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Why is a Body-Centered Approach to Personal Growth Needed?
by Michael Nagel, M.A.

The interrelationship between mind and body is an ever-expanding area of contemporary research. Modern research demonstrates that our emotions accompany physiological changes. Fear can cause heart palpitations. Anger can elevate blood pressure. Blocked anger and fear can lead to a stroke. Ulcers and other gastrointestinal disturbances often have been attributed to emotional factors. Arthritis, asthma, hives, and even the common cold may have a psychosomatic component.

Indeed some cancer studies show that fear, hate, and guilt may underlie many forms of cancer. Other findings show that, compared to any type of psychotherapy, people suffering from depression can be brought out of it faster with physical movement. Psychosomatic illnesses appear to result from long-term sustained internal stress caused by unacceptable repressed emotions. Of course, all manner of psychological impairments and neurotic behavior can also be attributed to the mind/body interrelationship.

Reich’s Early Discoveries

Although these findings are contemporary, the mind, body, emotions interrelationship was first systematically explored and defined more than 50 years ago by natural scientist and psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, M.D. Reich’s studies provide many keys to understanding how the body and human personality are related. These studies largely remain unrecognized by the general public, psychotherapy, and the medical profession.

Reich developed theories of how people use muscular tensing to try to control or cut off emotions. Even more important are his powerful techniques and exercises that help an individual learn ways to release emotional repression and restore normal, healthy integration of mind and body.

Emotion and the Child

To sense how emotional blocking begins, consider the early years of human growth. Infants and children need the warmth and touch of a loving environment to support and encourage development. They need the freedom to risk, explore and do what is spontaneous and natural.

Yet for many children the free expression of feelings and emotions is denied or punished by unknowing parents and society. Instead children learn to hide and deny their true feelings. To survive they develop a false sense of self. The child may shut out emotional contact, deny feelings, and self-expression. The alive, energetic, creative, and fulfilled authentic self is not allowed to emerge.

As the child learns to physically suppress emotions, physical tensions in muscles and organs develop. For example, if a parent threatens, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about,” the child responds by holding the breath, tightening the jaw and chest, and choking down the feelings in the throat. The punishment of natural expressions of fear, anger and pain, teaches the child that it is unsafe to express such feelings. The blocked emotions do not get expressed, and typically they are never discharged.

The Habitual Protective Reaction

Emotional repression serves a protective function and involves the entire body. By tightening specific parts of the body, feelings are barricaded inside heavy walls of muscular and physiological tension. In Reichian work, we call this process armoring. Over time these repeated physiological tensions of the child’s reaction to the external world become habitual and unconscious.

Moreover into and throughout adulthood, this pattern of repression through physiological armoring is repeated and reinforced whenever the adult is confronted by a situation that brings up an emotion or feeling that is unpleasant or threatening to the self.

Loss of Pleasure

Unfortunately, it is not only unpleasant feelings that are blocked. The emotional deadening extends to our entire feeling capacity. For the very same specific parts of the body used to block anger, fear, and pain, are used to experience and express love, trust, and joy. Thus, the individual loses more and more of the natural ability to experience both pain and pleasure.

Obviously, in some individuals these blocks are more pervasive and damaging than in others. Yet we all do pay the price of a lost aliveness and a deadened capacity for feeling. As adults most of us take for granted so much of our experiences that we have little or no awareness of our reduced ability to feel. No longer do we notice the loss of richness in our lives. We are dulled, deadened, and estranged from ourselves and others.

The development of these rigid patterns of blocking against unwanted feelings limits not only the experience of both pain and pleasure, but also the expression of those emotions. Since the same parts of the body are involved in the expression of pain and pleasure, it follows that the release of blocked pain is necessary for the full experience and expression of pleasure. To release such blocks, a body-centered approach to personal growth is needed.

Michael Nagel, M.A. teaches RADIX, a body-centered approach to personal growth. He has more than 30 years experience with personal growth disciplines. His articles on psychology and philosophy have been published in journals, magazines, and books. For more information, call: (360) 571-8619 or (503) 805-3135. Email: