The Role of Emotions in Healing and Health

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2024 June 10, 2015 no comments

The Role of Emotions in Healing and Health

The Role of Emotions in Healing & Health can not be overstated. Basic emotions are fundamental powers of the human body and mind and have key roles in determining mental and physical health, as well as associated disorders. For a long time emotions were side-lined by science, medicine and mainstream psychology as unquantifiable and therefore irrelevant parts of the human condition.

The recent attention being paid to the role of the emotional life of us humans place emotions front and centre in their capacity to heal, to transform and to inform other basic cognitive and physical processes of the body and mind. The conclusion is that counselling and therapy cannot afford to exclude the emotional component of clients in any facet of work that seeks to change reality, reframe reality, or to deal with affective disorders.

Neuroscience has discovered and confirmed that each one of us is hardwired in our brains and nervous systems to be social, to connect with one another, and the medium through which this happens is our emotions. Connection to others is an embodied process and so we cannot continue to use old mainstream psychology principles of reductionism to separate out our emotions from our bodies, brains, minds and consciousness.

The problem with medicine and psychology has always been the over-reliance of separating out aspects of self (reductionism) instead of viewing a person as a whole (holism). Emotions became secondary to rational and logical mental aspects of self in these disciplines. The flawed concept of a total reliance on “evidence based “ science and psychology only allowed rational and logical mental outcomes to be valid. Emotions did not fall within the framework.

Emotions did not fit the reductionistic template and so were ignored in medical and psychological frameworks. This old flawed thinking ignored the fact that just because an aspect of self did not fit into “evidence based” frameworks then it did not matter or was relevant. Modern neuroscience and medicine now understands that emotions are central to mental and physical health.

What was wrong was the limited application of reductionistic thinking and frameworks when applied to complex and totally interdependent beings that we are. Science and psychology tried it and failed in terms of being able to appreciate and understand how humans operate, function and find health. The failure of traditional psychology to heal many people of many conditions was largely a result of starting out with a flawed model to diagnose and clinically work with people.

In 2012 we find that after many years of denouncing and ignoring many bodily and emotionally inclusive modalities of healing and psychology, mainstream science and psychology is now embracing these age old wisdoms as “new science”. Neuroscience was the elephant in the room that used the old evidence based templates of science, medicine and psychology to prove that the emotional elephant in the room was a fact.

Neuroscience was basically the first scientific discipline to prove that emotions are primary in the human condition. Emotions are core enablers and participants in the crucible of thought and action, of self and other, of person and environment, and biology and culture. We cannot strip them away or isolate them out. Emotions must be part of the intervention else the intervention lacks credibility.

If one reviews all the old ways of approaching psychological interventions we notice that we ended up with “top down” brain approaches where the intervention focussed on the “top” or “front” brain from where cognitive, logical, rational and conscious thoughts reside. This is the conscious mental life of the person.

This part of the 3 tier model of the human brain as referenced in my article on the Triune Brain fits nicely into the old reductionistic, logical, rational psychology and scientific model of the 20 th century. Like an iceberg it also represents the 10% “above water” component of that larger body but appears to be the whole entity. Changing our conscious cognitions and processes as well as the beliefs and conclusions about ourself and life is useful and healing to a point. It is not however the whole story. It represents the “top down” approach to changing oneself but actually represents only a part of the actual picture and process of change in humans.

Primacy in therapy is now being reassessed and understood to be based in the bodily rooted affect or use of the body as a “bottom up” healing process. In this approach the top brain insight and gestalt is seen as the result and not the process or change agent. The more bodily inclusive the approach then the deeper top brain or cognitive realisation or insight.

Treatments which include the body and how sensations, impulses and then feelings and emotions arise from the body and the older limbic and reptilian brains are now being increasingly shown to be more effective and efficient than those traditional top brain modalities. The bottom up approach is wider in scope as it catches and contains all those psychosomatic manifestations emanating from the cognitive top brain psychological processes.

