Body first, mind second

I offended psychotherapists – body first, mind second


November 2019


Like many folk I hugely benefit from talk therapy. It helps me understand who I am. It clarifies how I navigate my relationships and my work.

But for mental and emotional pain, I benefit more from body-oriented therapies — becoming aware of the actual physical sensations of hurt and tension, and working directly with my body to shift them.

Teaching a holistic approach to personal development, I have sometimes sounded over-enthusiastic and judgmental, asserting that talk therapists need to better understand what is going on in the body. In the tea breaks at workshops psychotherapists and counsellors have asked me to be less critical of talk therapy.  I have apologised.

In my twenties I experienced three years of psychoanalysis with one of the founders of talk therapy in the UK, Edward Glover, a wily eighty-year old. I remember halfway through our first session, when he gently paused me and pointed out that I had just contradicted myself. I almost wept that someone was really listening to me. I loved him. I was his last client. Shortly after ending our relationship, he died and I went on two years retreat.

And then my best friend, Allen, brought me to California where I experienced body-based therapies. Massage. Shiatsu. Breath-work. Feel the sensations of tension and pain. Drop down into them and then follow a strategy of movement and release to bring them into flow and healing. I was startled by — and grateful for — how well they worked.

With all this background I am obviously an enthusiastic advocate for both talk therapy and body therapy.

My grumble is when either of them does not acknowledge the validity of the other. Mainstream medicine also has its fundamentalists. Imagine a three-way argument between fundamentalist talk therapists, body therapists and medical clinicians. Groan. What does that mean? Here, have a pill.



This is why the discoveries and theories of scientists such as Candace Pert and Steven Porges are so crucial. They give us grounded, evidence-based maps for how physiology and psychology, body and mind integrate.

Candace Pert’s research described and explained how human moods, feelings and emotions are mediated and experienced through hormones/neuro-peptides. For example, anxiety is a physiological experience mediated by the neuropeptides of cortisol and adrenalin. The physiological experience triggers and loops with the psychological. Candace Pert’s research explained how human beings can experience ‘stews’ of mood, as neuropeptides mix with each other and flood the body. Have you ever experienced lust, hunger, enjoyment and anxiety at the same time? This is not unusual. It is a physiological, hormonal state, which we usually describe in purely emotional language, ignoring the biology. (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion. My The Endorphin Effect.)

Steven Porges’ explanation of polyvagal theory presents another profoundly useful perspective. Deeply embedded in our biology are three states, which from birth are continuously responding to our circumstances.


State One: Safe, cooperative, relational, social

State Two: Threatened, aroused, energised to fight or flee

State Three: Traumatised, petrified, immobile, dissociated


Depending on our circumstances, on our personal history and specific triggers (inner and outer) we move unconsciously between these three states. Think of a row with a family member or colleague, how it starts, escalates, triggers and subsides.

In the therapy world, polyvagal theory has been particularly influential in its understanding of trauma and trauma treatments. It focuses on the biology of immobility and dissociation, appreciating that the frozen state of trauma victims, such as victims of torture, is an evolutionary survival response to insurmountable threat, injury and pain. From this perspective therapists can then carefully explore the strategies of safety that may enable the victim to return to health.

(If you want to explore the therapeutic strategies associated with polyvagal theory then for the general reader I recommend Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and for therapists Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory.  For the pure science avoid Porges’ original work unless you are a postgrad biologist and read his The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)

My own interest in polyvagal theory is more focused on how it explains our every day behaviour, as the three vagal states unconsciously influence how we feel and think and behave. (My original doctoral research was in identity politics and how biological imperatives for a secure sense of identity work out through the individual into society and world politics. See my Personal Identity, National Identity, International Relations.)

In particular I am focused on how these understandings of the body, its neurology and hormones, can support holistic personal development and spiritual growth — more love, more consciousness, more ethics and compassion, here and now, in action.



So to the three states of polyvagal theory and to the stew of emotions I want to add a Fourth State.

To describe the Fourth State physiologically: The human nervous system and brain is so evolved, sophisticated and adaptable that it can create synapses and connections that transcend the vagal and hormonal states.  Instead of being submerged in these states, the human mind can develop a new faculty, which is able to step back and take an overview. The mind-brain likes narratives. Just as it can watch a movie, it can also watch its own body and behaviour. So its own thoughts, feelings and behaviour are just another narrative.

The mind-brain can develop so that it steps back and observes the three vagal states and the molecules of emotion. It can be a witness to all the stuff of feelings and thoughts. More than that, it can choose to self-manage, influence and guide these states. (Plato said that the rational mind is proof of the soul.)

But this rational, higher, self-managing mind is a new state and a new neural groove and muscle. So the synapses and connections need development and repetition.

