Enjoyable personal and work relationships often elude us. While some feel uncomfortable about getting close, many others endure power struggles, stone-walling, abuse and/or indecision about 'getting out'. Trying to pinpoint the events in our past that caused us to be the way we are, and making efforts to change ourselves or others, rarely helps. The harder we try, the more we usually suffer.
However, there is a self help approach that can bring us a lot of peace and healing. It is based on sound principles about emotions and trauma from the fields of psychology, hypnotherapy and various somatic psychotherapies.
Psychologists' experiments have repeatedly shown that it is impossible to detect a physiological difference between a strong positive emotion and a strong negative one. From this it has been concluded that emotions are bodily sensations to which we attach a mental interpretation according to the context in which they occur. Because most psychotherapies involve interpretation and our minds can deliver complicated interpretations ad infinitum, working with body sensations is a more direct, simple and effective way to heal our difficulties.
You have probably noticed that when mild feelings occur, sensations arise to a gentle peak intensity and then dissipate in the same way as happens with other forms of energy, such as sound waves and electromagnetic radiation. However, this doesn't happen with intense emotions. The reason is because in the period before, during and after birth, when we were 'emotional sponges' soaking up the feelings around us and our egos couldn't comprehend what was happening, we developed defences that prevented us feeling the full intensity of the sensations. The energy that could not dissipate then became locked in the musculature of our bodies. Of course, accidents, crime and war may add to this normal load of infant trauma. For existing views on this trapped energy and ways of releasing it, see the work of Wilhelm Reich, the bioenergetics of Alexander Lowen, Janov's primal therapy, and the holotropic breathwork and bodywork of Stan Grof.
Unfortunately, every time our mind associates anything with past trauma, we compulsively repeat the behaviour patterns developed to prevent us from fully feeling it in the first place. No amount of rational thinking and logic can prevent this. Further, trying to get rid of our patterns frightens our unconscious mind and strengthens the defences, entrenching the patterns more deeply. The same happens if we pressure someone else to give up their patterns. From this perspective it is easy to see why relationship problems can be so intractable.
The repetitive difficulties we have with particular people in our lives persist because the circumstances that our defences require to avoid fully experiencing a suppressed intense emotion are the same circumstances that the other person's defences need to avoid to prevent an experience of one of their blocked feelings. Instead of trying to talk each other out of behaviours that bother us, one or both people need to release the trapped body sensations from infancy that are the real cause of the conflict. When this happens, the defences fall away because there is no longer anything to defend and the conflict disappears.
To release blocked feelings, we need to briefly feel their full intensity. This is possible because an intense brief pain is much more bearable than a slightly less intense chronic or intermittent pain, (in fact, it's the latter rather than the former that is the cause of retraumatisation). We can develop the trust to do this by practising with a small discomfort first.
Think of a minor issue that bothers you. Notice the feeling. Locate it in your body. Notice what shape, size and intensity it is. If you are unaware of a feeling, use the hypnotic technique called revivification.
Hypnotherapists have learned that if you vividly imagine something, the mind does not know the difference between what is vividly imagined and what is real. Even if you think you have a poor imagination, you can do revivification. All it involves is engaging as many of your physical senses in the visualisation as possible. For example, if you imagine seeing and feeling a piece of lemon in your fingers, holding it to your lips, smelling it, and tasting the sour flavour as you hear yourself sucking it, your saliva is likely to run.
To use revivification for this exercise, pick a particular occasion when your issue bothered you (you cannot imagine a generalisation) and engage as many of your physical senses as possible in the recall. If a future event is bothering you, make up the details. The mind will make the necessary associations whether it is real or imagined.
- Notice the feelings in your body. Where are the sensations? How big are they? What shape are they? How intense are they? It is important to become as fully aware of them as you can.
- Take a few breaths to circulate some oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body. Oxygen gives you energy and carbon-dioxide helps bring unconscious feelings and thoughts into consciousness. This is the basis of the breathwork therapies. Also, because we block ourselves from experiencing intense emotions by holding our breath, it is important to breathe consciously and continuously.
- Tense up the muscles in the area of the body where you can feel the sensations. If you are feeling nothing or aren't sure where the sensation is, tense up the whole body. Doubt, confusion and numbness are defensive patterns that can be worked with and released in the same way as feelings like fear, grief and anger.
Tense up rapidly and as hard as you can. Let go, and keep your breathing going afterwards.
- Now notice what has happened. Sensations may have become more obvious, larger or smaller, more or less intense, shifted to another part of the body or dissipated altogether. If you are feeling anything other than complete relaxation, tense up the non-relaxed parts again, remembering to keep breathing. Continue intensifying the energy wherever it moves in your body until it dissipates.
