Embodiment of emotions, defined here as the ability to expand emotional experiences to as much of the brain and body physiology as possible and to tolerate them for longer periods of time, has theoretical as well as empirical evidence for its effectiveness in improving not only emotional but also physical, energetic, cognitive, behavioral, relational, and spiritual outcomes in all therapeutic and spiritual modalities.
The paper presents the theoretical rationale for embodying emotions based on the knowledge of the physiology of emotion, the physiology of biological regulation, and of the relationship between the two, empirical evidence for the multiple benefits of emotional embodiment, and how one can go about embodying emotions so that emotional overwhelm does not lead to pathology on the one hand and physiological regulation does not destroy emerging emotions on the other.
The paper first addresses the importance of emotions, the different ways in which they are currently worked with in diverse therapeutic modalities, why unpleasant emotions are physiologically difficult to experience and tolerate, why it is difficult to embody emotions without working with the brain and body physiology especially the body physiology, and then discusses how to embody emotions more completely, precisely, and with less difficulty to improve diverse outcomes in all therapeutic modalities.
On the importance of emotion in therapy
Emotions are at the core of the work in most psychotherapeutic approaches.
There is almost always an emotional difficulty, something that is unbearable or no longer bearable, behind the symptoms that motivate people to seek therapy. It is therefore not surprising that most psychotherapeutic approaches work under the assumption that the processing of difficult emotional experiences or the factors driving them is necessary for resolving the presenting symptoms. There is increasing evidence that emotions, their expansion in the brain and body physiology, and the ability to tolerate them lead to improved cognition (Niedenthal, 2007; Colombetti & Thompson, 2008), behavior (Damasio, 1994), resilience (Stolorow, Brandchaft, and Atwood, 1995), individuation (Jung, 1960), personal as well as professional life outcomes (Khan, 2013; Goodman, Joshi, Nasim, & Tyler, 2015), and spiritual growth (Dayananda, 2002). Therapeutic modalities, however, differ with respect to the emphasis they place on emotions and the mix of strategies they use for working with them.
Common strategies for working with emotions
What follows is attempt, for analytical purposes, to separate and describe the various strategies that are often employed in working with emotions across therapeutic modalities. The different strategies address different aspects of the work with emotions and they are often used in combination. Please note that the strategies are not mutually exclusive in that they can be easily seen to have shared components. For example, the use of the strategy of making a client aware of the presence of an emotion to have the client experience it more consciously is implied in the strategy of helping the client to develop a greater capacity for tolerating the emotion.
Often, when an emotion continues to be a problem, it needs to be worked with in more than one way for the resolution of the difficulty it poses. It might be necessary for example to get the client not only to experience the emotion but also to express it. Also, the ways in which an emotion is worked with in a client is often determined by the developmental deficits the client has in relation to the emotion. For example, some clients might need more understanding of their emotions than their experience or expression. The strategy chosen might also be determined by how the emotion is involved in the client’s difficulty. For example, if the emotion were a conditional stimulus in an addictive process, it would make sense to contain the addictive behavior (the conditional response) to prevent it from reinforcing the conditional stimulus, the emotion. If the intolerability of emotion were seen as the cause of the addictive behavior instead, it would make more sense to create a greater capacity to tolerate the emotion so that the person does not have to defend against it by engaging in a defensive addictive behavior such as overeating. As addictive processes have been viewed as a conditioning problem or an affect tolerance problem or both by different orientations to therapy, it makes sense that there are different strategies to work with the emotion to cover the different possibilities. For all of the above reasons, therapeutic approaches usually employ a number of these strategies to work with emotions even though they often differ with respect to the emphasis they place on one strategy versus the other. For example, some place the emphasis on understanding of emotions, some on the experience, and others on their expression. A description of the common strategies used in therapy to work with emotions follows.
Emotions are at times just resolved through increasing the awareness that they are either there or potentially there, helping clients to generate them when they are not there, and to have clients simply experience them. Providing clients with the needed education, validation, and support does this. If emotions are not there, it is often because the client’s history did not foster their development. At times, it takes considerable time and effort on the part of both therapist and client to develop a capacity for emotional experiences in the client. This is often the core of the work in many psychotherapy approaches. Some approaches regress their clients more than others in order to access and work with emotions. Body oriented approaches work with the body defenses against emotions to gain access to them.