Of all people it is meditators who, sitting quietly with themselves, experience this new witnessing state and an ability to self-manage inner sensations and chemistry. Like benevolent white witches and wizards meditators can stir, blend and reformulate the bubbling stuff in the cauldron of their bodies. Always with more love, more wisdom, more consciousness.

Emotional intelligence. Mindfulness. Meditation. These approaches help us develop our higher mind, our detached compassionate witnessing. Not a floating, disembodied balloon of awareness, but a kind awareness that is fully engaged with flesh and blood realities.




Workshop • London • Saturday 23 November

Polyvagal Theory and the Endorphin Effect


Workshop • Birmingham • Weekend 6/7/8 December

The Satori Weekend


8 Weekends • Glastonbury • Starting September 2020

Diploma in Practical Spirituality & Wellness


By | 2019-11-13T17:13:24+00:00 November 13th, 2019|Articles, Endorphin Effect, Healing & Psychology|10 Comments


  1. Wendy Jacob November 13, 2019 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    It is refreshing to find an acceptance of the benefits of the many theories and supporting therapies that are available. The body, mind and spirit are complex and fascinating, and with practice, meditation helps us observe and find peace within ourselves. Thank you William!

  2. Bernd Leygraf November 13, 2019 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    I am not sure how this could be offensive to psychotherapist. For a start psychotherapist are not a homogenous group. And within this disparate group of people there is dialogue, conflict and difference of opinion. As it should be. Our dear William might find many opinions similar to his own and per se not so new….x

  3. nancy November 13, 2019 at 6:50 pm - Reply

    Really helpful to see a holistic approach to such complex issues of healing. As regards endorphins again the picture is very complex. They are not always helpful. Their ability to mask pain can mean that chronic long term trauma remains untreated while the body continues to contract muscles in “freeze” state. Eventually those muscles can become bone-like in feel because they are so hard but no pain is felt thanks to the endorphins masking the damage. In other words whilst initially helpful endorphins end up being part of the problem in long term chronic sufferers of PTSD. Such people do not seek help because they do not know they need to until many years later when major physical breakdowns occur. The path to healing then involves pain both physical as the muscles begin to relax and emotional as feelings of the past are released.

  4. Helen Grace Fields November 13, 2019 at 7:18 pm - Reply

    Thank you William.
    ditto Wendy Jacobs comment above.
    I have always believed that we have to get away from one size fits all whatever the therapy and no one has all the answers. I imagine one day when we will be able to sit around the same table and recognise that we mostly agree and that the route will vary. We are in service to the patient/client not there to prove our method is the best, but that the body has wisdom and we can learn how to listen with more than our ears. That we do not need to take offence when a client chooses another route.

  5. liz giambrone November 13, 2019 at 9:48 pm - Reply

    inspiring, encouraging, intelligently, wisely, empowering my human journey

  6. Naomi Duffield November 14, 2019 at 12:41 am - Reply

    Really enjoyed your inclusion of the’fourth state’. This state has been noted in animals as per Daniel Goleman As well as (I) rest and digest (ii) fight or flight (iii) freeze or feign ; predators or prey are known to go into a fourth witnessing state when time suspends and they make the judgement as to how to act – fight, flee or feign death.
    Maybe a bit grotesque, but it makes sense to me that humans also move into this witnessing state and the more we cultivate this inner state through spiritual practices, the more compassion and wisdom there is in the choices we make and the more hope for humanity

  7. Neil McCann November 14, 2019 at 9:45 am - Reply

    Hi William, I hope all is week with you..just now and overall too.

    This piece touched and resonated with me, a lot. It is the story of my own process, I live now in Belfast where the default seems to inhabit Stage 2. Australia, where I spent several years for all the informality seems to constantly work on Stage 1.5!

    I’m going to look at doing your workshop in London on 23rd.

  8. Andrew Harry November 14, 2019 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    William describes the state of relaxation, a heart-felt, concept and content free state. This newsletter summarizes things nicely to enable communication with those that rigidly identify with mind. The next step for all of us is to make this 4th state consciously accessible to the masses. It’s easier than you might think!

  9. Peter Burns November 15, 2019 at 10:55 am - Reply

    I see your idea of a “fourth state” really sounds a chord for people – but I’m not sure it’s a separate state. Stephen Porges talks about “blended states” or “intertwined states” and Deb Dana devotes a chapter of her book to them, quoting research by Dacher Keltner and others. It seems that the fourth state may be something like “stillness without fear” i.e. combining aspects of the social and immobilisation responses – maybe not fully worked out yet. I await with interest to hear more.

  10. Laura Leslie November 17, 2019 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    The Fourth State interests me. I love yoga and if I could harness that feeling after a good practice, pranayama etc, that would be the fourth state conquered. When in the red light mode, it is very hard to be disserning and I so want to reach out for that wild strawberry. I feel a workshop coming on for you William? Thank you for your article.

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