Integrative Body Psychotherapy: A Therapy Using Body, Mind, and Emotions

An author wrote this informative article on IBP, which offers deep insight to the benefits of this approach.


Six months after his second divorce, Lars was in love.
“What’s she like?” asked a friend.

“Like all his women,” replied another friend, “cold and nasty.”

Lars deplored this unfortunate consistency but couldn’t change it. “From twenty attractive women,” he’d say wryly, “I’ll invariably choose the Ice Maiden.”

Naturally, his relationships ended soon and painfully, each leaving him more introspective. He read self-help books, meditated, and changed therapists, but was still drawn to unavailable women. He discussed it with analytical therapists and screamed about it with body therapists but remained in his unhappy rut.

When Lars romance withered, a friend suggested a new therapy called Integrative Body Psychotherapy. It combined the intellectuality of analytical therapies with the intense emotionality of body therapies. Although Lars had reached intellectual insights and felt profound emotions in therapy, he had never integrated them. Real changes come with insight but only when awareness permeates the entire being – body as well as mind. Body involvement is necessary because although emotions are savored and catalogued by the mind they are felt by and harbored in the body. This is recognized in everyday speech where an intuitive truth is a “gut feeling,” the heart “sinks” with disappointment, and love “makes the earth move.”

Such corporeal terms are no accident. Our bodies are great repositories of emotion. It is there that we know things to be true and without this internal conviction it is virtually impossible to make permanent and significant changes. A real turning point may involve an intellectual decision but also requires an overall physical and emotional acceptance of the new direction.
A person’s body constricts when he is tense or uncertain and relaxes when he’s not. The breathing reflects this, coming in shallow, quick breaths or in deep, rhythmic, slow ones. When Lars got into Integrative Body Psychotherapy, his therapist used breathing techniques to help find the emotions locked in his body, to re-live the early experiences that engendered them, and to put them into words necessary to his adult intellectual understanding.

Many people deny the lifelong influence of early experience, insisting that knowledge and strength of will can overcome a bad start. This is true as far as it goes. However, many a bright, strong person like Lars follows repetitive patterns that bring only pain. It may look like persistent bad luck or poor sense, but the pattern is actually set by the individual’s body, in his emotional past. It is a product of his pre-verbal learning and is unreachable by intellectual approaches.

A child is born with neither language nor established mental processes. His longings for warmth, food, and body contact are physical. If he isn’t given the loving attention he needs, he defends himself against the pain of neglect with the only weapon he has – his body. He tightens his muscles much as an adult “steels” himself against an attack. If his mother is consistently unable to nurture him properly, he learns to shut off his pain almost before he feels it. In so doing, he develops a chronic block in his muscles.

As his mental processes develop, the baby learns to define his pain verbally. His mother feels inadequate and calls her hungry baby “greedy.” When he snuggles close, she says he is “clingy,” reinforcing her words with disapproving facial expressions. Eventually, the words themselves become the painful truth for him and the feelings they describe linger, unbeknownst to him, in his muscles, automatically defending him against real and anticipated pain.

This is called a “fixed muscular pattern” and it determines how a person relates to other people. The neglected baby above will grow up with an unsatisfied need for maternal warmth and continually seek it in ungiving people like his mother, unconsciously believing that someday his dogged persistence will magically yield different results. However, he wards off any warmth he does find because his muscular defenses are non-specific, blocking all feelings, good and bad. In addition, such chronic muscular blocks require constant energy to maintain them.

An aim of therapy is to release people from their compulsive patterns and free that energy. One technique is to re-live painful experiences that set the patterns while the therapist provides emotional support. He helps the client verbalize both situation and feelings and to consider them from an adult perspective. When Lars relived such a situation, his therapist helped him confront his pain both as a child and as an adult.
“I was very young,” said Lars. “My mother was near me, staring straight ahead. I wanted her to hold me but she just sat and stared. She was like that a lot but it always hurt me. She’d lost her father and husband in a mining disaster. I think her sense of doom and despair were too great for her to risk loving anyone else.”

Through this re-living experience, Lars formed a strong empathy with himself as a child. With his therapists’ help, he learned to separate from his mother and to give himself the nurturing hat she had withheld. His adult acquaintance with loss helped him understand and forgive his mother, especially as he realized how his own pain had caused him, too, to withhold warmth from the people he loved.

“I knew the facts,” he said, “but they didn’t help til I re-lived them in the context of my mother’s perennial sorrow. Suddenly I know that she’d done her best and could do no more. I could say, from my adult perspective, ‘that’s okay, I’ll do that task for you’ just as I’d help anyone.”
Lars isn’t completely “cured.” He still has to examine carefully why he is attracted to certain people, but he feels for the first time that happiness lies within him and is his own responsibility.

His friends se the change and tease him gently about his new, loving girlfriend: “Hey Lars, did you finally get smart or was she a blind date?”

by Valerie Cooley Murphy


Jim Bowen MA LPC has been assisting individuals and couples since 1992, with offices in Boulder and Denver. Contact Jim with email or call him at 303-534-8717. Why not call for a free consultation?