Emotions are at times resolved through just the understanding that is brought to them: What emotions are there and what contexts they belong to. That it is unmet longing and that it belongs to the past in relation to one’s mother and not to the present in relation to one’s wife can determine whether the marriage is headed towards healing and growth or divorce and reenactment. At times, emotions are changed through changing cognitions in the form of beliefs and meanings that are seen to be driving them. One criticism that has been leveled at many mainstream approaches to psychotherapy is that they tend to emphasize the understanding of emotions more than the experiencing and deepening of the emotions.
At times, emotions are healed through repeatedly exposing clients to the situations, memories, or triggers that stimulate them, as in exposure therapy in the cognitive behavioral therapy tradition. Emotions are at times also resolved by containing the defensive behaviors they are associated with so that the emotions are not compulsively acted out as in addictive processes such as overeating. This makes sense where emotions are conditional stimuli triggering pathological conditional responses subject to the principles of classical conditioning.
Emotions are at times healed through expressing them appropriately in therapy or life, the expression in some approaches more cathartic than in others. Emotions at times are resolved by acting on them appropriately as when one engages in an act of reparation when one experiences guilt for wrongdoing or removes oneself from an emotionally damaging relationship.
Emotions and the symptoms they cause are at times resolved or managed through regulation of the brain or body physiology. This is done through medication, meditation, nutrition, exercise, bodywork, energy work, or some other technique when it is clear or is believed that the emotional problem has as its cause either deficits or dysregulation in the brain or body physiology. Given the increasing level of physiological dysregulation and stress observed in the clients of today, and the increasing dominance of the psychopharmacological approach of psychiatry that tends to diagnose and treat most psychological problems including emotional disturbances with the assumption that physiological dysfunction is their cause, the whole filed of psychology appears to be oriented now more than ever in the direction of regulation of the brain or body physiology as a dominant strategy for dealing with emotional as well as other psychological disturbances. And this tendency towards regulation of the physiology as a primary strategy to solve psychological problems appears to have recruited even the emerging approaches in psychology that incorporate the body or energy more in their work.
Because all psychological experiences have the brain and body physiology as their origin or basis, no coherent psychological experience can emerge when they are extremely dysregulated. Therefore, it makes sense that regulation of the brain and body physiology in a situation where it is quite dysregulated can improve therapeutic work with all aspects of psychological experience such cognition, emotion, and behavior. However, excessive regulation of the brain and body physiology can be counter-productive in psychological work. Please read the article How to avoid destroying emotions when tracking body sensations to understand how this might happen.
In addition to the above, therapeutic modalities might also be found to be employing the strategy of staying with an emotion as long as it is necessary to transform it or the strategy of developing a greater capacity to tolerate emotions especially difficult emotions. Please note that the building of capacity for an emotion would help in staying with the emotion as long as necessary for it to transform and staying with an emotion as long as necessary till it transforms would increase the capacity to tolerate the emotion involved. However closely related, these two strategies are not exactly the same as they have different intents. These two strategies will be explored in greater depth after the relationship between the capacity to tolerate an emotion and resilience are discussed.
Emotions, the capacity to tolerate them, and resilience
In the work with emotions in a given situation, a combination of above strategies is typically employed as the different strategies address different aspects of the work with emotions necessary for their resolution. However, to successfully work with any of the above strategies, including the simple strategy of just getting the client to become aware of an emotion that is there, an individual must have some capacity to experience and tolerate the emotion involved. Conversely, successful work with any aspect of emotional work, including just getting a client to just notice or understand an emotion that is present, can be expected to increase the capacity in the client to face and tolerate the emotion to some extent in the future. However, if the difficulty with an emotion is the lack of capacity to tolerate it, as some modalities believe is more often the case, one should develop in the client an adequate capacity to tolerate it at the level of intensity it occurs for it not to become a problem again. Only then can the client be seen as resilient to a particular emotional experience such as grief. Here, the term resilience in relation to an emotion is understood as the ability not to form symptoms from the emotion in the future or the ability to resolve sooner than later any symptom that forms from the emotion.
