Once upon a time, there was a nervous system that felt safe. In that context, it felt calm, clear, creative, courageous, curious, confident, connected and compassionate. This usually happens for example when we are first born, and all our needs are met. We are fed, we are warm, we are hydrated, we are held and seen. In Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapies this is called a core state and I like referring to it as our safety template.
Then we start developing and we need to negotiate our needs with the environment. But we don't have language yet. So, mother nature gave us a powerful and ingenious tool, to help us get what we need- our core emotions. They are so ingenious that they operate without involving higher parts of the brain, the thinking parts, that are more slow going and require language. Emotions- or affect- have a short cut to the brain, with fast access to so-called subcortical areas, with the biological function of quickly providing the brain with information on what is needed in the moment.
In general terms, we can consider the core emotions as: sadness, joy, anger, fear and disgust. If you take a moment to think about it, you will see that sadness is what allows us to really know what is important and helps us look for connection. Anger is what helps us feel big and strong so that we can draw our line and stand our ground. Fear and disgust have to do with keeping us away from danger and from toxic substances. And finally joy - the emotion that makes us feel good so that we want to keep going.
Side note: it is very common that we have never thought about this in this way. After all, we all grew up in this cartesian culture that says that "I think therefore I am" and somehow - through religious, academic or family circles - reproduces the messaging of "emotions are bad for you, or a sign of weakness", "boys don't cry", "girls shouldn't be that excited". No wonder why we are now going through this pandemic of anxiety and depression in our society.
But, nature doesn't care about our beliefs and our biological evolution has wired us with the capacity to feel feelings. However, many times when we are experiencing those emotions, the environment does not respond well to them. Then, our nervous system resorts to another really helpful tool to help us not feel the feeling that is not welcomed in our clan in that moment - this tool is anxiety.
Anxiety is an efficient strategy to keep us away from our feelings. It makes us feel tense in our muscles, sometimes queasy in our stomachs, sometimes it shows up the form of back pain or headaches, and it may turn our thinking and even our vision somehow foggy or blurry. And even though anxiety has a clear helpful function when we can't feel a feeling, it does not feel good. So, we don't want to stay there for too long.
In order to deal with the anxiety, our systems are wired to resort to another helpful tool, called defenses - or anything we do to avoid feelings. According to Hilary Jacobs Hendel, defenses vary all the way from cracking a joke, being vague, changing topics, ruminating, eye rolling, to racism, mysoginy, misguided aggression (being angry at your boss when you really are angry at your father) workaholism, alcoholism, addictions, to suicidal ideation.
Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapies understand that, at any moment in life, we are in one of the corners of the triangle, where emotions are at the bottom, and anxiety on another corner and defenses on the third corner. We call anxiety and defense as the top of the triangle. In fact, there are many benefits to staying at the top of the triangle. That is where high achieving people live. However, what is the cost of never going down to the bottom of the triangle and never let ourselves feel our true feelings?
The cost of avoiding our affective experience is that we don't get to experience our core state, where we would feel ultimately safe at a deeper level. Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapies help you explore how defenses, anxiety and emotions feel in your body so that you can navigate your own triangle to help you feel safe to feel your feelings, updating old neuronal patterns and rewiring your nervous system. AEDP is one of them, described in a previous post. Another one is ISTDP, or Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy - which I will cover in the next post.