Getting Our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing, and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy

Getting Our Bodies Back: Recovery, Healing, and Transformation through Body-Centered Psychotherapy

by Christine Caldwell

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habitual movement as common as nail-biting or toe-tapping can be the key to pulling out addictive behavior by its roots. These unconscious movement
"tags" indicate the places where our bodies have become split off from our psyches. When brought to consciousness and confronted they will often tell us very plainly where our psychological suffering


habitual movement as common as nail-biting or toe-tapping can be the key to pulling out addictive behavior by its roots. These unconscious movement
"tags" indicate the places where our bodies have become split off from our psyches. When brought to consciousness and confronted they will often tell us very plainly where our psychological suffering originated, showing us where to begin reconnecting body and soul. Christine Caldwell, a pioneer in the field of somatic psychology, has created an original model for working with body wisdom called the Moving Cycle. She describes how this form of therapy has worked effectively in her own practice, and she provides practical techniques to show how we can learn to listen to what our bodies are telling us, confront addictive habits, and learn to celebrate our inherent wisdom and elegance.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3:

The One-Two-Three Waltz:

Patterns in Addiction

drink not from mere joy in wine nor to scoff at faith—no, only to forget myself for a moment, that only do I want of intoxication, that alone.


We leave our bodies by the use of off-handed movements, breathing patterns,
gestures, or postures that both mark and alleviate an uncomfortable state. The movements also soothe physically. When I urge clients to "go into"
their movement tags, allowing them to lead them where they will, what is often uncovered is a feeling of lack, of not being able to take care of oneself, of inherent wrongness, of fear of death. This was vividly illustrated to me a few years ago by a suicidal client whose movement tag would begin with the dropping of her head toward her chest. She would then begin to feel a strangling lack of air that panicked her so much that she lifted her head, looked at me very directly, and said, "I would rather die than feel that feeling."
Another client, who constantly battled food addictions, followed a seemingly simple gesture to her mouth into terrified screams of, "I'm all alone! I'm all alone! No one's there!"

began to realize that the movements I was seeing had their origin in early experiences. Time and again I saw a connection between early physical needs and the movements and behaviors I was studying. If an early need didn't get met adequately desensitization occurred and a behavioral gesture developed that was practiced whenever that deprivation was restimulated. The movement tag seemed to be a distorted self-comforting gesture, a kind of attempt to hold, stroke,
or soothe.

And many times these deprivations were from preverbal times in the client's life,
centering around such primal needs as warmth, nourishment, caring attention,
and physical safety. The sequence of these movement habits also piqued my interest: a predictable flow of events emerged at the body level.

1. A
feeling or memory or sensation starts to happen.

2. The movement gesture begins, and is repeated until the feeling stops or is relegated to just being talked about. The repeated movement is usually experienced as very compelling.

3. The person is very attached to what he or she is doing, finding the movement comforting or even pleasurable, and will become upset or resistant if anyone attempts to intervene to disrupt it.

4. The movement tag begins to diminish gradually. The person begins to "come down," feeling depressed, hopeless, or resentful. Frequent statements heard are, "Nothing ever changes," "I'll never get out of this," or "I just can't do/get it."

5. Blame.
"I am doing something wrong that I can't get through this," or
"If you [therapist or friend} hadn't said that to me I would have felt a whole lot better." The basic result is self-hatred and shame.

It was discovering this sequence and its similarity to descriptions of the addictive process that first clued me in to the probability that I was seeing some kind of body-based addiction. This led me to a new operational definition of addiction:
Addiction is a person's consistent physical response, usually learned early in life, to a consistently unmet need.

The response is intended to distract us from the pain of the unmet need, and to provide a substitute for the pleasurable experience of need satisfaction.
Leaving our body gets us away from the pain or the threatening pleasure.
Leaving our bodies soothes and comforts us at a time when we need it most.

I have stated before, one of our basic needs is to experience and know that we are loved unconditionally. We don't have to be someone other than who we are to merit being loved. Who we are is inherently lovable. Ideally, an infant first experiences unconditional love from its parents, who are willing to attend to him or approve of who that child is. Unconditional love does not mean constant attention or praise; it means not withdrawing attention when things get sticky or uncomfortable, and not withdrawing basic positive regard. Many psychologists and writers, including Alice Miller, John Bradshaw, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks,
and others, have found that anyone with unhealed wounding (most of us) will withdraw attention and approval from anyone who stimulates their old pains. We snatch away our attention and approval in the face of the same kinds of experiences that caused it to be withdrawn from us. As children we will do almost anything to prevent our parents from practicing conditional love,
including trying to be whom our parents want us to be. This setup of fulfilling our parents' needs rather than being who we are is a basis of addiction. The need for love has more survival value than the need to be genuine. This sacrificing of genuineness in the service of getting love is very painful and crazy-making, but it keeps us alive.