The importance of the building of capacity to tolerate difficult emotional experiences, one aspect of the work with emotions, the last strategy described above, is emphasized as extremely important if not the most important determinant of an individual’s psychological health in psychoanalysis Stolorow, Brandchaft, and Atwood (1995). The ability to tolerate opposites in human experience, especially at the unpleasant end of the continuum, is considered to be the primary determinant of the psychological development of an individual in the analytical psychology of Jung (1960). The capacity to tolerate opposites in experience is also considered to be one of the important if not the most important determinant of an individual ability to grow spiritually Dayananda (2002). (It is important to note that no matter what the nature of an unbearable experience is, it could be a cognition or a behavior, it is ultimately unbearable because the emotion associated with it is unbearable). And, because there is adequate scientific evidence that emotional information improves cognitive, behavioral, and personal as well as professional outcomes, when emotions are more embodied (more of an emotion is generated over a wider area in the brain and body physiology and there is a greater capacity to tolerate it and therefore stay with it over a longer period), the brain has more information in the form of emotion and more time to process it to improve all aspects of an individual’s life and experience.
While all the ways or strategies of working with emotions discussed above can increase the capacity to tolerate emotions to a greater or lesser extent, the strategy of simply staying with an emotion till it transforms and the strategy of building a greater capacity for tolerating the emotion are most aligned with the goals of developing greater affect tolerance or a greater capacity for tolerating opposites in human experience. Let us look more closely at each of these two strategies, the difficulties in implementing them, the reasons behind those difficulties, and what additional information, strategies, and methods we can to add to the current work being done with emotions across therapeutic modalities so that a greater capacity to tolerate more of an emotion over a longer period of time can be accomplished more effectively and efficiently and with less resistance and difficulty.
On the strategy of simply staying with an emotion till it transforms
Emotions or the symptoms they cause are at times resolved through the simple act of staying with the involved emotions for as long as they take. This at times is described as accepting and embracing one’s emotional state and staying with it till it transforms into something else. Of all the strategies described, this one along with the more proactive strategy of developing a greater capacity to tolerate emotional experiences appear to have the most potential for developing long term capacity for tolerating difficult emotional experiences. However, the strategy of just staying with an emotion in itself does not offer further guidance as to how to manage the intensity of emotional experiences that might be involved including experiences of decompensation that therapists dread for a good reason. Also, for reasons that will become clear later, just staying with an emotion where it emerges, grief in the chest area for example, can not only make the experience of grief more intolerable but also dysregulate the physiology there to create serious psychophysiological symptoms such as asthma. Therefore, it is understandable that it is not the strategy that is most readily employed in many therapy settings without resorting to expression or meaning making for relief. And when it is employed, the lack of guidelines as to how to be with it safely and productively without overwhelm or decompensation can limit the effectiveness of this strategy.
On the strategy of proactively increasing the capacity to tolerate emotions
Any work with emotions, whether the work involves the body or not, can potentially increase the capacity to experience and tolerate emotions. However, few approaches proactively go for the building of capacity to tolerate emotional experiences in clients especially unpleasant ones as an explicit clinical strategy to help their clients. This makes sense given the innate and psychological resistance to unpleasant emotions in the population at large and that few psychotherapeutic approaches nowadays emphasize in their training the need to build a greater capacity to tolerate emotional experiences.
When emotional experiences become extremely hard to bear, they are ultimately experiences that are intolerable in the brain or body physiology especially in the latter. However, most approaches neglect the body and its role in emotional experience thereby limiting their effectiveness in working with emotions as well as in developing a greater capacity to tolerate them.
Approaches that do work with the body in relation to emotional experiences are in a better position to develop a greater capacity to tolerate emotions through the greater container of the body. However, approaches that work with the body tend to either down-regulate the body to down-regulate emotions or work with defenses in the body against emotions in order to access them. When they work with emotions, they tend to emphasize the expression of emotions over their experience, cathartically or otherwise. Even when they are oriented towards building a greater capacity for tolerating emotions without externalizing them through expression, the lack of adequate understanding of the physiology of emotions, the physiology of regulation, and the relationship between the two limits their ability in developing a greater capacity for emotions for reasons that will become clear later on.
The proactive strategy of developing a capacity to tolerate difficult emotions might involve greater risks of emotional overwhelm and decompensation than the more passive strategy of just staying with an emotion till it transforms if there is inadequate understanding of how to regulate the body during emotional experiences to minimize these risks. Because of this and the lack of understanding of all the benefits of building a greater capacity to tolerate emotions for a longer period of time through the larger container of the body, it makes sense that the therapists tend to use the proactive strategy of developing a greater capacity to tolerate an emotion even less than the more passive strategy of staying with an emotion till it transforms.
