Integral Somatic Psychology : New Approach to Anxiety Management
Anxiety, when it is not caused by a medical condition, is usually an intense fear that something bad is going to happen to us on the outside or the inside: Of losing one’s job or partner, becoming ill, or the emergence of an unacceptable pleasant emotion such as sexuality or an unbearable unpleasant emotion such as sadness.
Anxiety is effectively treated through different methods: Psychotherapy approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, breathing techniques, and psychiatric medication. Most of these methods have as their goal the elimination of the experience of anxiety, understandable because of how difficult it can be. Therefore, the prescription of expanding the experience of anxiety to as much of the body as possible as a long-term solution to anxiety might sound crazy!
It turns out there are many scientific reasons why it works. We will see what they are later. Expanding the experience of anxiety to as much of the body as possible can increase one’s ability to tolerate it and stay with it for a longer period. When this becomes possible, the brain has more time to analyze the situation that is causing the anxiety to make more sense of it and for finding more ways to deal with it, thus helping the person to deal more effectively with the situation and manage if not eliminate the suffering caused by the anxiety.
So, next time you experience anxiety, try to do the following: Look for a place in the body (the chest, for example) where you are experiencing anxiety. Then, try to spread it more in the same area. You can put a hand on the chest to help spread the anxiety there. Then, make a sound of fear to express the anxiety vocally. This will help the emotion to expand in the area you first found it and also help in expanding it to other places in the body.
Vocal expression, by triggering non-verbal expression, helps to expand the emotion to more places in the body. Also, you can place one hand on the place where you find the anxiety (the chest, for example) and the other hand on a place where there is no anxiety or only a trace of it (the abdomen, for example) and watch both places at the same time to observe the anxiety spreading from the chest to the abdomen. This is because of the second law of energy which states that two places that are connected by awareness, needles, or touch tend to connect in energy as well as experience.
From time to time, notice how the expansion of anxiety to more places in the body makes it more tolerable to be with the difficult emotion from time to time; and how the body and energy steadily improve with the increasing capacity to tolerate the emotion.
Using these methods, try to expand the anxiety to as much of the body as possible. If it becomes difficult, turn your attention to how the expansion has improved your body and energy, such as improvements in your breathing or expansion of the energy in the body, due to the greater capacity to tolerate the anxiety that you have helped to create by expanding the anxiety to more places in the body. Also, notice if there are changes in the way you understand the situation that is causing the anxiety and in the ways you think you can handle it.
Notice how these observations in turn help you to manage or reduce your anxiety. Repeat this cycle as many times as necessary giving yourself enough breaks in between. The breaks can be as long as you need them to be. They give your brain the time to integrate the work you have done. Please take care to stop the practice if it does not work for you and makes the anxiety worse. Either the method does not work for you, no method works for everyone, or you might need the support of a professional to make it work.
This method can be used to work with any emotional experience, not just anxiety: Pleasant emotional experiences such as happiness and pleasure and unpleasant emotional experiences such as sadness and pain. Also, when no emotional experiences are apparent, we can work with the most basic emotional experiences of just feeling bad or good. These are easy for people to access. And when we develop a capacity for these very basic emotional experiences that are easy to find in everyone, by expanding them to more of the body, it turns out that the more refined emotions such as happiness and sadness often emerge on their own.
This is because happiness and sadness have as their foundations the basic emotional experiences of feeling good and bad. So, it makes sense that when we build a capacity for these foundational experiences in all pleasant and unpleasant emotional experiences, a variety of more refined emotional experiences can finally emerge from the unconscious because they have become more tolerable to be experienced consciously. How does this method work? What is the science behind it? Let us find out in as simple a manner as possible.
We can think of an emotional response to a situation as an assessment of the impact the situation has on our wellbeing. A situation such as losing a job adversely affects (impacts) every part of our brain and body. Because the experience of loss feels bad (nobody wants to feel bad if they can help it!)we are programmed instinctually to minimize the experience of feeling bad by shutting down the body by using defenses such as constriction in our muscles and inhibition of our breath, minimizing the area that is impacted down to a minimum, if we cannot get rid of the impact altogether.
The insight into why expanding an emotional experience to more places in the body might make it more tolerable to be with follows and can be easily understood with a simple analogy. Just as it is easier to lift a heavy bag with two arms instead of one, allowing the energy of the impact a situation has on us to be carried by more places in the body than one or a few places tends to make it more tolerable.
The shutting down of the body to cope with unbearable or unacceptable emotional experiences, unfortunately, leads to us getting stuck with the incomplete emotional experience in the body that can only be processed through and completed when it is available more fully.
Furthermore, because our cognition and behavior very much depend on how open and available our body is (according to the emerging science of embodied cognition, emotion, and behavior), the shutting down of the body to cope with emotional difficulty also ends up compromising our cognitive and behavioral functions, rendering them less effective in solving our difficulty in the situation that is causing our suffering.
Therefore, when we develop more capacity for the emotion by expanding the emotional experience to as much of the body as possible, we not only make the emotional experience more available for the brain to process and complete but it also makes our body more available for our cognitive and behavioral functions to deal with the situation and ease our emotional suffering.
Dr. Raja Selvam, is a clinical psychologist and the developer of Integral Somatic Psychology, an effective somatic therapy that helps clients achieve optimal mental health by fully embodying their emotions. He has taught for twenty-five years in over twenty countries. and recently published a book titled - The practice of embodying emotions: A guide for improving cognitive, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.
That’s all in this edition.
If you liked reading the article, do share it with folks who would benefit from it.
Want to stay connected? Here’s our twitter.