I experienced much difficulty in accessing my emotions and regulating them, and in sensing my body, both as an academic in business before I became interested in formal training in psychology and during my subsequent education and training to become a licensed clinical psychologist.
This motivated me to study the findings of research on emotions and their physiology in depth, especially in affective neuroscience and body psychotherapy paradigms, to find clues for how to access and work better with emotions and the body, both for my clients and myself.
Body psychotherapies such as Reichian Therapy, Bioenergetics, and Bodynamic Analysis work with body defenses primarily in the muscular nervous system to access and express emotions.
Of late, the focus of body psychotherapy has expanded to include the role of the autonomic nervous system. Somatic Experiencing®, for example, focuses more on working with defenses and dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system to access and regulate emotions.
The approaches based on meditative practices from the East, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, deal with emotions through mindfulness practice. The intersubjective and Kleinian psychoanalytic approaches and the analytical psychology of Jung work with emotions primarily through cognition. The cognitive behavioral approaches regulate emotions through cognition and behavior. And the fine work done by bodywork and energy work approaches regulates emotions by regulating the body or energy respectively.
These are all either evidence-based or time-and-market-tested methods that are effective in helping clients with a variety of clinical problems. However, I found them lacking somehow, or time-consuming, or incomplete in their approach to working with emotions, at least for some of my clients—especially for myself!
Turning earlier findings on their heads
More than one surprise emerged from my in-depth study of the physiology of emotions in affective neuroscience, especially in an area called embodied cognition. One of these surprises was recognizing that our understanding of the physiology of emotion and of the physiology of cognition has been going through paradigm shifts in the last twenty years, turning earlier findings on their heads.
It was also surprising to see that so little of what we understand about the physiology of emotion and of cognition has been integrated into the practice of psychology, even in body psychotherapy systems.
In addition, I noticed that most of the research on emotion is focused on a limited number of primary emotions, such as anger and sadness, and neglects the larger number of always-present emotions that I started to refer to as sensorimotor emotions—emotions such as just feeling good or bad about a situation one finds oneself in.
My practice of embodying emotions is one of the core clinical strategies in Integral Somatic Psychology™ (ISP™). The practice is taught during the ISP Professional Training. Visit our Training Schedule to find a training near you. ISP is an easy-to-learn scientific method to improve treatment times and diverse outcomes in all therapies, deepening the impact of your approach.
Finally, the more recent findings in affective neuroscience in newer research paradigms of embodied and embedded cognition, and embodied and enactive emotion, provide substantial theoretical and empirical evidence for the effectiveness of emotional embodiment work in improving cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes across therapeutic modalities, which I had been finding empirically for some time.
No work stands solely on its own feet. It always stands on a pyramid of shoulders that reaches far below into the past. I learned that the body as well as the brain are involved in emotion from neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (in whose lineage Bud Craig has been making outstanding contributions of late) and from neuroscientist and psychoneuroimmunologist Candace Pert.
The work of a number of brilliant minds taught me that emotion, cognition, and behavior are functions of not only the brain but also the body and the environment; that cognition, emotion, and behavior are fundamentally inseparable in the physiology of the brain and the body; that embodying emotion can improve cognition and behavior; and that emotion is dynamic and predictive.
Those brilliant minds belong to Eugene Gendlin from the University of Chicago, Marc Johnson at the University of Oregon, Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, Sian Beilock at Barnard College, Giovanna Colombetti at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, Evan Thompson at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Paula Niedenthal at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Rebekka Hufendiek at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Psychological defenses against emotions
Any effective work with emotion requires an understanding of the psychological defenses against intolerable or unacceptable emotions, as well as adequate outside support for emotional experiences. I was fortunate enough to learn how to work with psychological defenses against emotions and to support emotions in not just one but a number of psychological modalities: the humanistic psychology of Carl Rogers, the gestalt therapy of Fritz Perls, Heinz Kohut’s self psychology, Melanie Klein’s object relations, and the intersubjective psychoanalysis of Robert Stolorow.
In order to work with emotions, which are the most difficult of our experiences, it makes sense that one needs to work with all levels of the psyche—physical, energetic, and collective—that bear upon them.
Jungian psychology, Advaita Vedanta, yoga, Randolph Stone’s Polarity Therapy, and Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy gave me the necessary understanding and tools to begin to work with all levels of the psyche in relation to emotions.