Let us now turn to a discussion of important concepts and findings from the literature on emotions, their physiology, and their embodiment and from the literature on the physiology of biological regulation to understand why embodying emotions, expanding them in as much of the brain and body physiology as possible, and developing a capacity to tolerate them over a longer period, makes sense. To start with, let us look more closely at the concept of the capacity to tolerate an emotion.
What is the capacity to tolerate an emotion?
Embodying an emotion is to be able to expand the emotion as much as possible in the brain and body physiology and to be able to tolerate it for a longer period. The capacity to tolerate an emotion is highly variable in the population. The capacity to tolerate an emotion can be thought of in terms of the level of the emotion and how long a person can stay with the emotion. How high the level of emotion needs to be and how long a person needs to stay with it for the resolution of current symptom or for resilience in the long run vary by individual.
Both the level of emotion and the time spent with an emotion can be managed to reduce the risks of emotional overwhelm and decompensation with psychological strategies as well as physiological strategies that balance the deepening of emotion and the regulation of the physiology, strategies that are based on the understanding of the physiology of emotion, the physiology of regulation, and of the relationship between the two. These strategies can also be used to embody an emotion superficially or deeply in the physiology depending on the capacity of the individual. Because symptoms form at different thresholds in terms of the level of emotion and its duration across individuals, some individuals require lower levels of emotion and its duration than others for symptom resolution.
For example, in one client all that I had to do was to get her to tolerate a low level of the emotion of grief in her upper chest area and then in the facial area for not a long period of time for her symptoms of asthma to improve significantly. In another client with the symptom of panic attacks, it took working with a high level of fear expanded into almost every part of the physiology for a much longer period, more than forty minutes, for the symptom to shift. In yet another client with the symptom of migraine, someone who nearly died as a child in an electrocution, it took a high level of terror as well as a long period of time in addition to inhibiting her from discharging her fear through tears to get rid of the symptom altogether. These examples illustrate that the necessary capacity that needs to be built to tolerate an experience, in terms of time, level of emotion, and extent of expansion in the body for symptom resolution varies with the individual. These examples also illustrate the efficiency with which embodying emotions can deliver symptom resolution.
Why are unpleasant emotional experiences difficult to accept and tolerate?
The capacity to tolerate an emotion, especially a difficult one, is not easily acquired. This is because the experience of an unpleasant emotion is generated in the brain or body physiology through stressing and dysregulating it in the first place (Sapolsky, 1994; Pert, 1999, Damasio, 2003). Because our life-preserving, unconscious, and involuntary brain circuits are oriented towards the lessening of stress and dysregulation in the brain and body physiology at all times, there is an unconscious and involuntary resistance that is innate in all of us to unpleasant emotions.
This is what Freud (Laplance & Pontalis, 1998) wrote about when he pointed out that in every healthy organism there is an aversion to pain and an orientation towards pleasure (the two aspects of the pleasure principle). In addition to this universal innate resistance, individuals might have acquired any number of cues from their family, culture, and education that form the basis of an individual’s psychological resistance to even generating and experiencing an unpleasant emotion let alone develop an adequate capacity to be with it for a period of time.
Pleasant emotional experiences, on the other hand, because their generation involves the lessening of stress and dysregulation in the brain and body physiology, do not involve the innate resistance that unpleasant emotions run into. Any resistance to pleasant emotional experiences is often psychological in nature. An example of such resistance can be from a family environment that for some reason does not allow the expression of positive emotions such as happiness.
How are emotions generated in the brain and body physiology? And how are they defended against?
We have already seen the major finding that unpleasant emotions are generated in the brain and body physiology by dysregulating and stressing them to a greater or lesser degree and the pleasant emotional experiences are generated by regulating and reducing the stress in them. Specifically, there are a number of ways in which the brain and body physiology is involved in generating as well as defending against emotions. Integral Somatic Psychology™ (ISP™) has identified seven general mechanisms through which the brain and physiology can be involved in generating as well as defending against emotions that account for all of the major findings from universities and body psychotherapy systems to date.
