October 22, 2012

Wilhelm Reich and Emotional Illness

In a recent post I wrote about “short-burst therapy,” an intensive treatment approach that can serve as an alternative to regularly spaced therapy sessions, saying it was especially suited for those living a long distance from a qualified orgone therapist. In this post I will discuss some of the reasons why more has not been written about this unique therapy, one that makes use of emotional release in the treatment of mental disorders. I will also begin a discussion of the principles that govern the practice of orgone therapy, starting with Reich’s concept of armor. 

In the past half century a fair amount has been written about Wilhelm Reich’s method of treating emotional disturbances. Many have recorded their thinking on the subject and therapists have written case histories that have appeared in various journals. Nevertheless, I feel much has been left out of the discussion. 

For me, in almost every therapy session, there is some aspect of the patient that’s revealed that proves valuable in their therapy. I am never bored and am frequently amazed, even after all these years, as I see Reich’s theories and approach to treating proved time and again. Each session confirms the effectiveness of orgone therapy, and almost any session could be written up for publication. 

Barriers to Publication

Those few of us who do this kind of work will understand my feeling, as their experiences must be the same. So why hasn’t more been written about this treatment? And why have some important elements crucial to its understanding been omitted in what has been published? There are many reasons for this, however a few are worth noting. 

First, as therapists, our focus is on seeing patients. Establishing contact with them and staying connected, from moment to moment, session after session, is our primary goal. Writing up a case history for a professional journal is seen as a secondary task, if the thought is entertained at all. Another reason more hasn’t been written is that many of the things that occur in therapy sessions do not lend themselves to being reported, let alone to be written up. They occur all the time, and while we may share them with colleagues in conference, or in one-on-one training with students, such valuable observations passed on in this way are not being documented for the future. 

Also, some orgone therapists have had concern when it comes to publicly expounding technique--the nuts and bolts of therapy. Their worry is that if too much of the actual methods are revealed to the lay audience, they will be latched onto and misused. Unfortunately this has happened, and there are a wide array of various “bodywork therapists” and “energy healers” who have taken it upon themselves to offer various therapies very loosely based on the treatment Reich employed. These have no meaningful ties whatsoever to psychiatric orgone therapy. 

While I do share concerns about the potential for information about Reich’s treatment approach to be misused, I am also aware that much of what I and others know has never been written down. In light of this I have been making an effort to record some of what I know, based on my forty years of experience. 

What is known of Reich’s therapeutic approach--in the true sense--comes down to us, almost exclusively, from two psychiatrists who were treated and trained by Reich. Both have written an authoritative book on orgone therapy. These important works are: Man in the Trap by Elsworth F. Baker, M.D. and Emotional Armoring: An Introduction to Psychiatric Orgone Therapy by Morton Herskowitz, D.O. These publications are especially valuable because Reich wrote almost nothing about the biophysical approach he developed long after he published Character Analysis. Even with these two excellent books, and with the contributions that have appeared in journals, there is more that can be said about the cause and prevention of emotional illness, as well as the practice of this treatment. 

Purpose of Therapy

The goal of treatment is to remove the root cause of emotional illness. This differs markedly from today’s traditional psychiatric approach, which is only about symptom management with various cognitive strategies or the use of medications. 

Because the principle governing orgone therapy is that emotional disturbances begin before speech develops, verbal therapies, while they can certainly be valuable, are necessarily limited in effectiveness. They can help to explore mental processes and solve some of life’s problems, but they can’t reach back to the very early traumatic events that laid the foundation for an individual’s present emotional state.

There is no question medications can be enormously valuable in the treatment of emotional disorders. They have helped alleviate suffering in untold millions--making their lives more tolerable. However medications can, at best, only relieve some symptoms associated with emotional illness, and none have ever effected a cure. What’s more the side effects are such that the trade off between benefit and drawback is a constant challenge to every patient taking these agents, as well as to their prescribing physician. Medications, like verbal therapies, are unable to strike at the source of mental disorders. 

Role of Armor 

The premise of orgone therapy is that “armor” develops in the body to repress the emotional and physical traumas that occurred in infancy and early childhood. Armor is the body’s way of keeping past painful events out of awareness. It is nothing less than the unconscious locked in the body. We know this is so because, as armor dissolves in the course of orgone therapy, long buried feelings and emotions spontaneously appear. Not infrequently these are accompanied by flashbacks to traumatic events that occurred soon after birth and in the first year or two of life. 