In the old school of thought psychology was disconnected from the body. You went to the psychologist or counsellor and dealt with “mind” issues, and were then referred to a doctor to deal with bodily illness issues. This split of body and mind and practitioners aligned across this split meant that we were largely unable to deal with the causes of psychosomatic (emotions causing bodily illness) and psychogenic (mental thoughts causing bodily illness).

The result has been that many people could not be properly diagnosed and treated holistically because the medical model was reductionistic. The effect of the related ethos of materialism in science meant that bodily disease was seen as stemming from material or object based causes and so many people either found parts of themself being cut out or they being medicated.

In some cases this is totally correct and justified but when it became the dominant reality then symptomology started to become the primary focus and medication/operation the primary resolution technique. The causes and possible existence of these as being outside the body was discredited or minimised.

This is now changing but from a legacy where almost 1 in 4 people are now on anti-depressants and 1 in 2 people are currently on some form of medication as part of their lifestyle. We are now understanding more and more how the emotionally traumatic effects of the 20 th century which include two world wars, a Great Depression, The Cold War, Korean and Vietnam wars, all have created generational trauma in most family systems.

Add to this background societal trauma the many possible instances of personal trauma from accidents, abuse, disaster, bullying and other scenarios, then we face the situation where large numbers of individual psyches and family systems have been traumatised. The emotional devastations come from the same emotions that can be powerful emotional catalysts for healing.

Truly emotions are at the core and not the periphery of healing. Many people are emotionally unavailable or shutdown as they are traumatised but may not recognise it. If they do top brain oriented psychology or therapy they will not typically be made to reconnect with disowned and painful feelings that keeps them now “living in their heads”.

Psychology may in fact deepen their defence of living in their heads as it struggles to work with primary emotions in any significant feeling way. A client may be asked to think of anger but this is thinking feelings. One can only feel one feelings and this can only be done through the body and not through the head. Thinking one’s feelings is a defence and a substitute for feeling.

The trauma of emotional life is such that many people fear becoming overwhelmed and flooded by their feelings and related emotions. Given society views emotional people as defective or weak then this fosters thinking only, or thinking feeling as the dominant (but unhealthy) way of living and being.

Emotional healing involves not just feeling one’s disowned emotions and feelings through the body but also creating effective regulation of those impulses, feelings and emotions. Emotions are used to heal and repair, to grow and to learn, and to connect to others as part of the social nature of our being.

One must feel and be in one’s emotions in order to regulate them, resolve them and release past held emotional wounds. One cannot use mental constructs such as reframing, rationalising or mentally compensating for emotions and feelings. Emotional and feeling based therapy is always experiential, and embodied, and of course involves the top brain as the mental consciousness which arrives at the place of new consciousness as a result of the embodied therapy process.

Our families dictate much about our emotional word. We learn much in our “tribe” about life, including our emotional life. If we had a family and parents where touch and emotions were shared and was a way of safe relating then you find the children will have a stronger grounded sense of self as adults.

If we did not have plenty of touching and holding we will be unsure of ourselves emotionally, we may feel ashamed of our emotions, may not trust our emotions as acceptable or safe, and we may not trust others can hold us as we were not held as children by our parents.

If our parents did not mirror and model emotions to us then how will we come into our own emotions? If our therapist is not fully in their body, and has emotions, and mirrors and models emotions and feelings to us, then how will we repair and heal our emotional wounds?

If the therapist hides behind a professional, aloof, controlled mask in order to squash any transference/countertransference, how will they lead me in to my body and my emotions? They cannot and will not if they have not done the embodying/emotional healing work themselves.

In the same way some people try to spiritualise away their feelings. They use spiritual rationalisation to deny and denounce emotions, feelings and their own bodies as sinful, unsafe, and demonic or rooted in temptation. So what happened to the idea that we were all created in the image of God!!.

The idea that spiritual progress involves sublimination of the body, the emotions and the feeling centres of humans is commonly heard by people whose own bodies look neglected and unlived in, or by those who are acting out their feelings, sexual desires or addictive impulses in private.

