The influence of Wilhelm Reich’s work on psychotherapy

Bernd Eiden

Written on 21 August 2007 for ‘The Psychotherapist’ newsletter

Wilhelm Reich has possibly been portrayed as one of the most controversial figures by mainstream psychoanalysts. They are indeed justified in discrediting some of his theories and the scientific research which he developed in the later stage of his life, especially after his emigration to the USA in 1939. However, in this brief article about his legacy I would like to honour his contributions to the field of psychotherapy. He greatly influenced the therapeutic technique of psychoanalysis as well as played a crucial role for the Human Potential Movement. He is one of the pioneers who studied passionately the role of the body and developed a methodology about it. He laid the foundations for body psychotherapy which now exists as a specific therapeutic approach with its own theoretical and meta-psychological position. Furthermore, with the growing recognition of a need to synthesise different approaches into a holistic framework, psychotherapists from various backgrounds are incorporating bodywork into their own way of working without even knowing that the origins go back to Reich. Supported by new research in neuroscience and attachment theory, body awareness is a vital ingredient in any attempt to do justice to the complexity of the therapeutic process.

In 1919 Reich started to work and lecture as an analyst in Vienna, inspired by Freud who himself was impressed by the young Reich. Reich expanded on Freud’s theory of neurosis and Freud’s drive and libido concept. He also took a leading role in the development and teaching of clinical techniques in psychoanalysis. Reich didn’t shun the political territory, either. His social interests as an active communist led him to write about society’s interest in sexual repression and resistance to therapeutic change. In 1934 Reich was expelled from the psychoanalytic establishment for various reasons, partly for his attacks on the repressive forces of society, and partly because he - together with Ferenczi - did not accept Freud’s rules of abstinence and neutrality. They both opposed the ‘touch taboo’ and questioned prevailing assumptions.

In ‘The Function of the Orgasm’ (1927) Reich elaborated on the theory of sexuality, believing that all neurosis was caused by the blocking of sexual energy, i.e. the life force. He emphasised in particular the energetic aspect, understanding energy as the connecting force that links body, emotion, mind and spirit. He postulated that the energy behind a repressed situation/conflict and the expression of the energy as a feeling is as important as remembering and talking about the situation/conflict.
In ‘Character Analysis’ (1933) Reich presented the culmination of his psychoanalytic thoughts. Many of his ideas about character, working with resistance and negative transference have become widely accepted within psychoanalysis. Following Reich, it has become a standard analytic principle to recognise the resistance first: not to interpret the underlying impulse before the anxiety has been worked through and not to interpret the anxiety until the defence has been worked through.
In addition Reich proposed that the client’s resistance to the process was also based in physical tensions (character - and body armour). Reich recognised that all neurotic symptoms also have a physiological aspect and that the body is closely linked to the psychological process. Habitual physical tensions serve a protective function, but also restrict us in experiencing pleasure, spontaneity and joy of life.
Reich observed that the body’s autonomic (sympathetic and parasympathetic) nervous system responses correspond to the loosening of character resistances. It was significant for Reich that these autonomic (vegetative) processes were involuntary responses beyond the mind’s control and could open the door to deeper repressed unconscious material.
Reich’s unconscious, unlike Freud’s, was not divided in two (Eros and Thanatos) and therefore had no destructive core. His deeper primary layer was by nature positive and oriented towards contact. Hence, Reich trusted the organism’s capacity for self-regulation and inner wellbeing.

Where are we now, 50 years after Reich's death and after the heyday of body psychotherapy in the 1980’s?
We have moved on from the ‘sexual revolution’ which hijacked the pleasure principle. The Human Potential Movement also overused Reich’s concept of ‘liberating the energy’ and applied bodywork mechanically. The ‘truth of the body’ was going to set free the spontaneous child within all of us and free us from our repressions - a naive and idealistic view. Body psychotherapies fell into the trap of idealising the body by trying to reverse the cultural dominance of the mind over the body.
Another shadow aspect of the Reichian heritage is its bias towards the ‘medical model’. Reich portrayed the therapist as the expert/doctor and the therapy as a treatment proceeded by diagnosis and guided by applied theory. As many psychotherapy approaches (including psychoanalysis) shift from an intra-psychic to the inter-psychic, body psychotherapy also has expanded from an internal into a relational perspective, letting go of the notion how the client should be.

I hope I have been able to convey the impact of Reich’s ideas by showing that he laid the ground for embodied psychotherapy. All psychotherapists could benefit from his theory of mind/body functioning, by learning to perceive through the body, and extending listening and understanding into the field of energetic perception, ‘right brain’ attunement and ‘somatic resonance’. They would also benefit from increasing their ability to recognise subtle body messages, including signs of autonomic nervous system reactions; and by learning to ‘read’ the client’s body structure as a frozen landscape of life’s history and developmental injury. Acquiring a holistic body/mind theory of transference and countertransference is also essential.
Following from this, shouldn’t all psychotherapists be body psychotherapists?


Boadella, D. (1974) Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of his Work Chicago: Henry Regenery Comp.
Sharaf, M. (1984) Fury on Earth: A Biography of Wilhelm Reich London: Hutchinson
Staunton, T. (ed.) (2002) Body Psychotherapy London: Brunner Routledge

Bernd Eiden is a UKCP registered body psychotherapist in private practice. Being one of the founding members of the Chiron Centre for Body Psychotherapy in 1983, he is still part of the training team offering CPD courses.
Address for correspondence: Chiron Centre for Body Psychotherapy, 26 Eaton Rise, London W5 2ER; E-mail:; Website: