How to Avoid Destroying Emotions when Tracking Body Sensations?
Summary: The paper explains how tracking of body sensations can eliminate emerging emotions and then offers ways of working more effectively with emotions in the body to improve not just emotional outcomes but also cognitive, behavioral, relational, and spiritual outcomes in all therapeutic modalities.
1. The Problem
1.1 How tracking body sensations can be helpful in body psychotherapy
Tracking of body sensations is becoming a popular tool for working with the body in psychotherapy. It is indeed a powerful technique. When the brain consciously tracks the body in great detail, two things happen at the same time. The brain receives more information about what is happening in the body and the brain allocates more higher-brain neurological resources to regulate the body. Therefore, conscious tracking of body sensations can be extremely effective in regulating the physiology. Given that clinical populations show increasing levels of physiological dysregulation, tools such as tracking of body sensations that promote regulation can be very useful in therapy.
Tracking of body sensations, because it regulates the body, can also undo the defenses in the body against emotions and make the emotions more available. And it can provide emotional regulation by stabilizing the body experiencing an overwhelming emotion. Therefore, tracking of body sensations can also be a useful tool in working with emotions.
1.2 How tracking body sensations can be hurtful in body psychotherapy
The more detailed the tracking of the body, the more the body gets regulated down to states of rest and relaxation. While these outcomes might be desirable for those who chronically suffer from high levels of arousal or other kinds of extreme dysregulation, they can destroy emerging emotions; and compromise the formation of relevant cognitions and behaviors in relation to those emotions. Approaches that use detailed tracking of body sensations as the primary tool appear to be unaware of this downside of the technique for a good reason: The scientific knowledge that sheds light on why detailed tracking of body sensations can destroy emerging emotions and compromise the formation of relevant cognitions and behaviors does not appear to be widely known even in body psychotherapy circles.
1.3 How emotions are generated in the body
According to the science of the physiology of emotions, pleasant emotions in the body are generated from placing different systems in the body (such as the muscular system and the autonomic nervous system) into states of regulation; and unpleasant emotions in the body are generated from placing them into varying states of dysregulation and stress (Damasio, 2003; Sapolsky, 1994). If you have trouble imagining this, think of the last time you fell in love and of the heartache you experienced from the subsequent breakup.
1.4 How emotions and sensations are related in the body
In the body, emotions are meaningful patterns of sensations. They can be likened to the picture of a woman carrying an umbrella in an impressionistic painting. The thousands of dots that make up the woman’s image can be likened to the individual sensations that are aggregated and mapped on a higher level in the brain (as the image of the woman with the umbrella). The brain constantly maps the body at different levels of detail (Damasio, 2004). In general, higher order maps such as emotions are theoretically easier to sense in the body than the lower order maps of individual sensations from which they are aggregated. However, it is psychologically harder to make emotions conscious than the sensations that make them up because emotional experiences need much inner and outer support.
1.5 How tracking sensations can interfere with emotions in the body
Detailed tracking of body sensations in a mindful (non-reactive) manner leads to the down regulation of the body. But unpleasant emotions in the body are by definition states of stress and dysregulation in the body. Therefore, it can be understood that resorting to tracking body sensations when difficult emotions arise can compromise, if not destroy, the very emotions as they are forming. This is akin to going so close to the impressionistic painting that one can see only the dots. The woman with an umbrella is no longer there. At times this is often misunderstood as having completed one’s work with emotions just because they are no longer there and the body is peaceful.
For the same reasons, the strategy of alternating the tracking of emotions and sensations and the strategy of tracking them both at the same time in the body can compromise work with emotions. It is akin to trying to turn up a flame and to turn it down at the same time while cooking something. In addition, our working memory capacity is rather limited. To appreciate the neurological difficulties involved in these strategies, just imagine holding the image of the woman with the umbrella and all the dots that make her up at the same time or quickly alternating between the two in your awareness.
1.6 How tracking sensations can damage sensorimotor emotions in particular?
Emotions have been classified into primary emotions such as happiness and sadness, secondary emotions that are combinations of primary emotions (such fear and shame mixing to form guilt), and sensorimotor emotions, psychologically meaningful body states such as feeling good and bad or attraction and revulsion psychologically in a situation. Sensorimotor affect states are more common than primary and secondary emotions. They can be likened to the trunk of the tree of affect with primary and secondary emotions likened to the leaves and the flowers. But sensorimotor affect states have been neglected in psychotherapy because psychotherapists have historically paid little attention to what is happening in the bodies of their clients.
Sensorimotor emotions require the tracking of body states in a meaningful way in relation to a situation. Detailed tracking of body sensations without attending to the meanings embedded in the form of sensorimotor emotions neglects important and more common aspects of emotional experience; and can destroy sensorimotor emotions even more than primary or secondary emotions because the latter are more understood and attended to in therapy. The loss of sensorimotor emotions is not only a significant loss of an important aspect of every emotional experience, its very base or trunk, but also carries the risk of the loss of primary and secondary emotions.
And, over time, detailed tracking of body sensations can become automatic response patterns to thwart the formation of emotions especially unpleasant ones. Detailed tracking can even become a learned defense against emotions as observed in systems that use detailed tracking of body sensations as a primary tool for working with the body. This, by the way, is also true of other tools that are used to regulate the body such as looking for good places in the body to soften bad experiences in other places. In fact, any tool for working with the body, such as touch, breath, tracking energy in and out of the body, voluntary or involuntary movement, and positive imagery or memory, will have the same effect if the intent behind their use is one of down regulation of the physiology.
Unfortunately, psychology appears to be increasingly in the grip of the psychiatric point of view that the resolution of psychological problems lies primarily in the regulation of the physiology. This tendency has also increased the use of tools such as detailed tracking of body sensations more for regulation (especially down-regulation) than for other purposes such as undoing defenses, accessing and supporting unconscious content, and developing a capacity in a person for the ups and downs of life, to resolve current symptoms as well as to develop resilience for the long run.
2. The Solution
2.1 How are emotions, body, and psychophysiological symptoms related?
Overwhelming emotions can shut the body down and lead to physical, cognitive, affective, behavioral, relational, and spiritual symptoms. And they can stress and dysregulate it towards psychophysiological (psychosomatic) symptoms. This is particularly true for unpleasant emotions that are, by definition, states of dysregulation and stress to begin with. It is often the inability to tolerate unpleasant emotions that shuts the body down or further stresses and dysregulates the body to cause psychosomatic (psychophysiological) symptoms, even serious ones such a chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. The Psychophysiologic Disorders Association in the US estimates that as many as two-thirds of symptoms for which people seek medical help are psychological in origin.
Psychologically, it is the ability to experience and tolerate an emotion that allows it to heal. It is when one can get to a place of sensing a heartache as something that one can live through that it becomes possible to keep one’s heart open for engaging others more fully in the future. It is when one can tolerate an emotion that one can stay with the information in the form of emotion long enough to process it cognitively and behaviorally. Otherwise, one might resort quickly to meaning making or acting out behaviorally as a defense against emotions.
The basic problem in psychotherapy, psychoneuroimmunology, and psychopathology is the lack of affect tolerance (Stolorow et al, 1995; Pert, 1999). The primary determinant of the outcomes of a person’s attempts to separate, differentiate, and individuate as well as an individual’s ability to relate to others and to the collective levels of one’s psyche is the capacity to tolerate opposites in one’s experience (Jung, 1960). The ability to grow personally as well as spiritually is constrained by a person’s inability to tolerate opposites in one’s experience. (Dayananda, 2002). And what often makes any psychological experience unbearable is the emotion associated with it.
2.2 How can the body be used as a container for emotions and for building affect tolerance?
The experience of an emotion can potentially involve the entirety of one’s brain and body physiology (Damasio, 2003; Pert, 1999). The whole body can therefore be used as a container for creating a greater capacity for experiencing and tolerating emotions over a longer period of time to heal them; and for generating more cognitive and behavioral information from the greater emotional information available for a longer period.
Some therapeutic and spiritual approaches do recommend ‘staying with’ uncomfortable experiences till they ‘transform’ as a strategy for healing. But just staying with an emotion wherever it shows up in the body does not necessarily lead to a greater quantity of it or a greater capacity for it. In fact, it can stress and dysregulate the body further and create psychophysiological symptoms. For example, one can develop respiratory or cardiovascular symptoms from ‘just staying with’ grief or heartache in the heart and lung areas where they often show up first. To avoid such risks, one needs to know how to increase, deepen, and expand the emotion in the body and, at the same time, regulate the body in such a way that the body does not get too dysregulated from the emotion or too regulated that the emotion is destroyed.
2.3 What is needed to work more effectively with emotions, cognitions, and behaviors through the body?
What is needed is a better way to work with emotions in the body. Emotions have to be supported psychologically on the inside and more importantly from the outside while the body is worked with in relation to them. Work with the body during an emotional experience has to able to undo the body’s defenses against emotions and make them easier to access for processing. It also has to be able to manage the extreme stress and dysregulation in the body so that the emotional experience is more bearable. At the same time, it has to ensure that the body is not excessively regulated so that the very emotional experience one is working with is not destroyed. Tools such as detailed tracking of body sensations that tend to regulate the physiology quickly either have to be avoided or used with due diligence so that they are not used at cross purposes when one is working with emotions.
Also, to work effectively with emotions through the body, one has to understand how emotions are generated and defended against in different layers (muscle, organ, and nervous system) of the body; how emotions are related to cognitions and behaviors; and what has to happen in a person’s process and body for emotions to heal and for emotions to be of further use in forming relevant cognitions and behaviors.
2.4 What do emotions have to do with cognition and behavior?
Availability of emotion improves a person’s behavior. Research shows that a person who has access to emotion is not only able to generate more relevant behavioral alternatives but is also better at choosing the best course of action to deal with a situation (Damasio, 1994).
Research also shows that embodiment of emotion, defined as expansion of emotion in the physiology, improves a person’s cognition about a situation (Niedenthal, 2007). That is, a person with emotions is better able to name the emotion and makes sense of the emotion by associating it to the appropriate context for it.
Longitudinal research in the UK has shown that children who are better at managing emotions do better as adults not only in their personal lives but also in their professional lives.
2.5 How can Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) help in working with emotions, cognitions, and behaviors?
Integral Somatic Psychology™ (ISP™) is based on affect theory, the science of the physiology of emotions, the science of the physiology of regulation, and principles of energy psychology. ISP offers a complementary approach for working with emotions using the body as a container to improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral outcomes in any therapeutic modality.
The core strategy in ISP is embodiment of emotional experiences. And, rather than rely on a more complex tool of detailed tracking of body sensations with its attendant problems, ISP uses simpler tools of self-touch by client, breath, and voluntary movement that are easier for both therapists and clients to adapt to across therapy settings.
2.6 How is embodiment of emotion defined in Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP)?
In the Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) approach, the ability to experience different emotions (primary, secondary, and sensorimotor) in as much of the body as possible and the ability to tolerate them as long as possible are defined as the two most important aspects of embodying emotions (with the ability to make sense of them and the ability to express them as its third and fourth aspects). Expanding and tolerating emotions in the body is a missing piece even in traditional body-oriented Reichian and Neo-Reichian psychotherapies. To learn more details about the theory and practice of this effective paradigm-shifting complementary approach, please visit integralsomaticpsychology.com.
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: Penguin Books.
Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Orlando, FL:Harcourt, Inc.
Dayananda, S. (2002). The teaching of the Bhagvad Gita. New Delhi: Vision Books.
Jung, C. G. (1960). The structure and dynamics of the psyche. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of Emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Niedenthal, P. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science (316), 1002-1005.
Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why Zebra’s don’t get ulcers. New York: Holt Paperbacks.
Stolorow, R., Brandchaft, B., & Atwood, G. E. (1995). The psychoanalytic treatment: An intersubjective approach. New York, NY: Routledge.