Neuroscience has established the basis for the framework by which there is bi-directional communication between the brain and the body and the role of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) in this process.  The body, brain and mind are interconnected at levels never before understood by science.

We understand more about how neuroception facilitates our unconscious emotional responses  via the nervous systems perception of what is occurring for each one of us at any moment, and how this activates bodily based defences, trauma replays, and emotional responses.

Neuroception informs us that it is not our conscious top brain that mediates our emotional life but our old reptilian and limbic, sub-cortical areas of brain. Healing and rewiring our emotional responses and our defences is an event of the body and of these older areas of the brain. The top brain of the conscious mind witnesses and participates in this process but is neither the driver nor the vehicle of such change.

It is now clearer that within the ANS we have several pathways of emotional reactive choice to those perceptions of events and objects we experience. Indeed it is clearer that we have old parasympathetic, sympathetic, and new parasympathetic  pathways mediated by the Vagal nerves and nervous system.

Stephen Porges (2010) whose pioneering work on the Polyvagal theory of primal emotional systems that run each of us, is clear in the primary role of the use of the body and emotions in rewiring humans from old maladaptive survival responses and fixed trauma patterns. We must re-experience our feelings and emotions and associate them to new cognitive based outcomes in therapy in order to heal.

Colwyn Trevarthen (2010) is also a prominent researcher and Neuroscientist whose work underlies how “emotions have healing power because they are active regulators of vitality in movement and the primary mediators of social life.” His work points to how therapists must change the feelings that affect their clients’ experiences so as to make them more confident, resilient, better able to adapt to life situations and relationships.

Therapy then becomes the process that lights up the body and mind with emotions as emotions are conductors of lasting change.  The emphasis becomes the movement with clients in real desired tasks  and projects that expresses through the body, not just tasks that exist as stories in talking.

Trevarthen (2010) states that “the rhythmic expressive foundation of emotional dynamics is the same for all spoken and unspoken “dances” of the mind. Emotions are how we dance together and doing so is at the heart of the human enterprise”. The emotional state of a person importantly shows how that person is linked into the life and relationship with themself, their family, community, and how they communicate the well-being, co-operation, and conflicts of those relationships.

Many people come into therapy as what Wilhelm Reich (1933) called “islands”, little self fortresses with defences in the body musculature, the top brain conscious mind, and the subconscious emotional and instinctive layers of being.  They tend to be interpersonally shutdown apart from their still functioning logical, rational conscious, front brain.  They no longer “dance” with life but instead fight to control it and themself.

The defences and the control are reactions and consequences of trauma in its various forms. Traumatised people live their lives in a constant loop of trying to get safe and remain safe. One requires a foundational state of safety before we can be resourced up to venture forth into the social world of interpersonal “dances” and connections with others.

Reich and the Alexander Lowen were instrumental in mapping out the betrayal of both the body, the mind, and the emotional self that developmental trauma in its various manifestations visited on humans from the womb till adulthood.  Their sciences of Characterology showed the impact of such indicators as the way in which we breathe (often shallow), the manner in which our muscles become hyper-tonic (tight), or hypo-tonic (flaccid), all were trauma indicators and wounds in our bodies.

In a clear way our bodies told the story of our woundings as we grew up and revealed the unconscious woundings we have yet to make conscious and heal. Reich and Lowen both showed the paradox of how our minds are at once both connected (human design) and disconnected (trauma) from our bodies. Emotions are an energy in this world of the bodymind and vitality and all dimensions of health are directly related to the degree to which our emotional and bodymind energies flow through our embodiment.

Reich and Lowen established the primacy of the body and of emotions in therapy at a time when the opposite was true. Both saw emotions as active principles of consciousness and vitality and not just mechanisms of reactivity to events from other perceiving parts of ourself.