Pain happens. Normally pain is experienced and then it is over, but when pain is not resolved, when it is experienced again and again with no solution, it is torture, senseless and unbearable, and the body will automatically take action to minimize it. What creates the need to use physical behaviors to sedate feeling experience? How do we recognize addiction in the body? Addictive behavior has five characteristics as I see it, and all five must be present for it to be considered addictive. They are:

1. Repetition
2. Lack of development

3. Lack of satisfaction

4. Lack of completion

5. Uncomfortable to watch

The first characteristic is repetition. The movement behavior is repeated,
repeated, and repeated. This keeps the painful experience of feelings away, and provides a measure of soothing comfort. This behavior can be seen to resemble the rocking motions we see in children.

the behavior lacks development—it doesn't change or go anywhere. It is always the same, feels the same, and has the same result. A nervous tug on one's chin does not develop into a pulling and then an angry pulling and then a genuine feeling of the original rage. It cycles around not going anywhere like a mouse in an exercise wheel.

the behavior does not satisfy. It may feel comforting at the time, but the person will end up feeling vaguely odd, guilty, spaced out, or depressed.

the action does not complete itself; it remains unfinished in terms of the energy that drives it. It will look like a partial effort. A client I worked with habitually held her finger between her teeth whenever she was thinking. It looked like an incomplete biting action, and when she explored this tag she discovered that she did indeed want to bite.

addictive actions are uncomfortable to watch. Observers will generally become either bored and withdrawn, judgmental, or frustrated and angry. I had a bulimic client a few years ago who would twirl a lock of her hair relentlessly during a session. There were times when I wanted to reach over and yank out that offending lock.

Often observing an addictive process in others will stimulate one's own addictive tendencies. If we can't get away from someone who is being addictive, we will feel an urge to practice our own addiction. In my case, when I wanted to yank out my client's hair I noticed that I would begin to rub my thumb against my index finger. These uncomfortable feelings are often misinterpreted as countertransference by therapists. In other words, therapists will see their frustration with clients as reflective of their own unresolved issues. This is true, but more importantly, as therapists we can begin to recognize what has stimulated our feelings, and get curious about potential addictions.

In the addictive process, we desensitize our body while inducing euphoria by means of a substance or a behavior. Desensitization and dissociation are important both to keep pain out of our awareness and to insulate us from feeling the toxic effects of the euphoria-producing substance or behavior. In order to continue to drink, for example, we have to ignore body messages that the alcohol makes us nauseous or light-headed or headachy. Desensitization and euphoria in tandem create the addictive process.

How do we use our body to withdraw from our body? Initially, we make repetitive gestures that hypnotize and anesthetize our physical experience. Try sitting in a chair and rocking back and forth for ten minutes, and notice how sedating this can be. Rocking chairs are meant to soothe in this way. This strategy of repetitive gestures is most frequently used by small children, but can be seen in psychotic and autistic people as well. As adults we resort to this primal strategy during times of stress by biting our nails, fluffing our hair, or tapping our feet.

Our next body strategy is to use tension as a desensitizer. Research has shown that tensing a muscle will, in the short run, increase sensation in that area. The nerves in the muscle get very active, both in maintaining the contraction and in giving the brain sensory feedback about the contraction. However, if the tension continues and becomes chronic, the nerves will tend to exhaust themselves and will only send sensory messages if there are large changes in the amount of tension. In other words, when tension becomes chronic, our nervous system begins to ignore it and pay attention to other things (the exception to this is when the tension actually causes damage to surrounding tissues, in which case the damaged tissues will complain loudly). Have you ever had a friend put his hand on your shoulder and exclaim how tight you are, only to be surprised because you weren't particularly aware of it?

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Another way we can desensitize ourselves out of our bodies is to practice paying attention to other things. As addicts we have two common ways of distracting ourselves from our here-and-now experience. The first is to pay attention only to our thoughts—to intellectualize. Anne Wilson Schaef calls it "stinking thinking." We get very adept at rationalizing, excusing, fantasizing, conceptualizing, and analyzing. We can even run a good explanation of why we are the way we are.
Even though our explanations can be technically accurate, they are used in the service of removing ourselves from our bodies, from directly experiencing the world.

