Stored Emotion


In a previous presentation we discussed action reaction characteristic of emotions.  Sometimes when an emotional effect is not adequately responded to, the corresponding emotional energy may be stored internally.  We don't really know the mechanism of this storage, but we do know that emotionally charged memories can affect us for a lifetime and that, sometimes, we can, as a result of therapy, have the energy discharged, perhaps in a catharsis.  We cover the processing of stored emotion in the next presentation, while in this one we look at the storage itself.

Definition of stored emotion

In an earlier presentation we examined how the body has a mechanism for balancing out emotional responses or actions.  An example was given of a skydiver who jumped from an aeroplane, experienced a frightening and exhilarating surge while airborne, followed by an opposite reaction of euphoria upon landing.  What happens in a situation where someone experiences a high level of negative arousal and then their body does not have the opportunity for the balancing reaction of heightened good feeling?  This might happen in situations where the fear is regularly experienced and where there is no safe landing place in between and therefore no opportunity to relax and allow re-balancing to take place.  This sounds like what might be experienced by vulnerable people who get abused and maltreated on a daily basis and with no relief, living in constant fear and distress.  

Man tied up with rope

What happens to that emotional energy in situations like that? 

Emotional energy is stored somehow in the body.  If an individual does not react adequately to an emotional action then the emotional experience might be stored for days or years later and may never be released.  In the meantime the stored emotion hinders life choices, causes psychological disorder, slumped posture, or any number of symptoms such as depression.

Benefits of this definition

The notion of stored emotion helps us to understand that past emotional experiences may get trapped inside us and that it might be possible to release the emotional energy again through some memory recall, through counselling or just as a result of a random event.  

Image of woman with internal organs showing

The main event

Memory cannot be a function of the brain only.  The emotional energy that is associated with memories must be stored in the body somewhere.  We are learning about side effects of certain organ transplants and how they affect the recipient's likes and dislikes and this may open the doors to better understanding of how emotions are stored.


Diagram of human intestine

The nervous system is an electrical system, consisting of electrical impulses transmitted around the body.  Electrical systems have storage components such as batteries and capacitors.  There are some organs in the body that lend themselves well to electrical storage, such as the intestines. It could well be that they serve a major role in the storage of emotional energy.  This is something that can only be understood better with suitable research and investigation.

Personal example 

In my youth, I had difficulty holding down a job because of repressed emotions in relation to the people around me.  Because I was unable to respond to even the small interpersonal demands put upon me by my workmates, I would gradually get more and more pent up with stored emotion until I could stand it no more and would have to quit.  A new job would mean a clean slate with no emotional baggage, however it also prevented me from embarking on any kind of career.  Instead I made that my career and since then I have studied and learnt about stored emotion so that I have been able to process and channel it constructively. Now I can maintain constructive and prolonged relationships with people and have a career.

Challenge to audience

This, from Bessel A. van der Kolk. The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.

And from me.  Professional attitudes towards stored emotion has been influenced by Freud's contention that the unconscious mind was the store.  New discoveries about muscle and organ memory suggest that the body is the likely store for pent up emotional energy.

References and further reading

The body keeps the score by Bessel A. van der Kolk