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The Body Speaks: Are We Listening?

By: Thomas Roberts , LCSW, LMFT, DAPA, FAAIM


There is a significant amount of literature regarding the way the body stores stressful experiences and ultimately expresses the impact of those experiences as symptoms (Conger, 1994; Dewey, 1989; Dychtwald, 1986; Hay, 1984; Kelleman, 1981; Knaster, 1996; Lowen, 1972, 1983; Shapiro 1990, 1997; Stevens, 1974). Much of this writing has been largely viewed as folklore by traditional Western medicine practitioners because it lacks scientific credibility. This is true largely because the authors of these writings based their theories on clinical experience rather than hard scientific investigation.


Recently, there has been an increasing scientific interest and investigation into demonstrating that what was once considered folklore now has scientific merit. There is scientific evidence supporting the idea that the body responds to environmental experiences in ways never thought possible, especially on the genetic level. The body responds in healing or protective ways based on how environmental cues are interpreted by the individual. When an environment is perceived as threatening, the body marshals its protective resources, which in turn compromise its healing and growth functions. If the environment is perceived as nurturing, understanding, and supportive, the body initiates its healing and growth resources   (Ader & Cohen, 1991; Goleman & Gurin, 1993; Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 1991; Lipton, 2001; Pert, 1985, 1999; Richardson, 2000; Rossi, 1990, 1993, 2002, 2004; Scare, 2001; Schedlowski & Tewes, 1999; Van der Kolk, 1994).

The purpose of this article is to emphasize the importance of approaching the somatic symptom as the body’s need for expression.   Before treating, it is important to listen to what the symptom is trying to communicate and develop a healing language so the symptom has the opportunity to express itself ( Levine, 1991; Levine, 1997; Roberts, 2000, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Rossi, 1993, 2002, 2004; Page, 2002).

Healing is not the absence of symptoms; it is giving a voice to the symptom so it can fully express and discharge, thereby freeing the body’s own innate healing response. Healing language is the vehicle we can give the body to release its need to express via a symptom. Merely treating a symptom is perceived by the body as an attempt to silence it.


Treatment approaches, which are based upon efforts at silencing the body, will often contribute to the exacerbation of what may be a somatically based symptom. The silencing of the normal body response to a stressful event psychophysiologically encodes the event in a state-dependent fashion, paving the way for the development of somatic symptoms (Griffith & Griffith, 1994; Rossi, 1990, 1993, 2002). Rossi (1993) states how it is precisely this type of psychobiological double bind, wherein shock and stress strongly encode traumatic events, that simultaneously impedes a psychophysiological release. As a result, effective coping behavior is impaired, which leads to the genesis of many types of mind-body dysfunctions that are typically referred to as psychosomatic problems.

When the body’s fight/flight response is silenced, the energy not discharged is expressed as a somatic symptom. One cannot function adequately when the fight or flight response is silenced. Griffith & Griffith (1994) refer to this as the performance dilemma, “…holding one’s body suspended within a particular emotional posture, readied for an action that never arrives (p. 47).

When a problem or symptom haunts a patient, it is only because mind and nature are attempting to bring it up to consciousness so it can be resolved. Treating the symptom is tantamount to “killing the messenger” (Rossi, 1990, 1993).

Page (2002) states that if we can decode the message of the symptom, we can come to a greater understanding of the person and the imbalance they are experiencing. In a similar vein, Levine (1997) puts forth:

They (symptoms) stem from frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved or discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies. ...This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms e.g., anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing the undischarged residual energy (p. 19 - 20).

Levine goes on to say that “...the symptoms will not go away until the responses are discharged and completed” (p. 34).


The Body Speaks; Are We Listening?

The body has its own language. It is the language of ligands, proteins, cell membranes, and genes. These substances provide important sharing of language and information between the cells of the body, which in turn tell the cells to either activate a growth response or a protective response (Ainsworth, 2002; Rossi, 1993, 2001). Lipton (2001), when discussing the function of Internal Membrane Proteins (IMP), states, “There are two classes of IMPs: receptors and effectors. Receptors are the cells’ sense organs, the equivalent of eyes, ears, nose, etc.” (p. 242). He goes on to maintain, “The IMP complex controls behavior, and through its effect on regulatory proteins, these IMPs also control gene expression. The IMP complexes provide the cell with ‘awareness of the environment through physical sensation’” (p. 243). Cells, therefore, have awareness and respond to the person’s perception. For example, if our cells perceive the environment as threatening, they will send signals throughout the body indicating the need for a cellular protective response. As a result, immune and growth factors are compromised, leading the way for chronic disruption of tissues and their functions.

