Including the Body in Psychotherapy Practice
Doing graduate work at The Wright Institute allowed me to assimilate my life experience with my desire to become a clinician capable of navigating the increasingly complex mental health needs of our society. Before becoming a therapist, I was a substance abuse treatment counselor for many years, and I studied Gestalt and Body Psychotherapy as a work scholar at Esalen Institute, with some of the great pioneers in the field.
Mulching fallen trees after a storm at Esalen, I injured my back and was referred to the Breema Clinic in Oakland. My back healed, but there was more; I began to experience a sense of cohesiveness, presence, calmness, and clarity that I had never experienced before. At this time I was working as a counselor for clients with co-occuring mental health and substance abuse issues in a large residential program. Treating this population inherently means treating trauma. In an effort to preserve myself from compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and to mitigate burnout, I began to practice the Breema principles, and use body centered meditation and movement exercises with clients in group. The effect was profound. I was energized, clear, and centered in session. The clients were benefiting as well; a cohesive atmosphere now permeated my group sessions.
I led a staff training on stress reduction for my agency and was invited to teach weekly classes to 40 active duty veterans on leave from the military for substance abuse treatment. The exercises proved extremely therapeutic for these men, helping mitigate their mental chatter, anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. One initially reluctant young man approached me at the end of a class and asked me to show him one of the exercises again, saying, “my brain stopped talking. For the first time in my life, I was quiet inside.”
Breema is effective in therapy because it incorporates a fundamental understanding of how energy works. Sitting with clients, our energy is often drained because our attention is outside of ourselves. When we include ourselves by bringing body and mind together, we retain our energy. We receive the client directly, hear their experience without getting caught in their reaction or our own associative story about what that experience means, or feeling a need to fix. When clients talk about a traumatic event, I help them connect to their body and breathe, make a sound, move, –make it kinetic. The goal is to process, digest, and release identification with trauma, not reinforce it. The traumatic memory doesn’t disappear, but we form a different relationship with it. It moves to the background, rather than being the lens through which we experience life.
Walking the Talk workshops are for therapists, especially interns and trainees, to begin to have a relationship to being embodied, and including their own well being in the practice of psychotherapy. When we are relaxed, comfortable with ourselves, and present, our clients are supported to be relaxed, comfortable, and present. This alone is tremendous support for therapists, and will benefit them and their clients exponentially