Stored emotion. We examine what we mean by stored emotion and how it can be visualised.
In a previous presentation, on emotions and physical laws, 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, rather than expressed externally. 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, leading us to emerge with some kind of healing having taken place. 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. These people have regularly highly stressful and fear inducing experiences, between which there is no safe place for them to come to balance with the world around them.
What happens to the 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 can be stored for days or years later and may never be released. The stored emotion has a permanent effect on the body, hindering life choices, causing 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, through some conscious processing exercise or just as a result of a random event.
The main event
Memory is not a function of the brain only. Studies have shown, especially in relation to organ transplants, that memory is distributed throughout the nervous system. Therefore it is reasonable to deduct that emotional energy associated with memories must be stored in the body somewhere.
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 is one organ in the body that lends itself very well to electrical storage, that being the intestines. The intestines consist of a long cylindrical tube, five to seven meters long, with an inner and an outer surface. The entire surface area of the intestines is something in the order of 4,500 square metres. That surface provides ample opportunity for the accumulation of electrical charge, and of a potential difference in polarity between the inner and outer surfaces, creating a very weak, albeit, very large, electrical capacitor. It could well be that this storage capacity serves a major role in the storage of emotional energy in the human body. This is something that can only be understood better with suitable research and investigation.
We are aware through experience, of the central role that the stomach, and associated intestines, play in our emotional behaviour:
- When we feel anxious it often seems to be centred around the stomach.
- Unpleasant experiences can sometimes cause us to throw up, leading to the word 'stomach' used as a verb in sentences like "She could not stomach seeing so much blood again".
- Emotional stress can cause stomach pain or loss of appetite.
The stomach plays a role in our emotional experience and it could be that it is central to how suppressed emotions are stored in the body.
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 stable ongoing career. Having studied and learnt about stored emotion, I have been able to process and channel it constructively and now I have a career and more prolonged relationships with people.
Emotions are sometimes stored in the body in a way which is not yet well understood, however is possible that the stomach plays an important role in it by storing nervous energy along its vast surface.
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. If that is the case, then there is a lot we can do as individuals to discover what might be stored inside our bodies and how to process and channel that.
References and further reading
The body keeps the score by Bessel A. van der Kolk