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Differentiating the Feeling and Expression of Emotion

I recently completed teaching my latest online Neuro-Somatic Variations (NSV) Series – with participants from Israel, Europe and North America. The NSV approach integrates different elements including:  Awareness through Movement (ATM) lessons, Integrative Neurobiology and Micro-Phenomenology (https://www.somaticwell.com/post/my-year-of-nsv-neuro-somatic-variations). Each NSV Series I have taught has focused on a different theme. This Series’ theme was “Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System.” This was the 9th NSV series I have taught since I began developing this approach at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Teaching this series was also for me the most personally vulnerable – against the backdrop of the October 7 atrocities and unfolding war situation. There is something ironic about teaching others about the feeling of safety in a war context. This NSV Series provided me with first-hand opportunity of learning to improve regulating my own Autonomic Nervous System. It confirmed the importance of group support and intersubjectivity in dealing with personal grief and loss.

The NSV approach is singular in the somatic community, as far as I am aware, in terms of integrating theoretical concepts with Awareness through Movement (ATM) lessons. In focusing on the Autonomic Nervous System, I have drawn significantly on Polyvagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. (The Polyvagal Theory proposes that three basic neural circuits underpin the overall state of the autonomic nervous system. These three neural circuits include the dorsal branch of the vagal nerve, the sympathetic nervous system, and the ventral branch of the vagal nerve. Each of these three neural circuits represent a different phylogenetic stage of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system and underpin an organism’s emergent behaviors, emotions, and perceptions.) However, I was not simply re-iterating core concepts from Polyvagal Theory. Rather, the NSV approach provided me with the context for investigating the relation between moving with awareness and regulation of the Autonomic Nervous System.

In order to obtain some kind of objective measure of autonomic nervous system regulation, I invited participants – who varied in their depth and range of somatic experience – to record their Heart Rate Variation (HRV) measurements before and after the movement sessions. Measuring HRV as is well-known, provides an objective means of measuring parasympathetic tone, and is thereby a key measurement for regulating the autonomic nervous system. (HRV recordings were completed either using the ewm device from the HeartMaths Institute or the iom2 from Wild Divine – which I use with clients in relation with Wild Divine’s Interactive Meditation app.) This objective measurement of HRV in this series gave me the sought after opportunity to validate particular Feldenkrais based Awareness through Movement lessons in relation with regulating the ANS.

A key aim of this present NSV Series was to investigate those Awareness Through Movement (ATM) Lessons which are particularly effective in terms of regulating the Autonomic Nervous System. Each NSV series typically consists of 6 sessions taught over a period of 12 weeks. In a previous blogpost I identified 6 somatic principles important for regulating the ANS, which informed my choice of Awareness through Movement lessons taught. These include: 1. Breath, 2. Awareness through movement, 3. Slowing down, 4. Head-pelvis connection, 5. Oscillations, 6. Prosody (https://www.somaticwell.com/post/cultivating-somatic-heart-and-mind-connections-through-the-feldenkrais-method-and-polyvagal-theory). The skeleton of the present NSV Series consisted of correlating a key somatic principle associated with regulating the Autonomic Nervous System with a particular ATM lesson. For example, the “Lamprey” lesson taught in the fourth session consisted of increasing complexity of movement side-bending, through shifting one’s head and pelvis while lying on one’s back. These phylogenetic movements are similar to the Salamander exercises described by Stanley Rosenberg in his popular book “Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve.” [1] These movements are also reminiscent of the phylogenetic warm-up behaviors universal amongst vertebrates, described by Professor Ilan Golani, upon which I have based my Genesis Protocol for the treatment of infants and children with autism (https://www.somaticwell.com/the-genesis-protocol). [2]

I have previously argued that the Feldenkrais Method® is a form of practical psycho-physiology in terms of influencing or affecting the individual psyche through moving with awareness (https://www.somaticwell.com/post/the-feldenkrais-method-as-practical-physiological-psychology). Arguably, the psycho-physiological effects of both the Feldenkrais Method and polyvagal informed psychotherapy is embedded in processes of evolutionary development. In the remainder of this blogpost, I describe a key psycho-physiological insight that emerged from the present NSV Series.

