Psychotherapy and Yoga—Use your head and follow your heart!

Scared Stiff


Scared Stiff

By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT


As David Frawley wrote in Yoga: the Greater Tradition, “Breath and Mind are connected like the two wings of a bird. The breath reflects our thoughts and emotions. . . .fear makes us forget to breathe.


Emily’s boyfriend dropped her; he told her he wouldn’t ask her out again because she was like a parrot, she always agreed with him. “It’s like you’re not there, Em,” he said. About the same time her favorite teacher told her basically the same thing- she was smart, but didn’t seem to have a mind of her own; the teacher suggested Emily might need help, so Emily decided to see a psychotherapist- me.

Emily told me her story, laughed, said she was silly, and looked half ready to go and half longing to stay. “That’s no reason to see a therapist,” Emily said. She sat rigidly on the edge of her chair, so stiff and straight she looked like was balancing a book on her head. She made none of the little movements people use to get comfortable. In fact, she didn’t move at all. She often held her breath, and breathed mostly from her chest.

I had the strong feeling that I shouldn’t breathe, either, that any move I might make- even something as subtle as a blink, would hurt Emily somehow. She couldn’t tell me how she felt, but she could show me- she couldn’t speak freely or think for herself, and she wasn’t allowed to move a muscle. She was always scared, and her body showed it; she walked stiffly with short mincing steps, as though treading on egg shells; her face was frozen in an expressionless mask; she rarely spoke, and her voice was very soft when she did speak. She was trying to be invisible, even from herself.

For many months I gently listened to the lists Emily made of her days. Emily was passive, and always agreed with me, just as her boyfriend and her teacher said. She was a chameleon- blending into the background to avoid being noticed.

When she was a little girl Emily often woke up from nightmares in the middle of the night; she pulled the covers over her head, making sure they were completely and tightly tucked in, held her breath, and became invisible. Her parents didn’t protect her, and were even abusive sometimes; when she told me about family life she said it was OK, but she spoke like a robot, and looked scared stiff. Emily often felt cold, and I offered her a blanket, something, she said, her parents would never have done- they would have told her she wasn’t cold, just complaining.

Psychotherapy creates a safe space where mind and body can come together and find peace; the therapist uses mirroring, empathic understanding, metaphors, and stories; the therapist’s reactions may be different than expected, creating kinder pathways. I wanted to help Emily write a new story for herself, and I wanted her to relax.

One day I asked Emily if she would like to begin her therapy sessions with a brief centering experience- belly breathing. I showed her how to breathe deeply, filling up her lungs, hoping this would help her inhabit her body and calm down.

Starting our meetings with a breath centering technique brought us closer together. Emily became more attuned to her body’s hints when she was beginning to feel anxious, and was able to enjoy the feeling of slow complete breaths, the energy of the inbreath, and the deep relaxation of the outbreath.

Emily was feeling safer and could breathe easy. She had found her original, primordial breathing rhythm, and experienced peacefulness in a safe place with another person, allowing the deep self to emerge and feel accepted (for more on this, see my article in the psychotherapy issue of Integral Yoga Magazine, Fall 2008.) She was in tune with herself and others, the beginning of mindfulness. Her relief from stress and anxiety, and her growing ability to catch herself tightening up and soothe herself before the anxiety took over, had a profound effect on her experience of being in the world. She felt stronger and more collected, no longer a victim.

Her talk in therapy changed too, now less a recitation of events and more a consideration of their meaning, and why they were significant to her and to others. In short, she was able to reflect on her experience, and hold firm in the face of powerful emotions; as her sense of self became more coherent, she developed qualities of mindfulness. She was less reactive and more spontaneous, and began to see herself as worthwhile and good. Her friends told her she was different, more alive.



CarboMama and the Clean Plate Club: Understanding Eating Disorders.

By Lynn Somerstein, PhD, RYT

When three year old Susan had a nightmare, she didn’t go to her mother or father for help; instead she ran through the dark hall right past her parent’s bedroom, and headed straight to the kitchen, where she opened the refrigerator, grabbed a loaf of bread, sat down on the floor and started eating. This became a habit, and sometimes she fell asleep on the floor; if her family found her the next morning they told her she was cute, and called her CarboMama.

Ben’s parents thought their baby was a feeding problem- Ben refused to finish all his cereal; he turned his head away and closed his lips when his mother brought the spoon up to his mouth, so she squeezed the hinge where his jaws came together to make them open, and just shoveled the cereal in. She believed she knew how much he needed to eat better than he did. Soon Ben learned to eat everything on his plate and belonged to the “clean plate club;” he forgot how hunger and fullness feel and now he eats everything. Ben’s appetite is his mother’s barometer for feeling good or bad about herself. The more he eats, the better she thinks she is. And Ben wants her to feel good.

Food soothed Ben and Susan’s intolerable fears, rage and loneliness, but their needs for real love were mostly unsatisfied, so they turned off their feelings to protect themselves; on the way they lost their joy and their connections with the body, where emotions are contained and processed.  Soon food became more important than people.

Children cannot tolerate thinking that their parents are inadequate or maybe harmful– they feel safer inventing a fantasy parent who is all good– but an imaginary person can’t satisfy real needs and the children remain unsatisfied; eventually they feel that their needs are bad, and, finally, that they themselves are bad for feeling needy. Some early Object Relations thinkers, Fairbairn (1952 and Winnicott (1965), for example, describe the infant’s dilemma with a disappointing caregiver.

Ben wanted to make his mother happy, which meant eating too much, but he pretended to himself and to his mother that he enjoyed eating what she gave him, even though his stomach hurt.  Winnicott named this the false self, a personality created to please other people, and without needs of its own, because if you want something, people might not like you. Orbach (1986) says that this false self is located within a false body, one, perhaps, that only exists in the head, and is cut off from the neck down; the body is frozen—a symptom of deadening family attachments.

Faulty attachments are the hardest to leave behind, like unsolved puzzles they just stay with you until you figure them out. Contemporary attachment theory calls this insecure or anxious attachment. Children feeling insecure or anxious look towards their parents for relief, but Susan and Ben’s parents were the cause of their anxiety. That’s why Susan didn’t go to her parents when she was scared at night.

Object Relations therapists tailor their methods to the individual–cognitive behavioral therapy, group work, Jungian theory and other methods can be useful components of treatment—but ground zero is the relationship between client and therapist. Starting with a gradual getting to know you, two people learn how to talk to each other; when they feel safe feelings emerge to be explored and expressed within secure parameters in real present time, person to person, just what the client missed growing up. The therapist’s reactions will often be different than the client expects. Clients may surprise themselves too and start acting differently.

So, for example, Susan may discover the implications of wearing a size 0, and begin to value strength and health over size; Ben’s body may thaw and become his own, not just a machine to please others.

They both will find nourishment in real relationships with other people.


Anderson, A. (1990). Males With Eating Disorders (Brunner/Mazel Eating Disorders Monograph Series, No 4).

Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chernin, Kim. (1981). The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. Harper Perennial: New York.

Fairbairn, W. (1992) Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality.  Routledge, NY.

Orbach, S. (1986). Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age. London: Faber & Faber.

Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational Process and the Facilitatin