By Alice Kahn Ladas, EdD, CBT, lic. Psychologist, NM-505-471-6791 firstname.lastname@example.org
Before I talk about early Coping Strategies and how they can sabotage connection, I would like to review, briefly, what I have observed happening in the Reichian branch of body psychotherapy over the past 65 years. Contemporary brain research confirms the mind-body relationship and has brought psychotherapy around to what Reich was discovering almost a century ago. Until his work challenged Viennese cultural norms and they threw him out, Reich was Freud’s star pupil. The reasons for Reich being attacked in he USA remains unclear. Conflicting versions of that story are reflected in two books, Mickey Sharaf’s Fury On Earth and James Martin’s Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War. Was it McCarthy, European Emigree Psychiatrists, Russia or all of them combined?
I am probably the oldest member of USABP, the living person who has been involved with Body Psychotherapy for the longest time and the only current member of USABP who met in person the physician who brought this form of body psychotherapy to the United States. To further connect our start with our present here is a quote from Reich’s Brief to the US Court of Appeals in 1951.
“Not protection of old financial or
Political privileges, but safeguarding the
Planet, Earth, and transforming its
Technological structure is the task of today.
Let us hope that the great industrial powers
Of our planet have retained their pioneering spirit.”
People often ask how come I am in relatively good shape at my august age and I have given the usual answers: luck, genes, diet, exercise. Now I add Body Psychotherapy. Most questioners have no clue as to what that means which gives me the opportunity to tell them. Encountering the work of Reich and many of those who followed him were, for me, life changing and I am forever grateful.
I attended my first Conference at Orgonon in 1948 and was personally examined by Reich in 1951 in order to be on the staff of his Infant Research Center. That same year, I brought orgone therapist, Dr. Alan Cott, to meet Mrs. Roosevelt because Reich believed, at the time, that Orgone energy might counteract the effects of nuclear radiation. Mrs. R ran the information by Robert Oppenheimer who said it is probably a hoax. That same year Reich learned he was wrong: the combination proved destructive.
Reich has the distinction of being the only person to have his books burned by both the Nazis and the United States, as well as being on Russia’s top hit list. I was around for the book burning and destruction of Reich’s scientific equipment but did not turn in my books or orgone accumulator. I still have those precious ancient possessions. But I left the field of psychotherapy for several years--the event was so appalling.
In 1955, I returned to join the study group of Lowen and Pierrakos and began introducing Lowen at his public lectures. My suggestion they form a not-for-profit organization was greeted favorably. After introducing Al to his first publisher, and writing the first brochure, I joined the original Board of five and remained there for many years. I also served on the Board of USABP from 2000 to 2007. So I have been involved in Body Psychotherapy for a VERY LONG time.
Reich relied on patients words at the start of therapy but very little after that. He did it to the patient and was highly evaluative. If you want to know exactly how one person’s therapy went, A.E. Hamilton kept a diary of his sessions, although Reich told his patients not to. I rescued that diary from a snowdrift and you can read it in three J.s of Orgonomy, 31(1) (2)1997 and 32 (1).
Following Freud’s dictum that only medical doctors could practice psychoanalysis, Orgonomy was also initially restricted to physicians. So Lowen got his medical degree before inventing his own version of Body Psychotherapy. Stanley Keleman was part of that original group. So were many others with whose names you are familiar.
I had therapy sessions with both Lowen and Pierrakos and can testify they followed Reich’s pattern of evaluating and doing it to the patient until a highly qualified psychiatrist-patient screwed up his courage to ask “Would you like to know what is happening to me?” After much internal struggle, Bioenergetic Analysis gradually moved towards doing the work together, a collaborative adventure based on connection. But it involved a huge struggle and a lot of hurt feelings.
For many years, there was such a strong emphasis on feelings that thinking was virtually cast aside…understandable since feelings had been neglected for eons. My article, "Using Goals in Bioenergetic Analysis," was rejected by the Bioenergetic Journal and published instead by The American Assoc. of Psychotherapists. But I believe and suspect you do too, that both feelings AND thoughts matter. My friend, colleague and founder of Radix™, Charles Kelley, discovered, to his dismay, that his seminars on feeling were well attended but those on purpose were not.
A related pattern concerns research. Yale Professor, Dr. John Bellis, was forced to resign in 1961 as Director of Training partly because he wanted to include a research project as one of the requirements for becoming a Certified Bioenergetic Analyst. The research project of my husband Harold and myself, "Women and Bioenergetic Analysis," was disowned by IIBA until the CT Society published it. At my insistence, it was included as an appendix in our NY Times bestseller The G Spot and Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality. The study, presented as "From Freud Through Hite, All Partly Wrong and Partly Right," at a meeting of SSSS, was what led to meeting our coauthors, the researchers Whipple and Perry. As a result, readers from 18 countries and almost as many languages have the opportunity to learn about Body Psychotherapy.
