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From the Townsend Letter
January 2007


Reichian-Myofascial Release Therapy for Deeper Emotional and Physical Healing
by Peter M. Bernstein, PhD

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Peter M Bernstein, PhD, DAPA, MFT, CMTReichian-myofascial release therapy is a new and unique treatment – the combination of two of the most successful body-oriented therapies in use today. Each therapy in its own right is a very effective treatment, but combining the two creates results that are exponentially greater than either therapy used alone. In application as well as in theory, there is an incredible amount of overlap between the two treatments, and yet they are largely unknown to each other. This article offers a brief introduction to their origins and to the benefits of using them in combination.

Origins of Reichian Therapy
Wilhelm Reich, MD, was a noted psychiatrist and protégé of Sigmund Freud. He was one of the first to employ the practice of psychoanalysis, which used the theories and techniques of verbal exchange to understand and reveal the inner workings of a patient's unconscious mind. For the purpose of this paper, we will describe the human unconscious as the brain's reservoir of thoughts, experiences, and impressions. Though generally hidden from our day-to-day awareness – e.g., we are not conscious of them – these thoughts, experiences, and expressions exert significant control upon our actions, conscious thoughts, and resulting everyday behavior. Practitioners who came after Reich and incorporated his work into theirs called these thoughts, experiences, and impressions that make up our unconscious mind: imprints.

Reich thought imprints were responsible for an individual's destructive behavior – both to others and to themselves – and that the power of these imprinted experiences resulted directly from the pain that was repressed (unexpressed) in the past when the original incident or circumstance (which he called trauma) made the imprint. The imprint metaphor is useful in understanding this relationship between the past and present in that the greater the amount of repressed pain, the deeper the imprint. In other words, the greater the impact of the trauma, the greater the troubled behaviors and troubled lives.

In his early work with those who exhibited emotional illness, Reich could only deal with the symptoms of the sickness, which were expressed through behavioral manifestations of their character. For example, Reich might have asked why the patient always agreed or disagreed with the therapist, why he or she came late for appointments, or why the patient said everything with a smile? In time, he learned that these behavioral manifestations of character are also clearly demonstrated in a person's physical characteristics such as a person's dulled eyes, clenched jaw, stiff neck, tight throat, shrugged shoulders, held breath, flexed pelvic area, or tight buttocks. He taught that these physical characteristics, or biophysical statements, are the way that the body manifests deep character distortions.(Hershkowitz M. Human armoring, an introduction to psychiatric orgone therapy. Chapters 1-3. The Annals of the Institute for Orgonomic Science. 1984; 3(1).)

Reich reasoned that biophysical statements were caused by repressing a natural emotional reaction to a painful experience and that the process of repressing this emotion altered what he called the "energy economy" of the total person. He termed this process armoring. Before addressing what is meant by energy economy, let's take a closer look at armoring.

Repressed emotions are often stored in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which is frequently a tender, painful area for patients. Relief can be provided by a variety of myofascial release techniques. TMJ relief

Understanding Armoring
The key to understanding armoring is realizing that it is simultaneously manifested in both the mind and the body, because it is directly connected to emotional repression. Armoring can take two forms. When armoring is reflected in attitudinal behavior, it is called "character armoring." When it's manifested in bodily tension, it's called "muscular armoring."

Armoring can be thought of as the juncture between body and mind that causes abnormal behavior. Both character armoring and muscular armoring are the demonstrated effects of the underlying character disorder. In other words, the symptom perceived by the person himself (and the behavior observed by others) is a reflection of the disease, but not the actual disease itself.

While the symptoms and the behavior caused by armoring may be manipulated or altered by various techniques – chemical, physical, psychological – the underlying disorder is not altered. It persists, limiting the patient's ability to feel, think, act, and relate to others. It's like a mental, physical, and emotional straitjacket that compromises an individual's reactions to life and reduces the ability to function in the world.

