What Scientific Research Says about Body Psychotherapy:
A Review of the Empirical Literature on Body-Oriented Psychotherapy.
by John May, Ph.D.
Radix is one of many forms of body psychotherapy. I have seen estimates that there are as many as 100 named “brands” of body psychotherapy. Like many forms of body psychotherapy, Radix can trace its roots to the work of Wilhelm Reich. Reich was a controversial figure, revered by some, regarded as a fraud by others. He established his work and theories outside of the traditional scientific and medical communities, and in many ways, in defiance of them. The forms of body psychotherapy that followed tended to inherit this stance apart from the traditional scientific world. One result is that relatively little empirical work on the effects of body-oriented psychotherapy has been published, especially in peer reviewed journals.
Until I did one, I don’t believe that there had ever been a comprehensive review of the empirical literature on body-oriented psychotherapy. Such a review was badly needed. I spent several months contacting the English language empirical literature on body-oriented psychotherapy. This is a summary of what I found. For those who want to go beyond this summary, a more complete version is in the Proceedings of the Conference of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy, held in Boulder, Colorado, in June, 1998.
There are hundreds of articles and books on body psychotherapy, but only 22 empirical studies of body psychotherapy.
Is body psychotherapy effective?
That’s a tough question to answer for any psychotherapy. Whether a therapy is effective or not depends on many factors: who the clients are, how the therapy is delivered, what the goals of treatment are, etc. Mostly, studies of psychotherapy don’t ask this broad question any more, they ask a question something like: “Will this therapy achieve these specific results with this group of people, under these specific conditions?” With only a few studies, we haven’t reached that point with body psychotherapy yet. We’re just getting started.
Never-the-less, of the 22 studies I found, 20 of them looked at the effects of body psychotherapy. Of those 20, 15 found that body psychotherapy had beneficial effects of one sort or another. These beneficial effects were found with children, college students, adults, people in outpatient psychotherapy, long-term patients in a state hospital, whites, and African Americans. The beneficial effects found included improved life satisfaction, improved attitudes towards self and others, improved attitudes towards one’s body, improved locus of control (not being so controlled by what others think), improved sexual functioning, reduced signs of physiological arousal, decreased anxiety, and improved relationships. There was even a study that found that a brief body psychotherapy experience made the subjects more able to benefit from their regular verbal psychotherapy.
We can’t really say that body psychotherapy has all of those effects, or that it is beneficial for all of the different types of people mentioned. There simply isn’t enough research to go that far yet. Never-the-less the results indicate that body psychotherapy may potentially benefit a wide variety of people in a variety of different ways.
The evidence to date suggests that body psychotherapy provides improvements in general psychological functioning rather than changes in specific habits or behaviors. There is some research to indicate that even people who feel they benefited greatly from their body psychotherapy, and who were very satisfied with it, didn’t feel that it helped them change specific behaviors or habits (such as over-eating or smoking). So body psychotherapy probably isn’t a way to lose weight, quit drinking, or stop smoking. Rather, it improves general functioning and life satisfaction.
Can body psychotherapy be harmful?
All therapies are harmful to some people. Even “therapies” as simple and as common as penicillin and aspirin cause harm to people when they are allergic or have problems with their stomachs. The question of whether or not a therapy harms a client must also be balanced against the outcome of doing nothing. People come into therapy because they are having problems. Is the person harmed if you just leave them alone and do nothing? Usually, when people ask if body psychotherapy is harmful, they mean is it more harmful than doing nothing, or more harmful than other types of available treatments?
The research that looked at this question was unanimous in finding that either no clients deteriorated as a result of body psychotherapy, or that the number who did deteriorate was less than the number that deteriorated in the other experimental conditions. It would not be reasonable to assume that body psychotherapy does not harm some few people under some circumstances. But the research to date suggests that the number is relatively small, and there is no indication that it is larger than with any other type of psychotherapy.
Is Radix more effective than other types of body psychotherapy?
We don’t have good studies comparing the effectiveness of various types of body psychotherapy. The studies of Radix that I found seemed to suggest that it has beneficial effects. But there was nothing in these studies with which to make a comparison to other forms of body psychotherapy. So we simply don’t know the answer.
Even if such studies did exist, however, I doubt that one form of body psychotherapy would be proved better than another. Research on psychotherapy usually finds that one seems just about as good as another, except that some people prefer one type while others prefer another. That’s probably true of body psychotherapy as well. There’s every reason to believe that Radix is as good as any other type of body psychotherapy, but little scientific evidence that it is demonstrably superior.
How long do people stay in body psychotherapy?
How long a person stays in body psychotherapy is a highly individual thing. It depends on so many factors. Just a few of them are what the person’s needs are, what their finances will allow, scheduling problems, availability of a body psychotherapist, and what the goals of treatment are.
The general “received wisdom” that goes with Radix is that the benefits and effects tend to deepen if the client stays with a regular program for nine months or more. It is clear that many body psychotherapy clients do that and seem well satisfied. It is also clear, however, that many clients do not, and are also well satisfied. One study found that almost 40% of clients terminate their therapy within six months of starting, yet the vast majority of them were well satisfied. One of the things I like most about Radix is the flexibility around this issue. Some clients take a workshop or two. Some work for extended periods of time. Each seems perfectly valid, depending on what your needs are.
Should you do body psychotherapy in a group or individually?
Most psychotherapies can be delivered in either group or individual formats. In body psychotherapy, we don’t know the comparative effects of one vs. the other yet. But we do know that there have been studies using both approaches, and both have been found effective. At this point, it seems more a matter of personal preference and availability than anything else. Here, again, Radix’s flexibility seems very attractive to me: workshops, ongoing groups, and individual work all fit the Radix model well, and a prospective Radix consumer should feel free to pick the format that best fits his or her needs.