Armor can be defined as the chronic muscular spasms that develop as a defense against the breakthrough of repressed feelings and emotions. It develops throughout the body and, while it lodges primarily in muscles, it also appears in other areas, such as in the internal organs and in the brain itself. However, armor is not just a physical phenomenon. It is revealed in character as well--that is, how one presents themselves to the world. For example, character can show itself as an attitude, in mannerisms, and in posture. Physical and character armor are not separate entities, but rather two side of the same coin. Together, they can often indicate how a person adapted to traumatic events when very young, and much about how they are now as adults. 

Armor permeates the body, yet people are entirely unaware of its existence. They think their emotional problems exist solely because of heredity, events that can be recalled from when they were little, today’s society, and so on. But they never realize their unhappiness resides deep within them, and that their buried emotions determine how they now feel and function. 

In a sense armor is a valuable mechanism, and everyone should be thankful that it does its job so well. Given that the painful past remains alive in us, as it surely does, who would want to be constantly in contact with it? However, as everything has two sides, so it is with armoring. While it does blot out the past as best it can, it also deadens. Without it people would function naturally and be able to enjoy all life has to offer.


Neil Schierholz PsyD said...

Thank you for sharing this important information. It is distressing that so little has been written about this important treatment. Your reasons as to why are enlightening.

Old Money Savoir Faire said...

Although, happily, at least THIS blog exists in which a current-era, well-written and learned discussion has been provided to those who choose to look for it. I am indeed grateful to Richard Schwartzman for undertaking this.

John E. N. Ward (Western Australia)

Brian Forrest said...

Yes--nice summary of armor: both body and character. After a certain amount of Orgone therapy, and the armor being loosened, the individual can have a real chance to overcome chronic conditions such as recurring fears, obsessions, self attacks, anxiety and depression habits. Since the body and character armor does not have the person is such a tight grip, they can shake off the old behavior and try a new direction. For the first time they have a new way to live and overcome a situation that was previously debilitating. Because mainstream psychiatry refuses to acknowledge the importance of the body’s role in neurosis, “talking therapy” (coupled with medication) will never help an individual truly live a fuller life, it only promises to sweep the causes of their suffering under the rug and sedate them.

Psychiatric Orgone Therapy

One of Wilhelm Reich’s most important and lasting contributions is a unique treatment for emotional disorders called psychiatric orgone therapy. Reich began as a psychoanalyst and was a member of Freud’s inner circle, but moved away from Freud’s method of free association when he developed a more effective verbal approach he called character analysis. Later he came to recognize the existence of a specific biologic energy in living organisms that he called “orgone,” which was coined from the word “organism.” With this discovery Reich was able to combine his verbal method with a technique that could normalize a person’s energy. The result was an entirely new approach to treating emotional disorders that he named orgone therapy.

Reich’s work with patients convinced him the disturbance in an individual’s energy state is caused by contractions in the body, especially in the musculature. He called these contractions “armor,” and established that they begin to develop in infancy as a way to block out emotionally painful events.

Past traumatic experiences are locked in the body--and they remain throughout life. How this happens is not fully understood, but there is no question that anxiety, anger and sadness, as well as the other upsetting feelings and emotions from childhood are not forgotten. Armor not only holds the disturbing past, causing it to remain alive but out of consciousness awareness, but it also affects how one feels and functions. Because living a natural healthy life depends upon whether a person’s energy flows freely or is blocked, the aim of psychiatric orgone therapy is to free up energy by breaking down armor. As these areas of holding dissolve, patients release their long buried feelings and emotions in the safety of the therapist’s office. They most usually surface spontaneously with the specific method Reich innovated, without the need of urging or any intervention on the part of the treating psychiatrist. However, occasionally, pressure needs to be applied to spastic muscles, or other techniques used to normalize the body. Because this treatment combines a verbal approach with a physical technique, it addresses both the mind and the body to bring about profound changes in how one thinks, feels and functions.

Today almost all people seeking treatment from a psychiatrist are given medications to reduce their symptoms. However, with psychiatric orgone therapy it is usual that patients, over time, find themselves able to wean themselves off medication and function without pharmacologic treatment. Reich’s therapy is unique in that it not only relieves distressing symptoms, but also does much more. It enables individuals to expand and feel pleasure, and better enjoy the many satisfactions life has to offer.

There are people who claim to practice some form of “Reichian” or “orgone” therapy, even though they have had no formal training in medicine or psychology. Often the techniques used by these self-proclaimed therapists have little or nothing to do with the very specific methods Reich developed and taught. The value of such therapies is questionable and may even harm those who get involved in them.

Qualified psychiatric orgone therapists have extensive training. They are physicians who have gone on to specialize in psychiatry and then in the very unique subspecialty of orgone therapy. They practice in much the same way as Reich did more than a half century ago. Ph.D. Psychologists who have had proper training can practice a form of orgone therapy safely and effectively. However, it is crucial they have supervision by a qualified psychiatric orgone therapist.