Reich and Lowen each expressed it differently and with different emphasis and terminology but overall each established a primacy of the bodymind reality of each one of us as being:

  • The well-being of the body of oneself- Each saw the primary relationship of ourself as being with ourself as sustained by the brain in co-operation by what we now know to primarily be hormonal systems. These systems control distribution of vital resources and the economy of internal energy which, in turn, sustain the whole organism in health.
  • Our breathing and organic breathe in turn then regulated the economy of the self with the exterior relationship to external energy (e.g. life force) which in turn also assists in sustaining the whole organism in health.
  • The intentionality of the self to engage with the physical world based on the subjectivity of held memories, beliefs, object knowledge, and positive or negative intention, in the body and mind, mediated by emotions, toward the world and toward the self based on self belief.
  • Integration and connection with the regulation of body functions  and bodily development. Emotions play an evolutionary role as an adaptive or corrective agent for integrative living by internally facilitating change of what is an active self. Emotions act as intentions and changes of intentions internally in the Central Nervous System (CNS), in conjunction with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Together they act and react to stimulus, mediate feelings and needs, and evoke survival responses and defences which transcend the physical and co-opt the energetic and state resources of the body and its organs and muscles.
  • Provide the impulses for social brain imperatives of connection and sexual expression with others, and explaining the role of sexual expression and its key role in energetic, body and mind “payoff” in maintaining vitality and health in adults as a regulatory mechanism of the CNS and ANS.
  • The neurosis or healthy functioning aspect of attention, orientation, and focussing of perception to find external goals for proximity seeking and connection. Reich and Lowen explained the emotional bias and drivers for how we orient and move away from and toward objects and environments which either recreate trauma as a fixation or frozenness with the past, or from a present time, grounded reality that has flexibility in body and mind, that promotes spontaneity and playfulness as key operatives of health.
  • The key emotional and energetically related concepts of emotional groundedness, presence, and the equally unhealthy states of emotional and energetic flooding, blocks, overwhelm, and under or overcharge. The relationship of each of these to health and disease of body and mind, neurosis and psychosis as well as the basis for how each promotes future orientation for action or reaction through time. Both were able to show how traumas created fixed, rigid approach and withdrawal behaviours stemming from emotional drivers, and how emotions are the primary innate evaluative part in the perceptive processes of the mind, real or imagined.
  • Both were able to link how the traumatised and the healthy person use emotional tags tied to memories to aid evolution to move toward, or move away from impulses or strategies of the top brain, conscious logical mind. They showed how these become maladaptive from developmental trauma and can give rise to harmful phobias, addictions, obsessions and beliefs.
  • Both emphasised how vulnerable soft feelings became unsafe due to developmental trauma and instead survival responses arose to replace them, and how these exist beyond the adaptive childhood circumstances that made them valuable and necessary back then. They elucidated how many adults now “run” these defences and compensations unconsciously in adult contexts and environments where they create suffering, failure, illness and anti-social or isolating outcomes.
  • How the absence of emotions in children and adults effectively has shut down their communicative and self expressive powers, leading to loss of life-supporting attachments, relationships, and social acceptance by others. They were able to link these to illness in the body and the mind as a consequence.

This brief overview of their pioneering work is best understood by comparing such enlightened views to that of Reich’s 1920’s contemporaries. For instance Alfred North Whitehead was a prominent psychologist of his day and well expressed the mainstream views of his era. Whitehead (1929) saw emotions as “products of logical discernment”, or as products from the top brain conscious, logical, rational mind.  The body did not exist in this view.

Whitehead espoused scientific experimentation on the nature of emotions in a framework guided by a rational objective and causal explanation of how humans react to stimulus. His framework like the materialism and deductive science of the day, positioned the experiment from a “third person” observer perspective, measuring behavioural events in individual trial subjects from that detached position.

There was no space for a relational perspective in such studies, which became the dominant paradigm and mainstream process for studying emotions in the 20 thcentury. The assumption and dominant myth became that children’s and adults emotions are to be seen in isolation and that “negative” or defensive emotions have to be “regulated” to some baseline model. Further the notion was to keep emotions “in balance” and to train a person to develop pro-social feelings to an agreed norm.