Cells are constantly listening to signals from the environment. How those signals are interpreted will determine the specific response of the cells. Recent discoveries have shown that up to 90% of human genes are adaptive and responsive to the environment (Ainsworth, 2002; Lipton, 2001; Richardson, 2002; Rossi, 2001, 2004; Schedlowski & Tewes, 1999).

As healers, therapists often underestimate the influence their words and language have on the functioning of clients’ psycho-physio-genetic responses. Their words and language determine whether clients’ cellular responses will be in consort with healing efforts or discordant with them. The body has a mind of its own.

Healing Language: What We Say Makes a Difference

One of the most potent healing tools therapists have is the one that generally goes overlooked: the words and language they use.

Milton Erickson and those who advanced his contributions to the level of clinical respectability brought the power of language into the forefront of the healing process. It is not necessary, however, to know how to apply hypnosis in order to benefit from the advances made by Erickson and his associates. Recent developments in the application of hypnotherapy in the treatment of somatic disorders (Roberts, 2000, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Rossi, 2002) illustrate how the effective use of language can communicate directly with the psycho-physio-genetic expression of the body symptom.

Somatic symptoms have a functional and symbolic meaning (Roberts, 2002a). It is necessary to listen to what the body is symbolically expressing via the symptom. Typical approaches to treating symptoms focus predominantly on diagnosing; determining what is wrong or what is malfunctioning. When a perspective is shifted from a problem focus to a communication focus, the symptom becomes part of the healing process.

When a client comes in with a somatic symptom that has been unresponsive to other treatments, it is important to approach the symptom as an ally. The client will use metaphorical language to express what the symptom is communicating. Therapists, as healers, need to stay out of their own worldview and connect with the client’s. They need to engage the client’s symptomatic metaphor; the meaning the symptom has in the client’s world. By listening carefully, therapists find that the client has the answer to his or her healing. Therapists should utilize what the client knows about his or her condition to facilitate his or her healing.

Utilizing “clean language” (Lawley & Tompkins, 2000) is an especially powerful way to help the client make the most of communicating the metaphor that is the somatic symptom. Clean language is impressive in that it challenges healing professionals to suspend their inclination to impose their interpretation onto their clients, which would shut down and silence the metaphorical information the symptoms have to offer. By interfering with clients’ descriptions of their symptoms, well-meaning therapists can rob clients of the very experience needed to resolve their symptoms. The intention of clean language in the healing process is to allow symptom information to emerge into the client's awareness by exploring his or her coding of his or her metaphor of his or her symptom (Lawley & Tompkins, 2000; Roberts, 2005).

Approaching the symptom in this fashion implies that clients have within them the ability to heal the psychological and somatic symptoms that originate from the silencing of the body. Every somatic symptom has within itself a deeply coded solution. By listening to the symptom expression, clients can actively engage in the healing process (Roberts, 2000, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Rossi, 2004). They can now have the opportunity to give their symptoms a voice. This in turn gives a powerful message to the body-mind that it is finally being heard and acknowledged. The body experiences being communicated to in this fashion as one of novelty and numinosum, thus stimulating neurogenesis –the creation of new memories, learning, and behaviors (Rossi, 2002, 2004).

The therapist’s role is to validate the client's model of the world and unfold solutions that are conducted within the language and logical boundaries of that world. Most healing approaches introduce, in varying degrees, fictional constructs that disrupt the client's model of the world based in favor of the therapist's training. Clean language, however, speaks to the client’s internal experiential process rather than having to respond to the therapist’s (external) diagnoses and interpretations (Roberts, 2005).

According to this model (Lawley & Tompkins 2000) there are nine basic clean language questions. Two questions request information about symbol's attributes and two ask for information about location. There are two questions that reference the past and two that reference the future (from the client's perceptual present). The last question allows the client to make any symbolic shift necessary. The nine basic clean language questions are:

  • And is there anything else about ......?
  • And what kind of ...... is that ......?
  • And where is ......?
  • And whereabouts?
  • And what happens next?
  • And then what happens?
  • And what happens just before ......?
  • And where does/could ...... come from?
  • And that's ...... like what?

