Subtle Energy in Psychology: A Brief History
Updated: May 1, 2019
In addition to being a psychotherapist, I am also an energy healer, working with subtle energy in ways that are distinctly beyond the current reaches of the field of psychology as a science, not to mention traditional energetic modalities, like acupuncture. However, psychology does have a long and rich history involving subtle energy. This post provides a brief overview of some of the major figures and milestones for the use of subtle energy in the field of psychology.
Sigmund Freud: Libido as a Sexual Energy
Sigmund Freud first coined the term libido to describe the energy that drives humans and gives them vitality. Freud considered libido energy to be specifically sexual in nature. So, for example, Freud considered conditions associated with low energy levels with decreased libido, or sexual energy. These conditions included depression, absence of pleasure, and withdrawal from social relationships.
Carl Jung: Libido as a Life Force
Carl Jung used the term libido in much the same way as Freud, but Jung did not consider the source of libido to be merely sexual—even though sexuality was still included. For example, Jung pioneered the concepts of introversion and extroversion as personality types. He considered introverted people to have inwardly directed libido, or life energy, while extroverted people directed their libido out into the world.
Wilhelm Reich: Orgone Energy
German psychologist Wilhelm Reich was a student of Freud who extended Freud's libido concept to create one of the original approaches to somatic psychology,. Reich saw human drives and social influences, such as moral prohibitions against various behaviors (especially sexual behaviors), as working against each other within the human mind-body system. According to Reich, this conflict created an energetic tension, which he referred to as the sex economy. The sex economy represented the distribution of subtle energy, which he called orgone energy, throughout the mind and body. Blockages or weaknesses in orgone energy were expressed through personality traits, social and psychological problems, and sexual characteristics.
In light of a subsequent century of psychological research and experience, Reich's reduction of subtle energy to sexuality is now considered to be an oversimplification. Reich also seemed to conflate several types of subtle energetic processes into his orgone concept. However, Reich's work created a strong foundation for modern somatic psychology, and he pioneered the use of subtle energy as a psychotherapeutic tool.
Alexander Lowen: Bioenergetics
Alexander Lowen was a student of Reich who applied Reich's use of the body and subtle energy in psychotherapy in a way that is more like bodywork than traditional talk therapy. Lowen's work, called Bioenergetics, uses bodywork and movements to release stored psychological patterns. Lowen's work is mainly notable because of its focus on bodywork as a psychotherapeutic intervention. This video shows Lowen giving a demonstration of his work.
Roberto Assagioli: Psycho-Energetics as a Fifth Force in Psychology
Roberto Assagioli was an Italian psychoanalyst whose work serves as a bridge between Carl Jung's depth psychology and modern integral psychology. Assagioli coined the height psychology / depth psychology conceptualization I use in my own psychotherapeutic work. Assagioli recognized subtle energetic processes as an important factor psychological conditions, even though he did not write about a lot of the specifics involved in these processes. Assagioli speculated that psycho-energetics would be the "fifth force" in psychology after transpersonal psychology as the fourth force. I agree with Assagioli this would have been a positive advancement, and I am doing my part to ensure that psychology continues to move toward greater inclusion of subtle energy. However, history has not yet born out his prediction. Transpersonal psychology did not actually materialize as a fourth force in psychology, and today the predominant movement is cognitive neuroscience. Even though psycho-energetics have yet to become as influential in psychology as Assagioli predicted, techniques for using subtle energy in psychotherapy continue to be pioneered to this day.
Peter Levine: Traumatic Memories Stored in the Nervous System
Peter Levine's trauma therapy, called Somatic Experiencing, further extends the idea of psychological energy trapped in the nervous system. Levine's work is based, in part, on his observation that animals, when attacked by predators, will often go into a freeze response, where they do not move during the attack. (Think of an opossum playing dead.) While frozen, all of the hormones, chemicals, and other biological and energetic products that are generated by the body's fear response are trapped in the animal's nervous system. If the animal survives the attack, once it is over animals naturally shake to release this energy. Levine's psychotherapeutic work is focused on ways of releasing this energy that is trapped following traumatic experiences in humans. Levine's work, and psychotherapies that have been inspired by Levine's work, such as Pat Ogden's Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, sometimes characterize the human nervous system as a subtle energetic system. You can watch a video about Levine's Somatic Experiencing, including the animals shaking off the energy stored from the freeze response, here.