From this mainstream psychological paradigm reductionism and measurement of feelings and emotions in isolation could be attempted. The importance of the positive role of emotions in development and well-being in infants and young children was missed in the above model. Mental behaviourism ruled and emotions and feelings were contained to discussions of individuals.

Likewise the appreciation of the positive role of emotions in the development and well-being in adult and child-adult relationships was missed, and generations of terrible baby raising, child raising, and relational skills were created and taught as gospel and science.

In many ways such “toddler taming”, “controlled crying”,  and other frameworks still alive and flourishing out in the community today still speak to us today of the sad lack of acceptance that science can no longer defend the discredited practices of psychology and medical sciences founded on false assumptions and principles.

Luckily Neuroscience and the related disciplines of neuropsychobiology  and bodymind psychotherapy are not going away and are providing both scientific and clinical results that cannot be denied and denounced any longer. Emotions are front and centre in the human condition. Therapy must as a prerequisite for having best practice and integrity, include and encompass the bodily and emotional life of the client.

In recent body psychotherapy modalities such as BodyNamics body psychotherapy we find that neuroscience based research is reinforcing what Reich and Lowen always knew and proposed. Lisbeth Marcher who pioneered this modality states, “Therapy without body awareness lacks a vital element, while a body awareness work that is not grounded in solid psychotherapy will not produce lasting change.”

In 2012 we find that the echoes of the pioneers of Bodymind psychology, Wilhelm Reich and his later protégé, Alexander Lowen, are now being validated again, this time with the medical and Neuroscience mechanics that was simply not available in their era for consideration.

We as a society are now starting “to get it” in regards to the importance of emotional life and our roles in raising children, and interacting as adults in a emotionally healthy way. The recent work of respected therapist and Neuroscience researcher Dan Hughes (2006) best ends this article in terms of how we are now understanding the role we each have in the social world of humanity. He writes,

“In healthy families, a baby forms a secure attachment with its parents as naturally as  the child breathes, eats, smiles and cries. This occurs easily because of the parents’ attuned interactions with the child. The parents notice the child’s physiological/affective states and they respond to the child sensitively and fully. Beyond simply meeting the child’s unique needs, however, the parents “dance” with her, hundreds of times, day after day, they “dance” with her emotionally.

There are other families where the baby neither dances nor even hears the sound of any emotional “music”. In these families the child does not form such secure attachments. Rather, the child’s task – their continuous ordeal – is to learn to live with parents who are little more than strangers. Babies who live with strangers do not live well or grow well”. Dan Hughes (2006).

Article and Book References

  1. Character Analysis: Character and the Body, Reich W., 1972, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  2. Trauma and the Body – A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy; Ogden Pat etal, 2006, Norton & Co Publishers.
  3. Mapping The Brain: Carter R.;2003, Phoenix Books.
  4. The Body In Recovery: Somatic Psychotherapy and the Self; Conger John P., 1994,Frog Books, Berkeley, California.
  5. Evolve Your Brain – The Science of Changing your Mind; Dispenza J.,2007, HCI Books.
  6. Body-Mind Psychotherapy: Principles, techniques, and practical applications; Aposhyan S., 2004, Norton Publishing Group.
  7. Body, Breath and Consciousness: A Somatics Anthology; MacNaughton I., 2004,North Atlantic Books.
  8. Healing Trauma: Attachment, Mind, Body, and Brain; Siegel D. And Solomon D., 2003, Norton Publishing Group.
  9. The Feeling of What Happens; Damasio, A.; 1999, Harcourt & Brace Publishers.
  10. Biology of Belief; Lipton B., 2005,Mountain of Love/Elite Books.
  11. Wilhelm Reich: The Evolution of his Work; Boadella D., 1973, Penguin Books.  Healing The Social Brain, Cozolino, 2010.
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