Lilian Jarvis
Family Practice
October 1994


The damaging effect that muscular tension has on muscles, joints and physiological functioning has already been much discussed in these columns. But the impact of muscular tension on the psyche is no less profound.

Dr. Alexander Lowen, an American psychiatrist and the creator of bioenergetics – a method of psychotherapy designed to restore the body to its natural freedom and spontaneity through a regimen of exercise – includes in his book,Depression and the Body, two diagrams. One shows an uninterrupted flow of feeling through the body and the other, the disruption of flow of feeling by chronic muscular tension.

The uninterrupted flow produces positive qualities of spirituality, openness, affirmation, reaching, love, pity, charity, hope, pleasure, laughter, joy, ecstasy, security, balance, relatedness and grounding. The disrupted flow produces negative qualities: guilt, doubt, hostility, negativity, insensitivity, hate, despair, suffering, tears, perversion, insecurity, instability, and lack of grounding.

Clearly, the uninterrupted flow is the desirable one to have. But what is the “regimen of exercise” that achieves this?

In May of 1992, the Toronto Star reported that a 20-year study on the effects of exercise had been conducted at Stanford University’s School of Medicine on some 12,000 males. It found that men aged 35 to 79 who actively engaged in exercise not only lived at least an extra year and had a lower incidence of disease, but also that their quality of life improved through a change in their attitude. They felt in control and developed a general sense of well-being. These are certainly noteworthy benefits, but do the psychological benefits equate with the positive qualities produced by Dr. Lowen’s regimen? And if not, why not?

Alternative health care practitioners believe that traumas, both physical and mental, are stored in the musculature and that these traumas must be released for psychological change and healing to take place. Traditional psychology sees emotional traumas as affecting only the mind. Indeed, in four dictionaries I consulted, the psychiatric definition of trauma relates only to its effect on the mind.

That active exercise aids in increasing the general sense of wellbeing is not disputed here. The point taken is that it does not dispel emotional traumas that are fixated in tight muscles. In fact, it can block their release by tightening muscles even further.

In the October 3rd Issue of Family Practice, an article appeared about a new type of psychotherapy called “brief therapy” which helps patients deal with upcoming issues rather than resolving older ones. It points out, however, that some (doctors) believe background issues are essential to dealing with a problem.

My thoughts regarding this article were, first, that the intent of brief therapy – finding a solution, not dwelling on the problem – is in line with that of the alternative health methods whose purpose is to resolve emotional and behavioural problems. Second, that while brief therapy “doesn’t deny a need to talk about personal experiences,” it is still a verbal, rather than a physical orientation of treatment. The statement that “emotional and behavioural problems are due to what someone has inside of them” should be seen in the context of not only what is locked away inside the mind and can be brought to conscious awareness through “talking it out,” but also of what is locked up in the musculature. This is not readily released through talking.

The methods used in alternative therapies to release emotional blocks are varied and have even more varied names, which may account for the lack of recognition given them by traditional medicine. But all are concerned with the healing of past traumas rather than forgetting about them. Some, like Rebirthing and Holotropic Breathwork use mainly breathing techniques. Others, like Shiatsu, Esalen Deep Tissue Work, and Rolfing use pressure points and deep massage. Postural Integration works simultaneously with breathing, movement, feeling, and thought. Art therapy is used by some to expose, and heal, childhood wounds, while other methods release the trauma through a form of exercise.

This exercise, and the regimen of exercise that Dr. Lowen refers to, are focused on relaxing muscular tensions throughout the body with awareness of proper breathing. A main distinction of this kind of exercise is that it can produce sensations of tingling, temporary dizziness, sadness, longing, crying, laughter and anger. These are not always “felt” as emotions, but they are symptoms of emotions being released and cleared from the person’s unconscious holding patterns.

Speaking from the experience of people I have taught, actively releasing tension through slow, passive stretching can be a direct means of touching and releasing emotional traumas. But regardless of this, it leaves one with a sense of liberation, calmness, and an optimistic outlook on life, and opens the way to an uninterrupted flow of feeling through the body.

As Dr. Patricia Rockman acknowledges in the Family Practice article, brief therapy won’t work for everyone. No doubt neither will the alternative therapies. But since they have a close relationship with the physical and a record of successful emotional healing, they should not be disregarded as viable alternatives to psychotherapy. It is to be hoped that they, like brief therapy, will one day be covered by OHIP and so made more accessible to the many who can benefit from them.

OHIP and so made more accessible to the many who can benefit from them.