One of the other major findings on the physiology emotions that we will discuss later on is that emotions, especially those that persist or are overwhelming, eventually involve the entire brain and body physiology. Unpleasant emotions, because they are generated through stressing the brain and body physiology, are inherently painful. Individuals vary in their capacity to tolerate them and often employ a host of psychological and physiological defenses to manage them or avoid generating them or experiencing them. Physiological defenses attempt to minimize the experience of a difficult emotion by reducing the involvement of the brain and body physiology in as many places as possible and at times succeed in eliminating it altogether. One common defense is the constriction of the breathing muscles in order to reduce the intensity of an emotional experience.
Physiological defenses against emotions are not without consequences. They compromise the functioning of the physiology in not just the area that is overtly involved. For example, the constriction of breathing muscles can compromise the functioning of the entire organism as it disturbs the vital biological function of breathing. People who use the constriction of breathing muscles as a defense against emotions can end up with not just respiratory symptoms such difficulty in breathing but also symptoms in other vital organs such as the heart (bradycardia or slow heart beat) or for that matter symptoms in any other part of the physiology. For example, symptoms in the extremities such as a general weakness in one’s legs and arms or cold hands and feet can form from the cardiovascular function being compromised by the disturbances in one’s respiratory function introduced by the defense against an emotion.
How physiological defenses against an emotion in some areas of the physiology can end up making the experience of that emotion even more difficult to tolerate in other areas they are generated
The ‘shutting down’ of the physiology to the extent necessary to eliminate the experience of a difficult emotion, when it is not entirely successful, can paradoxically make the experience of the emotion even more unbearable in the areas they cannot be completely eliminated from. This is because any dysfunction introduced in the brain and body physiology through physiological defenses against the emotion in any area is likely to decrease the overall functioning of the entire organism.
There is an intricate inter-dependence of different parts of the physiology in maintaining the overall health and wellbeing of the organism. Unimpeded nervous system flows and blood flows among the various parts of the physiology are essential for maintaining the optimal overall biological functioning of the organism. Shutting down parts of the physiology, by compromising the critical nervous system flows and blood flows among the constituents of the physiology, reduce the overall health and function of the entire organism.
Any reduction in the overall functioning of the organism implies an increase in the base level of stress and dysregulation throughout the organism. And this makes the experience of an unpleasant emotion which by definition is a state of stress and dysregulation all the more unbearable in the limited area of the physiology it is generated in because the overall physiology is already on a higher base level of stress and dysregulation due to the defenses in other areas. Generating an unpleasant emotion in some areas while other areas of the brain and body physiology are defending against it is akin to placing an extra load on a person who is already struggling with the current load he or she is carrying. In general, the more the level of stress and dysregulation involved in an experience such as emotion, the more innately unbearable it becomes. In this case, the stress and dysregulation involved in generating an emotion in an area is in addition to the overall stress and dysregulation that the area is already experiencing from the shutting down of other parts of the inter-dependent physiology to defend against the emotion.
There is an additional reason why the generation of an unpleasant emotion in a limited area of the body is more unbearable than if it were generated in more widely. We have already seen how the overall stress and dysregulation in an area in which the emotion is generated from the shutting down of other areas of the physiology can make the experience more intolerable and increase the innate resistance to the generation of the emotion in that area. This often leads to an activation of defenses also in the limited areas in which the emotion is being generated to reduce the suffering which further can further increases the stress and dysregulation not only in the area but also throughout the inter-dependent physiology. This offers a scientific physiological explanation for a statement that is often heard in the processing of emotions that half the difficulty or suffering in an emotional experience is on account of the resistance to it.
Why are emotions important? And why can they not be shut down altogether?
Why not shut down emotions altogether? The conventional wisdom has been that emotions are irrational, opposed to reason, and therefore of no function (Damasio, 1994). One reason why they cannot be eliminated altogether might be that the environment is constantly cueing its generation and therefore cannot be completely avoided. Another reason might be that the physiological consequence of eliminating an emotion by shutting down the physiology can be quite severe, causing a serious symptom such as chronic fatigue. That is often the reason, the need to avoid a more serious and debilitating physical symptom, why it appears that a combination of psychological and physiological defenses and not just physiological defenses are used to manage or eliminate a difficult emotional experience.