Some people will find this happens on the first or second attempt and others will have to persevere for half an hour or more. Then when your whole body is relaxed, think of the bothersome circumstances again and notice if you are still relaxed. This is the test. If you are not completely relaxed, continue to intensify the body sensations until you can recall the issue and it no longer produces unpleasant feelings.
If you tensed up your whole body because you were not sure where the sensations were and you still cannot feel anything, do it again, harder if you can. The intensity is important. Sometimes people have to do it six times before they feel any sensations. Once you get a sensation, work with that in the way already described.
If you tensed up your body and the sensations didn't change, do it again, harder if you can. Also remember that you are trying to make them worse. If you hold the intention of 'getting rid of them', you delay the process. The paradox is that you have to be willing to accept and experience whatever is there, forever if necessary, and then the release can happen quickly.
Often people experience a sudden warm glow or pleasant tingling. Enjoy it. The energy has moved and you have healed something. Another indication of healing is a sense of deep peace. When a seemingly unbearable feeling explodes into bliss, deep serenity, euphoria or the like, you have experienced an ego death-rebirth (see the work of Stan Grof for more details).
A common obstacle in the above process occurs when a person experiences an intense point of pain they are unwilling or unable to physically intensify even for an instant. The pain might be in a sensitive or physically damaged part of the body. If this occurs, keep your breathing consciously connected and imagine the intensity in the centre of the pain spreading out to the size of a golf ball. Then when you have done that, spread it out to the size of a tennis ball, then a basketball, then an enormous beach ball, and finally fill the room with it. If you notice that the middle is still more intense, just start spreading it out from the middle again. Persevere. Some people may need to imagine spreading it out to fill the whole of Australia, the planet or the Universe. Sooner or later it will dissipate because, if your mind gives a limited amount of trapped energy permission to move beyond its current boundary, it must get weaker as it gets bigger. Some people notice it weakening as they imagine it expanding. Others notice it suddenly transform into something pleasant when they have been willing to let go and drown in the pain: the necessary attitude that permits healing.
Another obstacle to developing trust in this process can occur if you accidentally pick a big first issue rather than a small one. If this happens, you may feel that the pain is getting so intense it might annihilate you. The more intense it is the more real it feels and this makes it hard to believe that it is just an 'old feeling' coming up for release. It is easy to go into overwhelm when this happens. So, if you can find a smaller issue to work with, then do that, and develop some confidence in the approach first. However, eventually you will need to face the bigger issues, and I know from personal experience, as well as from working with other people, that if you can develop the trust to be willing to totally surrender to being swallowed up by the pain, that a very significant breakthrough is likely to occur. This does not mean you should do it alone. Although I have at times faced extreme challenges on my own, I much prefer assistance from someone who has experienced those horrible places. It can be very comforting and even necessary to enable us to trust that we can let such feelings happen without being destroyed by them.
However, for many people the trapped feelings are not all that bad, and remembering to do the process is a bigger problem. It is easy to get caught up in what is happening and totally forget that you have this tool at your disposal. The only answer is practice. The more you do it, the more often you will remember to do it. It took me months to remember to keep breathing when something upsetting occurred. It seems easy now. But it wasn't at the beginning. Persevere, and if you have trouble, get assistance.
Another occasion when we need assistance is when we prefer to talk about our bothersome experiences rather than re-experience them. Talking can be useful if the listener provides the safe space for us to open up further and we experience our feelings more deeply as we speak. However, talking is more often used as a defence against feeling. In this kind of talking, we speak from the mind, rather than from our present experience, and this removes us from feeling intense emotions. The biggest difficulty occurs if someone feels the process is endless because there is 'always' another horrible sensation to release. This can happen with people who suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia, physical problems, severe addictions or a history of abuse. Even with appropriate help, they can doubt the very real progress they are making. So it is important for the assistant to record and point out the changes. It also helps enormously if the helper has travelled an equally difficult journey and can say, 'I know you can do it because I have done it'.
In addition, no one can lead others into emotional territory they have not been through themselves. When something we are unwilling to face arises in someone we are assisting, we will steer them away from what they need to experience for their healing.
And now, having drawn you a map, best wishes in your journey into the territory of rewarding relationships.
Linda Edwards developed the above approach to healing relationships as a result of interviewing international 'exceptional helpers' for her counselling psychology Ph.D. research at Monash University. She has taught pastoral counselling at university, and is a registered psychologist, experienced hypnotherapist, certified Holotropic Breathwork practitioner, and internationally published author.
Posted on 21 November 2004 in
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