How do other mental health professionals feel about body psychotherapy?
There was only one study on this. In this study, clinical and counseling psychologists were asked to rate the “soundness” of 39 different therapies. Two well known body psychotherapies were included on the list. Many of the psychologists were not familiar with them. And they tended to rate them as unsound. The study doesn’t go into the reasons for the ratings, so we don’t know why this happened. It is a shame, because the research tends to support the soundness of the approaches. Perhaps it is because the therapies were too different. Or perhaps the psychologists’ attitudes are influenced by that position apart from the scientific and medical community that body psychotherapy inherited. Whatever the reason, it indicates that body psychotherapy providers and clients have an uphill battle to fight in terms of general acceptance.
I hope you have found the above questions and answers informative. If you have any questions or comments, I would welcome them from you. My postal and e-mail addresses are below. Additionally, though I worked pretty hard to find every study on body psychotherapy I could, I’m bound to have missed a few. If you have, or know of, a study that isn’t in the list of references below, please be in touch.
Clance, Pauline; Mitchell, Michael; Engelman, Suzanne (1980) Body cathexis in children as a function of awareness training and yoga. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, Vol 9 (1) 82-85.
Corriere, R. & Karle, W. (1971) Neurophysiological measurements of patients undergoing primal therapy. in Janov, A. The Anatomy of mental illness. New York: Putnam’s Sons. p. 215-237.
Cote, Richard; Jobin, Jean, Larouche, Rene, Desharmias, Ramond, Dumont, Serge, and Tremblay, Guy. (1991) Effects of Radix neo-Reichian emotional and energetic programs and physical exercise programs on the self actualization of post-myocardial infarction patients. Journal of the Radix Teachers Association, Vol. 5, (1), pp. 26-51.
DeBell, C., & Jones, R.D. (1997) As good as it seems? A review of EMDR experimental research. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 28, (2), 153-163.
Engelman, Suzanne R; Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne. (1982) Self and body-cathexis change in therapy and yoga groups. Journal of the American Society of Psychosomatic Dentistry and Medicine, Vol 29 (3) 77-88.
Fernandez, Fernando; Turon, Jose; Siegfried, Jurg; Meermann, Rolf et al. (1995) Does additional body therapy improve the treatment of anorexia nervosa? A comparison of two approaches. Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment, Vol 3 (2) 158-164.
Feske, U. & Goldstein, A. (1997) Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment for panic disorder: A controlled outcome and partial dismantling study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 65, #6, pp. 1026-1035.
Foulds, M.L. & Hannegan, P.S. (1974) Effects of psychomotor group therapy on ratings of self and others. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, Vol 11, pp. 351-353.
Foulds, M.L. & Hannigan, P.S. (1976) Effects of psychonotor group psychotherapy on locus of control and social desirability. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 16 (2) pp. 81-88.
Gerdes, Insa. (1993) Report of an investigation in Radix. Journal of the Radix Teachers Association, Vol. 7, (2), 13-20.
Johnson, Stephen. (1974) A comparison of behavior/eclectic, bioenergetic, and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. University Microfilms International, 75-26, 139.
Karle, W., Corriere, R., & Hart, J. (1973) Psychophysiological changes in abreactive therapy – study 1: Primal therapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, research, and practice, Vol. 10 (2), pages 117-122.
Klisic, Lkiljana (date unknown) [Radix as an intervening technique in ongoing psychotherapy.] Personal communication.
Ladas, Alice & Ladas, Harold. (1981) Women and bioenergetic analysis. Connecticut Society of Bioenergetic Analysis. Hamden, CT.
May, John (1997) Measured psychological change in members of an outpatient body-oriented psychotherapy group. Unpublished manuscript. Available from John May, Gateways: A Growing Place, 222 W. Argonne Dr., St. Louis, MO 63122.
May, Philip; Wexler, Milton; Salkin, Jeri; and Schoop, Trudi. (1963) Non-verbal techniques in the re-establishment of body image and self identity – a preliminary report. Psychiatric Research Reports, Vol 16, pp. 68-82.
McInerny, B.P. (1974) Research with primal patients – Vital signs. Journal of Primal Therapy, Vol. 2, (1), 51-63.
Moran, M., Watson, C.G., Brown, J., White, C. and Jacobs, L. (1978) Systems Releasing Action Therapy with Alcoholics: An Experimental Evaluation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 34, (3) 769-774.
Peterson, Barbara; Cameron, Catherine. (1978) Preparing high anxiety patients for psychotherapy through body therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Vol 9 (2), 171-177.
Schultz, LeRoy G. (1975) A survey of social workers’ attitudes and use of body and sex psychotherapies. Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol 3 (2) 90-99.
Sokolove, Robert. (1975) Verbal and motoric styles of therapy: An outcome study. University Microfilms International, 75-12, 264.
Starker, Steven & Pankratz, Loren. (1996) Soundness of treatment: A survey of psychologists’ opinions. Psychological Reports, Vol 78 (1) 288-290.
West, W. (1992) An investigation by questionnaire of some clients experience of bodywork psychotherapy. Unpublished masters thesis, Dept. of Applied Social Studies, Keele University, England.
West, William. (1994) Client’s experience of bodywork psychotherapy. Counseling Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 7 (3), 287-303.
John May has been a Radix teacher since 1981, and a clinical psychologist since 1985. He maintains his private practice, called Gateways: A Growing Place, in St. Louis, MO. In addition to his training in Radix, he completed a two-year training program in psychodynamic psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute. He has completed three studies of his own on issues related to body psychotherapy, and recently presented a review of the empirical literature on body psychotherapy at the conference of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy.
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