More fundamental reasons why emotions cannot be shut down altogether
As we have already seen, there is a more important reason why emotions cannot be shut down entirely in the long run: Because it would compromise the cognitive, affective, and behavioral functions of an individual with physical, energetic, relational, and spiritual consequences in personal as well as professional lives of an individual. We have already seen, and it is worth repeating because it is not so well known, that accumulated research on emotion and behavior, emotion and cognition, emotion and its embodiment, and emotion and personal and professional life outcomes, offer adequate scientific evidence that emotion is critical for optimal functioning not only in the affective realm but also in the cognitive and behavioral realms, in not only one’s personal but also the professional side of one’s life. That is, emotion as information appears to be critical for optional functioning in all aspects and areas of one’s life. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that they cannot be shut down in the long run without serious consequences. Emotions and their embodiment as a clinical strategy can therefore help in not only resolving emotional problems but also cognitive and behavioral problems even in therapeutic modalities such as cognitive or behavioral therapies that are not overtly focused on emotions.
Returning to the discussion of important findings from physiology of emotions
The strange fact about the field of the physiology of emotions is that there are still scientists who continue believe that an emotion has nothing to do with the body and that the body is only involved in responding to an emotion after it is generated exclusively in the brain and because the role and behavior of an emotional experience in the body is not widely known. Even though it would be admittedly difficult to separate in the body the sensations of the emotion from the sensations that belong to the behavioral response to the emotion, the claim that all the sensations belong only to the behavior contradicts cumulative theory, evidence, as well as common everyday experience of the role of the body in emotional experiences. These scientists believe that emotion is generated only in the brain and that the body is never involved in the generation of an emotion but only in doing something to deal with the emotion.
The separation of the experience of an emotion from the experience of a behavior is philosophically difficult to justify. There is always an emotion driving a behavior when the definition of emotion is expanded beyond primary and secondary emotions to include sensorimotor emotions such as the feeling of wanting to do something or not wanting to do something leading some to informally point out the word ‘motion’ in ‘e-motion’ as evidence that the two are inseparable. More formally, the inseparability of emotion and behavior is admitted theoretically in the literature by the admission that there is always an emotional component in every behavior. It turns out, as Sapolsky (2017) points out in his more recent book, that the strict separation of cognition and emotion is not scientifically tenable either.
Because the knowledge of the role of the body in emotional experience is not well known and because we intend to use that knowledge to help develop a greater capacity for emotion through the larger body container, we again look at findings on the physiology of emotions in the brain and the body this time by specific researchers to educate ourselves and others on the importance of the body in relation to emotions to develop methods for embodying emotions, to expand them in the body and develop a capacity to tolerate them over a longer period, as a core strategy for improving emotional as well as cognitive and behavioral outcomes in all therapeutic modalities.
Damasio (2003), a neurologist specializing in the physiology of emotions, offers evidence of how emotional processes are generated in the brain and body physiology starting at the level of the individual cell in terms of basic experiences such as attraction and aversion. Pert (1999), a molecular scientist who was the first to locate opioid receptors in the brain, reports the finding that an emotional experience, regardless of its origin in the brain or the body, ends up involving the entire brain and body physiology in a very short period of time. Recent empirical studies (Nummenma, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K., 2013 & 2016) across diverse cultures such as Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan on the physiology of emotions also suggest the involvement of the entire body physiology in the experience of a number of basic emotions.
The findings that the entire brain and body physiology is involved or can be involved in an emotional experience suggest that the defensive act of shutting it down in places can have adverse consequences for the processing of it for a number of reasons. One, from the information point of view, information in the form of emotion from different parts of the brain and body physiology might not be fully available for it to be processed adequately. Two, from the flow point of view, it might obstruct the processing of emotion by blocking its natural flow if any through the entirety of the organism’s physiology. Three, from the stimulation point of view, the impulse behind an emotion, because it is constrained and concentrated in one or few areas of the physiology by the body defenses, can excessively stimulate those limited areas, excessively stress and dysregulate them, making it harder to tolerate and process the emotional experience. And four, as we have seen earlier, the very act of shutting down parts of the physiology to deal with an unpleasant emotion can increase the overall level of stress and dysregulation throughout the organism which can add additional difficulty to generating and processing an unpleasant emotional experience in any part of the physiology, whether or not that part is being excessively stimulated by the impulse behind the emotion.
The findings presented above, that emotions can potentially involve the entirety of the brain and body physiology, that physiological defenses against them in some places can not only limit the more complete generation and experience of emotions but also make it more difficult to tolerate the emotions that are generated in a few places, that emotions and their embodiment are important for not only resolving emotional but also cognitive and behavioral difficulties, and that the capacity for emotions and their management have been shown to improve the likelihood of long-term success not only in personal but also professional lives, constitute the scientific basis for developing clinical strategies for working with emotions and embodying them to improve emotional as well as cognitive and behavioral outcomes in all therapeutic modalities.