Building affect tolerance
Developing a greater capacity for opposites in experience, or building affect tolerance, is emphasized in intersubjective psychoanalysis for psychological health, in Jungian psychology for individuation, and in Advaita Vedanta for enlightenment. Seeing the importance that these diverse systems placed on affect tolerance was an early inspiration in the development of emotional embodiment work as a core clinical strategy in the larger framework of ISP, my comprehensive approach to the psyche.
When I set out twenty years ago to develop the approach of embodying emotion—focused on developing a greater capacity to tolerate emotional experiences—as a therapeutic tool, I did not have the benefit of all the scientific evidence available today for why that makes sense.
A revolution in our understanding
During that time, there has been a virtual revolution in our understanding of the role of the body in both emotion and cognition. When I began, I was inspired to develop this work on the basis of two simple ideas: that developing a capacity for tolerating emotion is a good thing, based on my study of intersubjective psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology, and Advaita Vedanta; and that the entire brain and body physiology could perhaps be used to make the experience of emotion more tolerable.
I developed the second idea after learning from my initial study of the physiology of emotions (especially from neurologist Antonio Damasio and molecular scientist Candace Pert) that the bulk, if not the entirety, of brain and body physiology can be involved in the generation of emotional experiences. I also learned from several body psychotherapy approaches that various physiological defenses against intolerable experiences could form in both the brain and the body to reduce suffering.
Emotions in different body locations
From observing emotional experiences in myself and my clients, it became clear that an experience of an emotion such as fear could occur in different body locations in different people, and in different locations in the same person on different occasions: sometimes in the chest, other times in the legs, the belly, the head, or the brain.
For example, when I once asked a client where she was experiencing her fear, she first reported it as an experience only in her brain. When I asked her to touch the back of her neck, where muscles can often form a defense against an experience from the head extending to the body (and vice versa), she was surprised to experience fear all over her body not much later.
These observations, in combination with my observation that my clients and I often struggled to resolve difficult emotions that showed up in only very few places in our brain and body physiology, led me to wonder if processing the energy of a difficult emotion in more places in the brain and body physiology—processing in a bigger container, so to speak—would somehow make it more bearable to stay with, process, and complete the emotions.
Critical to my professional and personal growth
As I would later explain to my clients, to motivate them to embody difficult emotional experiences: just as a bag can be carried more easily with two hands than with one, it is easier to tolerate an emotion when it is carried by more parts of the body.
Thus, emotional embodiment work has been critical to my professional and personal growth. I am extremely pleased by this confluence, which continues to evolve from new clinical experiences and emerging streams of knowledge.
Emotional embodiment has certainly benefited me, my clients, and my students, and in turn their clients.
The 7-Step Protocol for Embodying Emotion
The 7-Step Protocol for Embodying Emotion is one of the core clinical strategies in Integral Somatic Psychology™ (ISP™). It is particularly effective for working with clients who have a low capacity for tolerating emotions, with complex traumas, psychophysiological symptoms, and syndromes.
Find online or in-person training in our Training Schedule.
This blog post is an excerpt from the book The Practice of Embodying Emotions.
Damasio, A. R. (2005). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Penguin Books.
Damasio, A. R. (2004). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow and the feeling brain. New York: Vintage.
Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
Johnson, M. (2017). Embodied mind, meaning, and reason: How our bodies give rise to understanding. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Barrett, L. F. (2018). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Boston: Mariner Books.
Beilock, S. (2017). How the body knows its mind: The surprising power of the physical environment to influence how you think and feel. NewYork: Atria Books.
Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Colombetti, G.,& Thompson, E.(2008). The feeling body: Towards an enactive approach to emotion. In W. F. Overton, U. Muller, & J. L. Newman (Eds.), Developmental perspectives on embodiment and consciousness (pp. 45–68). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Niedenthal, P. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science, 316, 1002–1005. science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.1136930
Hufendiek, R. (2016). Embodied emotions: A naturalistic approach to a normative phenomenon. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
Swami, D. (1998). Introduction to Vedanta. New Delhi, India: Orient Paperbacks.
Sills, F. (2002). The polarity process: Energy as a healing art. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Sills, F. (2011). Foundations in craniosacral biodynamics. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.