In this article we review the work of Nick Totton who presented to a packed BTP audience in Brighton on Saturday 15th September 2018.
Nick Totton is a renowned body psychotherapist with 35 years experience in the therapy world. He originally trained in neo-Reichian body psychotherapy, and has since established a training in his own synthesis: Embodied-Relational Therapy. This style of body psychotherapy has been thriving for around twenty years. He more recently set up the related but distinct practice of Wild Therapy. In a Brighton Therapy Partnership training course, he explained why we are all (whether we realise it or not) body psychotherapists.
Nick began the day with an experiential exercise. In a room full of people he asked us to close our eyes and begin to notice ourselves – to notice our breathing, how comfortable we were, and what we were feeling. He then asked us to move our attention out, away from ourselves to someone sitting close by – can we feel the warmth of their body close to us, can we get a sense of their size? Their breath, their emotions? In asking us to then focus on a second person outside of ourselves we began to notice the differences we could detect without even seeing them. This, he said, was the premise of the day – its easier to detect our other senses with our eyes closed, but even with our eyes open we are still picking up an array of invisible cues from the clients who sit in front of us – we all use body psychotherapy to some degree.
What is Body Psychotherapy?
An important premise to this article is an understanding of what body psychotherapy is. Body psychotherapy is often mistaken for a therapy that involves touch, when in fact it is about noticing and creating a connection which goes beyond the mind. Throughout history our mind and body have been separated. Our body is seen as limited and earthbound whilst our mind is free to roam as far as it can imagine.
We tend to relate to our bodies in 3 distinct ways:
Having – as if we own our bodies
Being – the body is me and I express myself with it
Becoming – not a fixed state – we can experience our body very differently moment to moment.
Our bodies are simultaneously something we are, and something we can use. However, we tend to define ourselves by our minds, often ignoring conscious awareness of our bodies a majority of the time. Yet embodiment is a powerful tool should we choose to utilise it.
Embodiment and our environment
Our bodies are made up of the voluntary nervous system (which follows our intentions) and an autonomic nervous system (which controls things that happen naturally, like heartbeats and breathing). In a world where feeling in control is comforting, the autonomic actions of our bodies can be disconcerting, making us want to deny that part of ourselves. Yet listening to what our bodies need can be transformative, and can make us feel heard in a way a purely mind focus in incapable of. Thus listening to somatic symptoms in therapy sessions in order to unpack what they are trying to say can be a very healing experience. Body psychotherapy encourages a kinder relationship to the body than is standard in our society, and so can be used to resist a denigration of the body and our natural environment. Embracing embodiment connects us to the deeper experiences of life and the sacredness of our existence.
Causation doesn’t flow in only one direction – we affect the world and in turn it affects us back. Therefore our way of thinking is created by our experiences of the physical world, and this provides the structure for our thought processes. Even people who believe themselves to be all in their head are more embodied than they realise – we use embodied phrases all of the time e.g. ‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’, this physical language gives away a closer relationship with our bodies than we often realise.
As therapists we are taught not to self disclose, yet physically we cannot help it – our physical presence can affect the client without either of us being consciously aware. Two bodies in a room will always affect each other like moons. We’re used to processing thoughts and feelings, but embodiment is the ground these things are built on.
Physical awareness is part of feeling, and so helping clients to connect with their physical experiences can really lead them to a wider experience of their own emotions and experiences. We want our clients to learn to stay in touch with their embodied reactions as a development of the self and awareness.
Implicit relational patterns
Most of what we do is implicit. Implicit relational patterns held within the body (engrams) are memories held in the body structure. We can learn a lot about our clients by noticing their physical reactions. For example, have you ever had a client who on recounting being yelled at seems to physically cringe away, almost as they would have done as a child in that situation? This is an example of their engrams showing themselves. It might be physically too subtle to pick up visually, however our body will notice it – this is often what is happening when we talk about transference – a body-to-body connection below mental awareness which will play out unspoken in the background of the conscious work we do in the therapy room.
In the therapy room, we will implicitly react to the client’s engrams. However, how we react will depend on both our engrams and unconscious choices. This could mean that we fall into the position of authority, or a more fallible version of ourselves in an unconscious attempt to put them at ease. Being aware of our own engrams means that we can consciously choose not to play into their embodied patterns, or to react differently in an effort to make the client feel safe.
Visual to visceral
We have all been trained to pay attention to what we see and hear in the therapy room, but by adding in tracking the body-to-body communication that we often call ‘gut’ instinct or intuition we will begin to work with an extra level of connectedness which can greatly increase the connection between therapist and client in the room.
When picking up these visceral emotions we must be aware that rather than being yours or theirs, they are the product of both bodies in the room which will always affect each other. This is the premise behind transference, and shows we are attuned to their experience in that moment. If both you and the client can trust the experience of therapy, then what needs to will unfold in the room. This relaxation allows spontaneity without trying to control what comes up.