Possible benefits of the clinical strategy of expanding the physiology to expand the emotional experience through the larger body container
For me, the findings presented above and their implications led to the important insight that the strategy of expanding the brain and body physiology to expand the generation and experience of emotions on a larger terrain of the brain and body physiology can offer a number of benefits.
One, emotions can be paradoxically experienced as more tolerable and easier to be with than when they are defended against in many places and generated only in a few places.
Two, because they involve a lower level of stress and dysregulation than when they are generated in a few places, the innate resistance to them is likely to less.
Three, when the innate resistance to the generation and experience of unpleasant emotions is less, any psychological resistance to those emotions is likely to be weakened making it easier to work with them to get them out of the way.
Four, because the expanded emotions are more tolerable to be with, people are likely to be able to stay with them for a longer period of time. This implies the development of a greater capacity for tolerating emotions especially difficult emotions, a capacity that is essential to some degree for contacting and working with emotions in any way including just getting someone to just generate them in the first place.
Five, the capacity to tolerate difficult emotional experiences also offers individuals greater resilience in the long run to those emotional experiences so that they are less likely to shut down and form symptoms from them or more likely recover from them quickly when they do.
Six, because they are able to generate, experience, and tolerate more of the emotion over a longer period of time, more psychological information in the form of emotion is available to the brain for processing over a longer period of time, increasing the likelihood of improvement in affective as well as cognitive and behavioral outcomes.
Seven, because an emotion is always a motive force in any behavioral impulse, the availability of more emotion over a longer period of time will increase the likelihood that the behavior will manifest. Also, the ability to tolerate an emotion behind a behavioral impulse over a longer period of time is likely to reduce the likelihood of it being acted out inappropriately.
Eight, the ability to tolerate difficult emotions and not act them out inappropriately and the ability to be with them for a longer period to examine them cognitively as to their sources can improve relational outcomes to a great extent.
Nine, the ability to tolerate opposites has been identified as extremely important for individuation or personal growth and differentiation in Jungian psychology.
And ten, the ability to tolerate opposites in emotional experience especially unpleasant experiences in life has been identified by many approaches as an important attribute for spiritual development.
Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) and the strategy of emotional embodiment
Emotional embodiment, the expansion of emotion in as much of the physiology as possible, deeply or superficially depending on capacity of the client, and the development of capacity to tolerate the emotion for a longer period is a core clinical strategy in the Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP), an approach I have developed to improve outcomes all therapeutic modalities, an approach that is now taught in over a dozen countries around the world.
In order to embody emotions more fully in as much of the physiology as possible, ISP works with the not widely known knowledge of the physiology of emotions and other psychological experiences from universities and body psychotherapy traditions, knowledge of how each layer of the body, muscle, organ, and nervous system generate as well as defend against emotions and other psychological experiences. It uses simple tools such as self-touch and movement rather than the more complex tools such as the tracking of body sensations, to make it easier for therapists with diverse clinical orientations to help their clients embody emotions more easily. It also uses a simple model of self-regulation based on blood flows and nervous system flows to regulate the body during emotional work so that emerging emotions are not destroyed by too much regulation and too much emotion does not result in overwhelm, decompensation, and psychophysiological disorders. ISP also focuses on all the ways in which emotions can be supported, evoked, and sustained over a period of time. In order to work with emotional experiences more completely, ISP, in addition to working with primary and secondary emotions, also works with the more frequent and the easier to track sensorimotor emotions that are more the phenomena of the body than the brain. Because energy psychology offers additional ways of improving the embodiment of emotions over and above the work with the physical body discussed in this paper, ISP uses the findings from Eastern energy psychology on the role of the energy body in generating as well as defending against emotions to further improve the embodiment of emotions in the physical body. Key findings on the role of the energy body in emotional experience are presented in an appendix below. Those interested in details and examples of the ISP approach can find it in an easy to read conversational style article titled What is Integral Somatic Psychology? A Conversation with Raja Selvam.