Energy Economy
Once Reich began to understand the process of armoring and its meaning in our lives, he began to develop a number of techniques to dissolve or unwind it. The first of these techniques is hinted at in the term "energy economy" mentioned above.

Reich saw emotional repression as a conflict of opposing forces triggered by a painful experience. When individuals experience a physical or emotional trauma, they naturally want to express it. However, when that natural expression is repressed out of fear or for other reasons, it doesn't just go away, it continually seeks expression. It pushes to get out. When the need to repress the emotion pushes back, the two forces become locked in a constant state of opposition.

Think of two equally-matched arm wrestlers who are committing all their strength and energy into an intense battle. The casual observer, who sees no movement, may conclude incorrectly that nothing is happening. When a body is in this constant state of opposition, bio-physical energy is not only wasted in the continuous struggle to bury emotions, it is no longer available for other, more natural uses. The body becomes "energy inefficient." In this way, armoring causes people to behave unnaturally, because they are deviating from their natural "energy-efficient" state.

Reich reasoned that emotional repression constricts the body, producing a physiological contraction that manifests itself as muscular tension. Furthermore, he saw that these constrictions become chronic with time, binding the body's energy in a manner he called stasis. When a body is in stasis, the normal pulsation of tension and relaxation comes to a halt. Like the arm wrestlers who drain all their energy while locked in a fruitless contest, armoring traps the individual in a pain-filled and unproductive life.

Segments of Armoring
In practice, the study and treatment of armoring in Reichian psychotherapy must first recognize that muscular armoring is manifested in segments throughout the body which are, in effect, constricting muscular bands beginning at the top of the head proceeding down through the pelvis to the lower limbs.

To help you visualize the effect that these constricting segments, or bands, have on muscular tissue, imagine a jellyfish floating in the water. As it moves, a healthy jellyfish's body expands and contracts in a graceful rhythm. Now imagine what would happen to the fluid, pulsating motion if you placed a rubber band around the jellyfish's body. The rubber band would compress and choke the tissue underneath, interrupting the normal pulsations. With its tissue constricted, the jellyfish's system would react: the natural pulsation is replaced by erratic pulsations in twos, then fives, then sevens. The jellyfish would soon lose its ability to function naturally in the water. Instead of its naturally beautiful movement, it would become abnormal and spasmodic. In effect, the addition of the rubber band would make the jellyfish a different creature.

Just as the rubber band distorts the jellyfish, the constricting muscular bands or segments of armoring distort human musculature. And like the jellyfish, with our natural muscular pulsation (from tension to relaxation) choked and unbalanced, we lose our ability to function normally, and we become different creatures.

The fascial web extends throughout the body. Fascial restrictions and armoring can be released by a valuable technique called unwinding. Unwinding often releases unconscious, repressed memories of emotional trauma, which are sometimes actually relived "positionally."

Diagnosing Armoring
As we have discussed, armoring exerts a powerful effect on people who repress physical or emotional trauma. So powerful, in fact, that its symptoms aren't hard to distinguish...even for the layperson.

  • A young child's eyes, which one would expect to look deeply and lovingly into his or her mother's eyes, look sideways with suspicion and distrust, revealing a child who is afraid of being hurt or having its trust betrayed.
  • Our natural aggression, which helps us overcome life's obstacles and difficulties, becomes distorted into a tool of hatred, belligerence, and hostility or into the greed demonstrated by those driven to acquire unfulfilling amounts of possessions, wealth or fame.
  • Armoring causes bodies to lose their ease, grace, and spontaneity. Instead they become stiff and constipated. In other words, they become bound up and "imprisoned" by their muscular constrictions.

In sum, armoring distorts us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In so doing, it blocks us from more rewarding and productive lives. While armoring does have a function in that it suppresses the unpleasant feelings of anxiety, discomfort, or pain, the price is steep, because it limits our contact with our environment and with ourselves.

