Extending empathy to physical symptoms

Nicolaou, Thalia and Elliott, Robert and Robinson, Anna (2022) Extending empathy to physical symptoms. Person-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapies. pp. 1-19. ISSN 1752-9182 (https://doi.org/10.1080/14779757.2022.2159503)

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In this article we advocate for extending our concept and practice of empathy to include both physical and psychological symptoms, and the personal presenting meanings encoded in them. We make the case that when clients present medical symptoms in therapy, these should be explored and empathized with. First we explore the meaning and function of physical symptoms and potential therapeutic benefits of attending to them. We discuss the mirroring of these symptoms in the therapist’s body, via a process of embodied empathy that we refer to as physical empathy, understood as an automatic intuitive process in the body, one of three types of empathy evidenced by neuroscience research. We argue for a wider paradigm of therapy that would encompass physical symptoms as expressions of self. We accept human nature is embodied and physical symptoms are better understood as a kind of unverbalized body memory. We propose that PCE therapists practicing in medical settings adopt a phenomenological model when working with physical symptoms, by engaging in a process of physical empathy. Within this framework, person-centered experiential therapies may be particularly useful in preventing physical symptoms developing into complex, difficult to treat physical syndromes. We call for training therapists in physical empathy.