Another favorite way of distracting ourselves is to pay exclusive attention to the environment around us. Getting focused on what is happening outside of us can be seen as the primary behavior of codependency. The addictions field has been the primary forum for the documentation and discussion of the phenomenon of codependency, seeing its origins in the dysfunctional family that can cause its members to be hypervigilant of others in order to feel safe and loved. While this focus of attention outside the self can indeed serve this function, we can also look at its function as a physical desensitizer. If we are constantly paying attention to the outside, we are ignoring our body.

We can use body processes to help distract our attention, whether they are internal, like runaway thinking, or external, like hypervigilance. Let's look now at very biological ways our bodies distract us. Hyperactivity and anxiety are physical phenomena partially created by adrenaline, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, that prepares us either to fight or flee from danger. The more adrenaline we secrete, the more tendency we have to feel anxious and hypervigilant. The more we commit to these feelings, the more adrenaline we secrete. Our body, our emotions, and our thoughts all create a feedback loop that keeps us distracted from some more threatening awareness.

Depression is a kind of generalized, systematic desensitization. In depression, we use our mood and our level of physical activity to leave our bodies. It is the physical equivalent of turning down the volume on a stereo so that we can't hear the words to the music. In order not to hear the painful words stored in our bodies, we turn down all our physical functions, our feelings, and even our thoughts. It is a general anaesthetic, designed to get us away from a persistent physical message. Depression literally alters our body chemistry,
slowing down the release of hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that can help us feel energized and happy. This in turn can cause more depression, and the depression–body chemistry feedback loop keeps us stuck in a state of lessened aliveness.

We accomplish bodily desensitization in two other ways: with our breath and with our posture. It has long been noted by body-centered psychotherapists, among them Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, Stanley Keleman, and Gay Hendricks, that we can cut off feelings and sensations by cutting off our breath. The fuller we breathe, the more we feel; the less we breathe, the less we feel. By suppressing full breathing we can effectively fend off feeling. It has also been noted that posture can affect feeling and sensation. We have all noticed that when we are in good moods we sit straighter and walk taller, and that when in sad moods we tend to slump or collapse. This also goes in the other direction. Slumping can intensify or prolong a sad feeling. Thus, if we need the depressed feeling in order to avoid some other awareness, we can continue to slump or collapse as a way of helping this feeling stay in place.

Addictive behavior is repetitive, stays the same, is unsatisfying, remains incomplete,
and is irritating to witness. All of these qualities must be present, and present in the body, for a behavior to be addictive. Many contemporary addictions theorists believe that addiction is more the rule than the exception in our society. If we add up the drug and alcohol addicts, the cigarette addicts, the food addicts, and the process addicts (those addicted to love,
gambling, sex), we come up with an alarming percentage of the population. If we expand our definition of addiction to include anything we do that repeats,
doesn't change, doesn't satisfy, doesn't complete, and irritates our loved ones, have we left anyone out?

Addiction in this sense is less a disease than a universal human condition. Buddhists would call addictive behavior our "habit energy," our natural tendency to be frightened of our awareness and aliveness. John Bradshaw says that addiction always has life-damaging consequences. Yet this same process,
practiced to a lesser extent, can be said to have life-limiting qualities. It is possible that the difference between life-damaging and life-limiting is found in a genetic or chemical imbalance in the brains of certain people. We must continue to investigate the real possibility that heavy-duty substance abuse has independent biological mechanisms that result in a propensity to self-destruct. Life-limiting behaviors also deserve our full attention. Here we are not looking so much at healing woundedness as we are at freeing ourselves to grow, transform, and become more expanded and happy as human beings.

All addictions, whether to cocaine or shopping or negative thinking, share the same features mentioned above. We can speculate that there are some shared processes in all of them and that we are also looking at a continuum of dysfunction.
Recovery can also be on this line. Figure 2 shows the continuum of progress from addiction to recovery to transformational growth.

We threaten our lives when we introduce large amounts of toxins into our bodies.
We damage our lives when we practice addictions that cause long-term illness or break the fabric of our families and societies. We limit our lives when we fail to grow, when we keep ourselves sedated or distracted, when we fail to contribute to others. We promote life when we commit to our own happiness and the happiness of others. Moving from life-threatening to life-promoting actions is a tremendous step. Some of us have been less traumatized by life and have less distance to travel than others. Whatever the distance, reclaiming and reoccupying our bodies is the way toward affirming happiness, toward reconnecting with the exquisite beauty of life.

Meet the Author

Christine Caldwell, Ph.D., is a somatic therapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She is the founder of the Somatic Psychology Department at the Naropa Institute and the director of the Moving Center, also in Boulder.

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