Tapping (TFT and EFT): "Energy Psychology"
Tapping is a therapeutic intervention that involves tapping repeatedly on a series of acupressure points while alternately focusing on an unpleasant or traumatic memory and repeating spoken affirmations for the change that one wants. Two main forms of tapping exist: Thought Field Therapy (TFT), developed by Roger Callahan, and a simplified version of TFT called Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), developed by Gary Craig. Because it is relatively easy to learn and apply the basics of EFT, has been studied quite a bit, with some relatively high-quality studies showing benefits for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The terms "tapping" and "energy psychology" are often used synonymously. However, I hope this article has shown that this is a misnomer. Subtle energy in psychology is used in a much broader context, and tapping is only one recently developed type of intervention.
Acupuncture and Beyond: Non-Psychological Interventions for Psychological Conditions
The oldest types of treatments for psychological conditions are from the shamanic traditions, where interventions such as depossession were used to extricate harmful energies causing emotional and psychological disturbances. Acupuncture is another ancient form of energy-oriented healing that has been used to treat conditions such as depression and anxiety for centuries, mainly in China. Indeed, most forms of subtle energy healing purport to alleviate psychological distress. I would particularly call out my own Waveform Healing as a notable example for which I have seen compelling anecdotal evidence of improvements in psychological symptoms in my clients.
In the West, acupuncture, in particular, has benefited from its relatively recent status as a licensed form of energetic healing. This has not only promoted its adoption as a technique for integrative medicine, it has also driven a significant amount of scientific research into its benefits. For example, a 10-year research study at Harvard University supported acupuncture's effectiveness for treating anxiety-related disorders.
I would argue that acupuncture works on one particular form of subtle energy, rather than subtle energy in general. However, the research on acupuncture is certainly an important step toward broadening the scope of what we think of as the causes and treatments for emotional and psychological disturbances.
I see a future in which psychological health is viewed as a whole-person endeavor that involves mind, body, and spirit, as well as all the subtle energetic phenomenal that lie within the arbitrary boundaries we create between mind, body, and spirit. Progress is slow in getting there, but the field of psychology does have a history of more than 100 years of moving in this direction—even if the predominant movements within psychology resist it.
1. Technically, anhedonia.
2. Body-centered, or mind-body psychology.
3. There are some body-oriented practices for personal development that came before Reich's work, such as the Alexander technique, that have inspired somatic psychologists. However, Reich's work was the first widely recognized body-centered therapeutic practice that was developed and published within the field of psychology. Reich's work was highly controversial during his lifetime. Reich was imprisoned in the U.S. for controversies stemming from his work, and he ultimately died in prison days before he was scheduled to be released.
4. The name "orgone" comes from "organ" because Reich believed that orgone energy was related to the function of major internal organs within the human body. This is often compared to the perspective of traditional Chines medicine, which holds that the flow of chi is related to organ function. Some people believe that Reich made his own independent, Western discovery of chi. I think that Reich was mixing chi with other forms of subtle energy and was not able to differentiate between them due to a combination of lack of available information at the time, as well as his own somewhat inflated ambitions. This combination of factors resulted in Reich's grandiose claims that orgone energy was an all-pervasive "cosmic force." It was Reich's grandiosity that arguably spelled his downfall.
5. A similar shift has happened related to Freud's focus on sexual drives.
6. See Rosselli, M., & Vanni D. (2014). Roberto Assagioli and Carl Gustav Jung. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 46(1), 7-34.
7. For a review, see Feinstein, D. Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: Evidence of efficacy. Review of General Psychology, 16, 364-380.
8. This study is detailed in the following articles:
Fang, J., Jin, Z., Wang, Y., Li, K., Kong, J., Nixon , E. E., . . . Hui, K. K.-S. (2009). The salient characteristics of the central effects of acupuncture needling: Limbic-paralimbic-neocortical network modulation. Human Brain Mapping, 30, 1196–1206. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20583
Hui, K. K. S, Liu, J., Makris, N., Gollub, R. W., Chen, A. J. W., Moore, C. I., . . . Kwong, K. K. (2000). Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: Evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects. Human Brain Mapping, 9, 13–25. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-0193(2000)9:1<13::AID-HBM2>3.0.CO;2-F
9. For an explanation of what I mean by a multiplicity of energy anatomies, see my article on Waveform Healing.