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Bridging Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology with Somatic Psychology

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Adult Group Play Therapy: Passion and Purpose

The Ethics of Touch


Bridging Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology with Somatic Psychology

Christine Caldwell, Ph.D., LPC, BC-DMT
September, 2001


A natural affinity exists between the fields of birth psychology and somatic psychology. Though both these fields coalesced relatively independently, holding only a few of their pioneers and extenders in common, their basic tenets, many of their assessment tools, and quite a few of their clinical techniques are strikingly similar. In many cases, a difference of degree rather than kind is operating. Both these fields seem to recognize elemental features of human experience not included in currently dominant paradigms of psychotherapy, and seek to both extend and reorient them. This article begins the process of identifying some of the bridges that naturally occur between these two fields, and suggests ways in which they might build more, so that each is nourished and supported.
Four main bridges span these two fields. The first deals with a domain they both address. If we put it in neurological terms, both fields are interested in human experiences that exist largely outside the neocortical and speech centers of the brain. Prenatal and Perinatal psychology does so because it is interested in the effect of events that occurred before these brain centers were fully formed. Somatic psychology does so because a body-centered perspective acknowledges that experiences are routed first through limbic, mid and lower brain centers, resulting in attitudes, orientations, and even behaviors that are well underway before they ever arrive at the neocortex (and therefore conscious awareness). Both fields, coming from their own vantage points, eloquently echo current neurological findings that locate significant portions of psychotherapy outside the box of cognitive insight and understanding. This results in an extension of the whole field of healing into realms previously thought to be irrelevant or intractable.
The second bridge uniting these two lands has to do with the bodymind orientation of both. Basic theory building in either field begins with an assumption that soma and psyche are one, and that the physical body and the emotional, cognitive, transpersonal, and spiritual bodies all exist as a web. What happens to one happens to all. Therapy, then, must blend together an understanding of this fact such that a physical symptom, an emotional symptom, and a cognitive symptom can all be expressions of the same historical injury, and can be healed through encompassing techniques.
Thirdly, assessment often bridges the two disciplines. Both tend to assess clients through largely behavioral means, looking at movement, gesture, posture, energy, relational dynamics, physical complaints, and emotional patterns to diagnose and treat. Both fields are fascinated by what a client is doing just as much or maybe even more than what they are thinking.
Lastly, both fields are highly experiential in their treatment forms. Therapy consists, in many cases, of experiences that are engaged in during the therapy hour, and then applied to daily life. Techniques such as conscious breathing, expressive movement, relaxation practices, bodywork, emotional release, and creative processes form the backbone of both disciplines.
It seems amazing that these two fields haven't crossed over these bridges to interact more often. Both have been occupied by their own formative processes, but now that they are both up on their feet and moving around, it may be time for them to play together more often. Many practitioners are beginning to do so. The next sections of this article suggest ways in which they might like to play even more.

Potential Contributions of Birth Psychology to Somatic Psychology

Because of its focus on very early life events, Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology helps us to extend our psychologically significant lifespan back to (and down to) the cellular level. For Somatic Psychology this extension makes a great deal of sense; after all, if we hold all body events as psychologically significant, we can see that both gametes (sex cells) and somatic cells have experiences that influence organismic development, orientation, and behavior. Yet many somatic psychologists have largely overlooked this view, perhaps out of simple inertia. Many of Somatic Psychology's pioneers were trained psychologists, and may bear the imprinting effects of Freud retracting and minimizing his perinatal views. Many of Birth Psychology's pioneers came more directly from the field of medicine, which at least addressed prenatal and perinatal care.
In Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology, the primitive, rapid, global, and enduring form of learning called imprinting has been well explicated and well addressed. Imprinting fades as a learning style as the neocortex comes on line, but remains accessible throughout our lifespan, triggered by such strong events as sudden, traumatic, and life-threatening events. Much of what we see in adults as trauma and shock responses trace their origins to imprinting mechanisms in the brain and elsewhere in the body. Somatic Psychology has recently been praised for its work with trauma and shock, yet has not often made the connection to imprinting, and therefore has in some cases neglected to see the possibility that adult trauma patterns may reflect a reoccurrence of very early learning, extending back to intrauterine life. By appreciating and including this possibility, somatic practitioners can get all the way to the root of dysfunctional responses.
By adding an awareness of and appreciation for gestational as well as birth and postnatal imprints, Somatic Psychology can reach farther down to the earliest history of somatic experiencing, and increase its effectiveness. It can also treat even younger clients, using many of the techniques it already possesses.
Somatic Psychology may also benefit from learning new techniques for treatment that have been developed on and for pregnant women, gestating fetuses, neonates, infants, and young children. Some of these techniques may include touch, birth reenactments, the use of music and other art forms, hypnotherapy, and warm water practices.

Contributions of Somatic Psychology to Birth Psychology

Somatic Psychology has been influenced either directly or indirectly by occupational and physical therapy as well as dance therapy and Sensory Integration. Because of this influence it possesses a finely developed understanding of developmental movement sequencing, and the developmental delays that occur when movement tasks are thwarted by trauma or neglect. Developmental delays correlate to psychological disturbances as well as learning and memory disorders. Birth psychology may benefit from this understanding, as it often focuses on the emotional sequelae to trauma and may inadvertently minimize the physical repatterning that the body craves.
Also because of the movement emphasis of many Somatic Psychologists, this field carries with it many movement assessment tools that can readily be applied to research and assessment with neonates and infants. Movement analysis forms such as Body-Mind Centering, Laban Movement Analysis, the Kestenberg Movement Profile, and the Bartenieff Movement Fundamentals can all be applied to infants, and many of their trained analysts understand the correlation of movement behavior to personality and intrapsychic dynamics. These forms go beyond the capabilities of video analysis because they speak to the biological and developmental needs that movement behavior shapes itself to. When the psyche is disturbed, so is movement. By looking rigorously at movement behavior we can assess pre and post treatment issues, and test for observable outcomes.
Somatic Psychologists are in increasing numbers licensed in some form of mental health counseling or psychotherapy, and the field is increasingly aligning itself with most forms of mainstream as well as alternative healing. This training ethically enables a therapist to deal with more highly disturbed clients, as well as guarantees at least some training in family systems, assessment, group dynamics, research, multicultural counseling, diversity issues, and professional ethics. It includes training in verbal therapy techniques, enabling practitioners to blend verbal and non-verbal states, thus increasing overall integration. It also guarantees clinical internships and internship supervision.

Ways Both Fields Can Go Forward Together

While either field may want to reserve judgement about becoming mainstreamed or dealing with highly disturbed clients, both can benefit from the trend towards increasing professional training and standards. If we call what we do psychotherapy, or even counseling, and if we believe that we positively influence the psyche, it can only benefit us to train rigorously, in formats that can cull out unethical or incompetent practitioners. Somatic Psychologists can now train at several accredited universities that enable graduates to apply for state board licenses as psychotherapists or counselors. Prenatal and Perinatal Psychologists have Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, which is on track for accreditation.
The two fields may also want to consider joint projects in training, research, publication, and marketing. By dialoguing with each other in both official as well as informal ways, our two fields can enrich and extend each other. We may turn out to be well-matched playmates, able to play together well into our maturing years.

Christine Caldwell, Ph.D., LPC, BC-DMT - Founder and director of the Somatic Psychology Dept. at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She lectures and trains internationally, and has authored two books: Getting Our Bodies Back, and Getting In Touch. She offers trainings in somatic evolution (the Moving Cycle), with specializations in addictions, play, movement sequencing, therapist training, and birth and death.