After 40 years of failing to persuade IIBA to establish awards for research, I joined the Board of USABP in 2000. They established two --one for practitioners and one for students--and, in 2008, named those awards after me. Unless we publish research in peer-reviewed journals other than our own, Body Psychotherapy is unlikely to get the recognition it deserves. Said Murray Bowen, in a 1980 speech entitled Psychotherapy: Past Present and Future, “A theory is just a theory until it is validated by research.” This September 2018, the new director of APA sent me an email confirming Bowen’s statement. He wrote to me saying he is not familiar with Body Psychotherapy.
Recent brain research not only confirms that working with the body is vital but that we need to engage all parts of our brain in order to recover and grow. Since my involvement with Reich and Bioenergetics, many other very helpful methods of body psychotherapy have evolved. Now that we include the brain, as an organ to address consciously, along with other parts of our bodies, we have the opportunity to include both the thinking and feeling parts of that organ, along with the primitive section that tells us to continue doing what we once did to accommodate and stay safe in our family and culture of origin.
It took me more than 60 years to come up with the idea I want to share now. Many of you work with similar concepts; it is the manner and timing of working with it that differs. I have found it exponentially increases the effectiveness of what I was already doing. Had any of my therapists, verbal or body-centered, said to me at the start of therapy “What did you do to adapt to your family and culture of origin?” we might have discovered precisely what to work on and saved lots of money and time. One of my present goals is to teach this work to other clinicians before I get too old. If you think what I write today has merit, invite me to do a workshop.
Following the medical model, we give diagnoses. Theoretically, these lead to the best methods of treatment; and get paid by insurances. My diagnosis made me feel less than worthy. Wouldn’t you rather be told there is something right about you than something wrong? By focusing early on a client’s coping strategy in the family and culture into which she/he was born and viewing it as lifesaving, you make clients right. That helps promote the positive client/therapist relationship so crucial to all successful therapy.
When clients become aware of what they had to do to cope in their family and culture of origin, it is often what they are still doing which prevents them from experiencing the kind of life they long for today. Were they freezing, running away? hiding? fighting, afraid to reach, stealing? If it helped them survive they were doing something right.
Early coping strategies show up in bodies just as clearly as they do in words. These early questions are not a replacement for bodywork. They facilitate it. “If we decide to work together and are successful, what will that look like?” is on my written form for new clients. Some can answer that question and others can’t. Since intention plays an important role in the success of therapy, I have been seeking a written answer to that question for years. Today I ask a second more difficult question early on: “In your family and culture of origin, what did you do to get along?” Since early coping strategies are often partly, if not wholly, unconscious, this can take time. Once we identify it, we know what to work on. What they did then was useful but today it gets in the way of what they long for. I view their adaptation as "right" instead of "wrong." After identifying a client’s early coping strategy (and I say client instead of patient deliberately), I warn that changing a way of responding that was once lifesaving but no longer works, is as difficult as changing any other kind of compulsive behavior. The amygdala warns us not to change any behavior that once kept us safe. It does not understand you are no longer trapped in a situation you did not choose. Pay attention to what triggers that initial coping strategy. Take small steps to modify your response to the trigger. Instead of reacting, take a breath and act in order to get what you need today. Be patient, and expect you will have to deal with anxiety, possibly severe anxiety, as you make the changes needed to create the life you seek today.
We discuss and practice many ways of handling anxiety. You know all of them.…keeping knees soft, opening stuck breathing, noticing your present surroundings, exercising, hitting, meditating, or going over the Bioenergetic stool if that was part of your training. We also do whatever is needed to free up energy blocks or increase energy. This can involve diet, exercise, stopping or adding meds, sleep patterns, new forms of brain stimulation, medical cannabis, etc.. Below is a list of possible questions to use in discovering your clients or your early coping mechanism. You might try them on a willing colleague or friend or on your clients. I hope you will find this approach as helpful as I have.
Questions and suggestions from the therapist
If we decide to work together and are successful, what would that look like? How might your life be different?
Tell me how you coped with or kept yourself safe during your early years in your family and culture of origin?
Where and how, in your behavior and your body, does this way of keeping safe manifest today?
Would you like to modify or change your early way of staying safe because it no longer helps you be or get what you want?
If you modified your early response, would that make you feel anxious?
(The primitive part of your brain will tell you not to alter any behavior that kept you safe before so you may feel very anxious.)
How will you deal with the anxiety?
(Please be patient with yourself if you are not able to change as fast as you would like)
For homework, please write a detailed description of what you did to stay safe in your family and culture of origin. Then write about how that behavior may be keeping you from creating what you would like to in your life today.
If you are working with a couple, it is very useful to have each person write about their own early way of coping and also their partners way of coping. They can then compare their understanding of themselves and each other to see if they fully understand both their own coping strategies and those of their partner. That helps them recognize when their partners are triggered and to act rather than react.
A warning is in order: Often the coping mechanisms are not fully conscious or even unconscious, so it may take time to unearth them correctly.