▪️ As a consequence of your childhood, you have had a tendency for depression. You have never really recognised this, or admitted it, but it has affected your life even if you are not aware of it. The academic achievements have represented, throughout the years, something that define you. You are convinced your whole identity is attached to them, and are persistent in always performing better. Your fear of embracing something as scary as depression has led you to a perfectionism that you consider a trait, but is ultimately a coping strategy not to face the abyss.

You have created a new symptom, you have engaged in the wrong relationship, you have chosen that your success will give meaning to your life.

All of this to cope with something your mind thinks you cannot handle. I will tell you a secret: you can.

Some coping helps us survive, some coping makes us stronger, some helps us find meaning.
This only creates more issues to solve while keeping us away from our true self. 

Coping and defense

Multiple shades of coping

It’s not only a matter of style. Within those styles, there are different ways we can cope, more or less effectively.

We can adapt, changing something in ourselves or our behaviours to better suit the environment we inhabit.

We can attack, displacing our discomfort on someone or something else, often in a transformed form.

We can avoid.

We can change what we do, or change the way we think.

We can transform the problem into something else.

We can unconsciously defend ourselves from the issue, by projecting, repressing, denying and so on.

We can self-harm, or engage in risky or unhealthy behaviours like drinking and smoking.

We can act out, expressing our frustration by misbehaving. 

We can dissociate, if the problem becomes too heavy to accept.

We can intellectualise, creating rational explanations for our emotional reactions.

We can provoke, somatize, complain, fantasize, trivialize…

Coping, as we are seeing, is an umbrella term. It includes all the several ways that we can use to face something hard. These can range from very functional to extremely dysfunctional and unhealthy. And as you might have noticed already, some are very similar to defense mechanisms (our #1020theme), which tells us something about coping.

It’s the opposite of sitting with the issue.

When it’s necessary to move forward, it’s a positive thing, but when it would be useful to stop and turn off the torch to actually see how dark it is, it becomes something that increases the distance between us and awareness.

(These examples are taken from

Emotion-focused vs. Problem-focused

“Do I need to change my situation or do I need to find a way to better cope with the situation?”

While in the long run it pays to dig deeper and search for meaning, in the short run, emotion-focused and problem-focused coping might have their advantages, and their effectiveness depends on whether we can do something about it or just need to face the facts.

Emotion-focused coping is also called avoidant not because it’s necessarily negative, but because it aims at distraction from what’s making us hurt. That’s why it’s useful – and sometimes necessary – in our daily life. When the locus of control is external (that is, when the outcome of the situation is out of our control) we might need to work with our emotions regarding that issue. That, sometimes, might imply the need to soothe with distractions, or quick solutions. It’s not as profound as meaning-based coping, but it’s more appropriate when the need to ‘function’ is urgent.

On the other hand, when the locus of control is internal, we could make a plan on how to handle or fix the problem. That also lacks the depth of meaning-based, but it’s much more appropriate for practical and pressing issues, where it’s not always necessary to find a higher sense to the narration.

Some healthy emotion-focused skills are: drawing, exercising, listening to music, meditating, spoiling ourselves, playing a game, reading a book, nature, taking care of your body.

Some healthy problem-focused skills are: creating a to-do list, making a plan, acting in response to needs, whether that is setting boundaries or walking away, putting more effort in what you are doing.

Coping is also being able to know the difference and the right place for each coping style. And that involves asking the right questions.

We will see some of them next time.

Polyvagal theory and coping

Polyvagal theory states that we have three ways of functioning, linked to our autonomic nervous system. The first and ‘least elaborate’ one is the dorsal vagal (freeze), then comes the sympathetic (fight or flight) and finally the ventral vagal (social engagement). 

This is an interesting theory, that we will come back to in the future, to see it more in depth, but for now, let’s see what it teaches us about coping.

It is, in fact, tightly interconnected with it, because as we experience trauma, we tend to move from the last one (that is allowed by a feeling of safety and protection) to the second one (motion, reaction, survival) and then, if that does not alleviate distress, we move on to the first one (our conservation mode, numbing and dissociation).

The quality of our coping, and ability to move across states, is learned thanks to a supportive system and responsive caregiver (as always, this doesn’t imply that it can’t be learned later) that allows a fluid return to an optimal state. But regardless of this restorative ability, all of us shift to some form of survival and conservation when something difficult happens. 

Coping is what we choose to do to move up the ladder, to reach a state of growth, restoration and sociality again.