The role of energy in emotion and its embodiment
Eastern psychology also supports the findings that an emotional experience is potentially a global experience that can involve the entire organism and the shutting down of parts of the brain and body physiology can make it harder to process an emotion. In Eastern energy psychology, the physical as well psychological experiences of a person are theorized to arise from the ongoing interaction between two bodies, called the individual gross and subtle bodies. The individual gross body is what we call the physical body. This is usually the only body that science and mainstream psychology imagine as the underpinning of all of our experiences. We know from quantum physics that our physical body exists at the quantum level at the level of sub-atomic particles such as fermions and bosons as well as the non-quantum level in the form of aggregate forms of matter such as neurons, muscle, bone cells and the aggregates they form. In the terminology of Eastern psychology, the quantum level of our physical body is the subtle level of the individual gross body and the non-quantum level of our physical body the gross level of the individual gross body.
The individual subtle body of Eastern psychology is what energy work approaches often call the energy body. In line with Einstein’s understanding that all matter is energy, Eastern psychology uses the term the individual subtle body rather than the energy body to refer to an additional body of the individual that exists only at the quantum level in order to not misunderstand that matter and energy are two different things. According to Eastern psychology, the individual subtle body is the source of all impulses that eventually become our physical as well as psychological experiences. This quantum level subtle body interacts with the quantum level of the gross body to stimulate physiological and psychological experiences in the individual gross body or the physical body.
If an experience become difficult to have or to tolerate, defenses form in the subtle body that in turn create patterns of defense in the gross body to manage the experience or defend against it altogether. And because the shutting down parts of the gross body to defend against psychological experiences compromise the overall functioning of the physiology and increase the level of stress and dysregulation throughout, subtle body defenses that in turn lead to gross body defenses leave the individual gross body less capable physiologically and psychologically.
Subtle body defenses take the form of energy imbalances where energy is concentrated in some places and depleted in others (Sills, 1989). Places where energy is concentrated as well those where energy is lacking can be defensive in their function and the corresponding areas in the physiology of the gross body usually show higher levels of dysfunction, stress, and dysregulation. When the energy concentration in an area is not for defensive purposes, as when the energy is being used to hold or constrict the area from performing its function, the heightened stimulation of the area in the physical body from the high level of energy there can lead to excessive functioning of the area as well a higher level of stress and dysregulation and potential dysfunction there, as a consequence.
For example, the energy from the heart center can get concentrated in the chest and the head areas and depleted in the lower leg area in the individual subtle body in order to manage an overwhelming feeling of grief. The concentration of energy in the head and chest areas will tend to stimulate those areas excessively making the experience of grief even more intolerable there even when much of the energy concentration in the chest and head areas might be also serving the defensive purpose of inhibiting those areas to reduce the experience of grief. The concentration of energy towards the head might also result in a pattern of excessive stimulation of the brain that can manifest as dominance of cognition over emotion in relation to the experience of grief or even the concentration of the experience of grief more in the brain than in the rest of the body. Interestingly, empirical research (Marcher & Fich, 2010) into the psychological functions of voluntary muscles in Bodynamic Analysis, a body psychotherapy system from Denmark, has identified the muscles of the lower leg area as having to do with the balance between cognition and emotion in relation to an experience!
According to Eastern energy psychology, an even balance in the distribution of energy in the subtle body is important not only for a balanced stimulation of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral experiences in the gross body. It is also needed to ensure that one part of the gross body is not excessively stimulated, stressed, or dysregulated by the uneven distribution of energy in the subtle body. When the energy thus concentrated excessively stimulates an area in the gross body to generate an unpleasant emotional experience, that area would be subject to a higher level of the emotion and therefore stress and dysregulation over and above the stress and dysregulation that would be involved in creating the emotional experience there if the energy were more balanced in its stimulation of the gross body in generating that emotional experience.
Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) uses simple maps of different kinds of energy of the not so easy to observe and measure individual subtle body superimposed on the more observable and measurable physical body and simple tools such as movement and self-touch to work with the defenses against emotions and other psychological experiences in the subtle body to balance the energies in the energy body as well as the physical body to increase the embodiment of emotions in the physical body of the individual as well as to regulate it when necessary. Because the capacity to tolerate opposites in experience especially unpleasant emotions is important to ensure the health of the energy body and its relationship to the physical body, those working in the field of energy psychology can improve the work they do by embodying at the physical level emotional and other psychological experiences they stimulate in their clients at the energetic level through Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP).
For training opportunities visit the ISP Professional Training page.
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