The Structural / Postural Level of the Body Mind Connection: How Your Body Postures the Stories of Your Life
Alexander Lowen, the father of a powerful body-oriented psychotherapy called Bioenergetics said that:
…energy is involved in all the processes of life-in moving, feeling and thinking-and …these processes would come to a stop if the supply of energy to the organism were seriously interrupted.
We understand scientifically that all body movements, from the gross to the chemical, involve energy. But Lowen, like Willhelm Reich before him, implied that the intangible parts of us, our thoughts, and emotions, the movements of our deep unconscious psyche; all that makes up our personality or character are also energetic events. He says:
We are not accustomed to thinking of personality in terms of energy, yet the two cannot bedissociated. How much energy an individual has and how he uses it must determine and be reflected in his personality. Some people have more energy than others; some are more contained. Animpulsive person for example, cannot contain any increase in his level of excitement or energy; he must discharge the increased excitation as rapidly as possible. A compulsive person uses his energy differently; he too must discharge his excitement but he does so in rigidly structured pattern ofmovement and behavior.
People who experience a lot of anxiety, nervousness or insecurity, will tend to have high level of energy that keeps them vibrating, or jittery, ungrounded and unable to rest or be still. Folks who tend to feel depressed, or unworthy, may feel a depletion of energy, a heaviness or collapsed feeling. Essentially, a person’s personality or character is reflected in the way they manage their energy, emotionally and physically!
All of these (and many other) patterns of energy are unconscious adaptations or strategies that help us get along in life. They are established very early in our lives as ingenious responses to ourenvironments. They are there to help.
When we are children, particularly in our earliest years, our unconscious developmental task is to
determine an internal set of conclusions about who we are, what life is and what it takes to survive physically and emotionally. All of us, to some degree or another, experience emotional threats. For many of us it is simply that our good parents weren’t always able to respond exactly the way we needed them to, exactly when we needed them to assure us we were loved. Others of us experienced outright trauma in the form of overwhelm or neglect.
Unfortunately most of us don’t get the impression that who we are is perfect and good and that we will be loved EXACTLY as we are, no matter what that is in every moment. In our culture, we learn that we need to be a certain way to be loved and accepted, and maybe even safe. Even if our home environment was nothing but nurturing, when we hit the bigger world and school with all their social pressures and expectations, we have to adopt some strategies to feel ok about ourselves and in
Our strategy may be to be silent, or to put other people’s opinions and needs above our own and make ourselves smaller than others. Our unconscious bodymind might “decide” that the best way to be safe and get along is to disappear, or disconnect from our bodies and stay in our head, or even dissociate. Or our strategy may be too get bigger than everyone else and be in charge, control and overpower others (overtly or covertly). We may (unconsciously) decide that we need to be perfect, put on a mask and not let anyone see who we really are.
When we’re little, we don’t have the cognitive ability to decide upon these strategies consciously. All we can do is react on a very primitive, unconscious level. We don’t have cognition yet, but we do have our bodies’ and our nervous systems’ ability to regulate our energy and our expression.
Those unconscious nervous systems of ours have three very powerful tools to help us manage our emotions and our energy:
1. Breath: If you think about it, all energy movement on every level, from the chemical reactions in our cells, to the movement of our muscles and digestion, relies on the breath. Because it is the breath that literally determines that we are alive! If emotions are energy, then they too rely on the breath to move freely through our psyche and our body. If our breath is not open and full, we can not experience and express our emotions (or our spirit!). So if we don’t want to feel our emotions because they are too painful or we have been told that we shouldn’t have them (an all too common message children get…particularly boys), One of the most efficient ways to
stop their flow is to hold the breath. We don’t literally hold it or we would be dead! Over years though we develop patterns of shallow, restricted breathing that act as a permanent damping down, or repression of our emotional self.
2. Muscular tension: Another powerful tool the unconscious psyche and nervous system have to keep us “safe” is our tissues. If we want to stop the experience of our emotions or our self expression we can tighten the body. If we don’t want to speak a truth, our throat, jaw and face may get tight and stay that way. If we “learned” that we had to fight or struggle to survive, we might develop chronic tension in the back, neck, shoulders. It’s uncanny that these patterns of tightening can actually produce visible postures that show what we are experiencing! The muscles will tighten, but so will our fascia or connective tissue which is the matrix that holds all our body parts together. So when this muscular and fascial (myofascial) tightening happens, we not only restrict the flow of emotions but we literally restrict the energy flow through our organs. You can imagine that this is not good for our health!
The opposite can also happen. Those of us who feel depleted emotionally, perhaps not nurtured enough as children, or battered by the struggles of life may actually collapse energetically and have less “tone” and strength on all levels.
3. Our connection to ourselves, to our center and the ground: The “fight or flight” response is aptly named as our nervous systems’ reaction to stress. If we can’t overpower the threat then we can always flee! It’s easy to imagine this scenario in a physically threatening external circumstance. But it can also happen on more subtle energetic levels within our bodymind. In extreme cases we call this dissociation. But there are more subtle forms of fleeing, or disconnecting from our internal experience, and ourselves that many of us do on a regular basis, or even as a permanent strategy. In some cases it looks like being ungrounded, spacey, flighty or “not of this world” Some folks literally don’t feel much sensation in their bodies an prefer to daydream or get lost in artistic expression or in spiritual realms than to be grounded, present and connected to the world and other people. By trying energetically to not “be” in their body, there can be a depletion or weakness of energy in the body constitutionally and in the tissues. Sometimes folks who have developed this strategy even have the appearance of “wispiness” or transparency.
These “bodymind postures” as I call them, or “character structures” as Lowen and others including Barbara Brennan call them, are all very resourceful and clever strategies by the unconscious nervous system and psyche and they begin developing very early in life. They are not something we’ve done wrong. They are simply early primitive strategies that formed when that was all we could do! Many of us “use” these different strategies at different times, while some of us hold to one or two particular patterns over the course of our lives.
So why learn about all this? Because when we can become aware of the ways that our bodies unconsciously have adapted and molded to help us navigate our lives, then we can make new conscious choices.
With awareness and choice we can free our bodies from their armoring, or depletion and heal the wounds and “conclusions” that underlie them and perpetuate our emotional and physical suffering in the present! This is what I help people to do in my practice.
My working definition of health is freedom of movement of life energy on all levels. So by addressing our bodies we can identify and free up the movement and flow of our emotional, psychological, mental and spiritual as well as our physical energy. This is healing.
In next month’s newsletter I’ll have an article about the third, even less tangible level of the body mind connection: the symbolic. Stay tuned!