Here’s what Dr Raja Selvam (Raja knows a thing or two) has to say:
“Dr Robert Stolorow, who has co-authored many books on the inter-subjective approach to psychoanalysis … often made the point that the primary task in therapy should be the building of a greater capacity for affect tolerance in clients. His reasoning is as follows: people usually develop symptoms from their inability to tolerate their affective (ie emotional) responses to situations. And therapists usually help their clients by helping them to face and process them. We can expect our clients to remain resilient (or not develop symptoms) in the face of similar future experiences only when they develop, during the course of therapy, a greater capacity for tolerating such difficult affective experiences.”
But there’s a lot of information in here. First of all is the idea that if you cannot ‘tolerate’ an emotional feeling, then something in you will malfunction.
Let’s keep it simple; life’s experiences provoke emotions. An emotion is a powerful cascade of neurological and hormonal energy – a kick in the body that by-passes thought and is intended to make you change your behaviour immediately because your brain has detected something in the environment that is urgent and needs acting on.
[Emotions start out as ‘survival’ type (startle, fight, flight, freeze, hide) in lower animals and then include bonding and social emotions (affection, love, longing, loss, etc) in higher mammals; this is an over-simplification.]
But since humans, unhappily, are the only animals on the planet who routinely scare the shit out of their offspring, then many children grow into adults who cannot tolerate certain emotions. This will be either because, being a scared or unhappy child, and unable to influence the situation much, they learned to ‘freeze over’ (numb out) various emotions, or because certain emotions might have been allowed in the family and others not (eg, no crying allowed, no tantrums allowed, no wild self-expression allowed, etc). Another variation is that, if your parents’ parenting style keeps you permanently adrenalised and wary, and you learn this state as an adult, then it’s difficult to allow the ‘bonding’ emotions to get a look-in.
The emotions that have been ‘frozen over’ or disallowed are categorised as potentially overwhelming by the brain, or simply not available (due to lack of practice).
Anyway, the point is that, when, later in life, one of these potentially overwhelming emotions is stimulated in you (say, by a relationship), you cannot cope. The experience reminds your brain of your not being able to cope when you were a kid. But trauma theory tells us that the energy of the emotion persists in the nervous system even though it cannot be experienced as an emotion. The brain somehow has to manage it. So it allocates this powerful rogue emotional energy into some body system – and something goes wrong or ‘shuts down’; chronic pain, stiffness, IBS, migraine, asthma, sleep disturbance, panic attacks, avoiding relationships, etc, etc.
Hence Dr Selvam’s and Dr Stolorow’s point that re-learning to tolerate feelings and emotions is what we need to do. Dr Selvam takes it further by pointing out that the feeling has to be felt ‘in the body’ – experienced as a physical phenomenon – and not merely ‘cried out’ (crying is a safety-release valve process) or discussed. Dr Selvam teaches his patients how to re-train emotions to be felt in the body. (He trained me.)
The more emotion-in-the-body you can tolerate, the healthier your response to what life throws at you.
So next time you are aware of an emotion – become interested in the bodily experience of it, and imagine you are allowing this essential neurochemical energy to cascade through you, energising and informing you. Befriend it. Whatever it is.