The following is an example of how clean language works. Mary came to see me upon a referral from her physician. She suffered from chronic low back pain for many years and did not experience much relief from the treatments she sought. “This is my last resort,” she told me.

This is how I worked with Mary to give a chance at full expression of her recalcitrant symptom. This represents only a small segment of the entire session.

Client: “I have always felt pain in my back.”
Therapist: “And you feel pain in your back. And when you feel pain in your back, what kind of pain is that pain?”

Client: “It is a burning kind of pain.”
Therapist: “And it is a burning kind of pain. And where is it that you have that burning kind of pain?”

Client: “It is in my lower back, right here. But sometimes it seems to move around.”
Therapist: “And it is in your lower back, right there. But sometimes it moves around. And when it moves around where does it go?”

Client: “It seems to go lower.”
Therapist: “It seems to go lower. And then what happens?”

Client: “I get really miserable.”
Therapist: “And you get really miserable. And then what happens?”

Client: “I just withdraw from everyone.”
Therapist: “And when you withdraw from everyone, what happens next?”

Client: “I feel small and alone.”
Therapist: “And you feel small and alone. And where do you feel this feeling of feeling small and alone?”

Client: “Right here in my heart.”
Therapist: “You feel this feeling of feeling small and alone right there in your heart. And where does this feeling of feeling small and alone in your heart come from?”

Client: “I felt that way all the time as a child. Like no one cared and no one would listen to me.”
Therapist: “And you felt that way all the time as a child. And you felt like no one cared and no one would listen to you. And is there anything else about that way you felt as a child?”

Client: “Angry.”

As the initial session ended Mary stated that the pain in her back was barely noticeable. “My back hasn’t felt this good in years. It’s like someone finally listened to me.”

I continued to recycle through the nine basic questions throughout the session, drawing her more and more into giving the symptom the voice that had been silenced for so many years.

As you can see these inquiries keep the focus on helping the client develop a clearer expression of their symptom from their world. There is no interpretation, directing, or coaching. As the symptom is given a voice to express, its need to do so symptomatically decreases (Roberts, 2002; Rossi, 1993, 2002, 2004). Mary was then able to work on the core of what her back pain was attempting to express.

As somatic symptoms experience being acknowledged and listened to, they no longer are limited to have to express via symptoms. The client can now access a greater repertoire of resources to expand his or her way of being in his or her world.


The more therapists understand how the body speaks and the language it uses to communicate (i.e. symptoms), the more they will be able to refine their communication with the language of the body symptom.

When people come to therapists for healing, they want to feel listened to. They want to have a chance to tell their story. When an individual has had a significant experience that has been silenced, the remnants of that experience are driven deeply into the cells, nerves, and tissues of the body. The symptom becomes the remaining vehicle of expression of the somatically bound significant experience. The symptom is an example of how the energy of the somatically bound significant experience is transformed into the energy of the symptom.

Therapists must help to bring their clients into the healing process. They can do this by refraining from imposing their treatment modalities onto the clients, which finally allows their clients’ symptoms to have the voice and expression that has been silenced. The words individuals use play an integral role in opening the avenue of communication that allows the symptom to express and thereby release.


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About the Author

Thomas Roberts , LICSW, LMFT, is a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in private practice in Onalaska, Wisconsin. He holds licenses as an independent clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapist, and holds Fellow status with both the National Board of Clinical Hypnotherapists and The American Association of Integrative Medicine. He is a Diplomate with the American Psychotherapy Association and is certified as an Addictions Counselor in the state of Wisconsin. He has over 25 years in the practice of hypnotherapy with particular emphasis on developing and presenting his somatosensory-hypnotherapy approach to mind-body healing.

He has had several articles published related to his approach to hypnotherapy. Two of his articles have been published in the Australian Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy, he has also been published in the Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, The European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, and The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. He also presents trainings and workshops at the local, regional, and national levels.

Thomas will be presenting his workshop on healing language at the 2005 AAIM Forum in San Diego, California.

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