When we are armored, we trade the freedom of spontaneous reaction and the fullness of our natural feelings and thoughts for a mute deadness and numbness. For example, in place of free and genuine contact with those around us, armoring will cause us to substitute artificial behavior. It may take the form of a social disguise that masks who we really are, reducing and dismissing the genuine person inside.

Sometimes armoring is temporarily useful, as when a child is hurt and holds its breath to diminish the pain. But if this armoring is allowed to continue untreated, the child will learn that it lessens the intensity of feeling and to protect itself the child will continue to use armoring as a form of pain-killer.

In later life, the adult who as a child relied on armoring to lessen the intensity of his painful feelings will develop an armored chest (shallow, interrupted breathing), which will diminish the experience of all feelings. The armored child becomes an armored adult who leads a shallow, interrupted life in order to avoid any pain. By clinging to the armoring, the adult will grossly limit genuine exposure to, and a deep understanding of, many, if not most, of life's valuable experiences.

There is another tragic consequence for adults who cling to their armor for survival. If they become parents they will, through their distracted and disengaged behavior, cause their children to become armored. By passing this behavior on to their children, the parents continue the cycle of pain into the next generation.

Reichian Therapy Relieves Armoring
Thanks to Reich's groundbreaking work, there is hope for those whose lives have become distorted by the armoring that results from physical or emotional trauma. The key lies in Reich's discovery that treating the psychological issues begins by first treating the physiological symptoms. In Reichian psychotherapy, the repressed memories that are at the root of the armoring can be retrieved and eventually released. This is possible because the memories of acute emotional or physical trauma are actually stored in the segmented musculature. By releasing or unwinding the constricted tissue, the Reichian process releases the traumatic memories and begins to relieve the symptomatic behavior associated with armoring.

Intra-joint and surrounding fascial restrictions in the hip area are addressed by Dr. Bernstein and his staff, using the team approach. Addressing the hip

Myofascial Release
Once you appreciate the many ways that Reichian psychotherapy understands and treats armoring, you will begin to appreciate how well it complements and is improved by the addition of a relatively new physical therapy called myofascial release. Myofascial release physical therapy is a powerful form of biophysical release that has moved far beyond the traditional medical model of physical therapy. When coupled with Reichian psychotherapy techniques for releasing a body's armored segments, myofascial release enhances therapeutic results with finesse and elegance.

The term myofascia comes from the combination of myo, the Greek word for muscle, with fascia, a sheet of fibrous tissue beneath the skin that permeates the body enclosing muscles and muscular groups, separating muscular layers, and touching virtually every cell in the body.

The fascia is a multi-layered matrix of tough, fibrous connective tissue that sheaths and supports all of the human body's organs, muscles, and bones. It interconnects the body from head to foot with a web that extends in all directions to accommodate the infinite variations in the body's muscle bulk and movement. Because of its poor blood supply, damaged and constricted fascia heals very slowly. Ironically, although fascia has poor circulation, it has a rich supply of nerve endings so that any damage to it produces a high level of pain.

In addition to causing the fascia to shrink, repeated trauma creates adhesions where the fascia become stuck together, even further constricting the enwrapped muscles and organs. Fascia is estimated to have a tensile strength of 2000 pounds per square inch. Therefore, when damaged fascial tissue constricts and loses its elasticity, the fascia's enormous tensile strength can literally twist the human body out of its natural state.

Not only is damage to fascia painful, the resulting constriction reduces blood circulation to the encased tissue, which often leads to serious physical complications. Releasing the pressure by stretching the fascia improves both blood flow and nervous system transmission to the constrained tissue, while reducing pain and enhancing the body's ability to heal. Practitioners of myofascial release refer to the release of myofascial torsion as unwinding.

It is highly common for a myofascial release session to trigger an emotional as well as physical release, during which patients often recall the traumas that damaged the fascia. We'll discuss this further on in the article.

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