Almost universally among participants there was an improvement in their HRV measurements – measured in terms of their HRV resonance scores before and after the movement lesson. The HRV readings, however, are not precise enough to know if this is from a general increased state of calm, for example because of the prosody of my voice in teaching the lesson, or due to a specific effect of the movement lesson itself. It is fair to say, that the increased resonance scores following a movement lesson is due to both these psycho-physiological influences. However, one particular ATM lesson – a breathing lesson designed to improve the HRV – actually had the adverse effect in decreasing the participants resonance scores. It appears this was because the lesson included a substantive element of breathing whilst lying in the prone position. It appears that lying in prone stimulates the extensor muscles and associated Sympathetic Nervous system and decreases the tone in the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This finding was, counter-intuitive, because diaphragmatic breathing is the classical means of stimulating parasympathetic tone. In the group discussion following the movement lesson, one participant described that for her breathing whilst lying in prone stimulated the gesture of crying, even though not stimulating the actual experience of sadness associated with crying. As she described this moment in the post-series questionnaire about any particular memorable experience, “the sobbing moment: sensing the dynamic embodiment of a feeling we relate to sadness.” Thus, this counter-intuitive breathing lesson enacted a gesture associated with an emotion, whilst enabling the participant to get reflective distance on the emotion without being overwhelmed by it.

This finding emerging from the NSV Process provides a key psycho-physiological element in learning to regulate the autonomic nervous system, and perhaps embodied therapy more generally. Moreover, I do not believe that this psycho-physiological insight has been described previously in somatic psychotherapy! I call this psycho-physiological insight “differentiating the gesture from the emotion,” and was most obviously identified in relation to the 3rd lesson I taught in the present NSV Series – “Varying Movements of the Tongue and Mouth (Esalen #40). This lesson was taught in relation with the somatic principle of prosody – how one’s voice can help regulate the autonomic nervous system in relation with the facial and trigeminal nerves and the social engagement muscles of the face.

In his original teaching of this lesson at Esalen, Feldenkrais explicitly referenced Charles Darwin’s masterful and relatively unknown evolutionary treatise on the development of emotions: “Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals”. [3] Thus, Feldenkrais states in teaching this lesson:

“All animals when they denude their teeth, feel aggression. Darwin made a study of this throughout all his voyages, trying to find out whether the muscles for laughing, the movement for smiling, is done by the same muscles in all cultures, even those in very remote islands who never had any contact with others. And he assured himself that that was so. And hence he decided that smiling and laughter being so general to the human race actually derived from the movement of aggression. If you denude your teeth and mouth violently as if to bite or frighten someone, and then you just reduce the tension, you will find that you are smiling.”

It is fair to say that Darwin’s classical study set the field of the psychological study of emotions, as developed, for example, by William James and Paul Ekman. In the Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals Darwin, citing Claude Bernard, also pointed out the connection between emotion and the vagus nerve, which he called the pneumogastric nerve: “Emotion expressions are controlled by a bidirectional neural communication between the heart and brain via the so-called Pneumogastric nerve.” [3, p. 69] Darwin’s key insight, however, was that the habit of expressing emotions was an evolutionary trait and therefore had been gradually acquired. Emotions as a mental state evolving with the development of sentient experience and consciousness has deep phylogenetic roots.  Darwin’s key idea was that the expression of emotions is a form of behavior. As such, they are observable and may be distinguished from the related feeling of emotion. Even though the expression of an emotion and the feeling of the emotion are intrinsically related, exemplified by Darwin’s concept of “Antithesis”, whereby “certain states of mind lead to certain habitual movements,” – exemplified for Darwin in the behavior of dogs expressing anger or submission – they may in fact be separated and distinguished.

In The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul Simona Ginzburg and Eva Jablonka state that, “The principles that, according to Darwin, underlie the expression of emotions all stem from the associationist ideas that a response to a stimulus that is spatially or temporally contiguous with, or contrasts to a stimulus that is spatially or temporally contiguous with, or contrasts to a stimulus that elicited the original expression, becomes in time, after much repetition, innate.” [4, p. 68] The point I wish to emphasize is that this innate behavior through association is a form of learned behavior, and therefore may also be unlearned through somatic practices – incorporating awareness.

 This distinction between the expression of emotion, the gesture of emotion and its associated feeling was precisely that which was experienced through the teaching of the NSV Series, and provides a core therapeutic concept for somatic therapy directed at individuals suffering from the effects of anxiety and trauma. It is likely also that the vagus nerve, which controls the functioning of the Autonomic Nervous System, is a key neuro-physiological connection linking the expression of emotion with its associated feeling. In a paper entitled, “Darwin Revisited,” Colzato et al (2017). demonstrate that the recognition of emotion in faces is modulated by the vagal nerve. [5] This insight regarding the role of the vagal nerve for social engagement vagal nerve serves as the basis of the Polyvagal Theory and was explored experientially in the present NSV series as described above.

In the light of my phenomenological approach, besides the HRV scores, NSV participants also completed a post-series questionnaire. Here is the response of one of the participants to some of the questions who recalled particularly the effects of the movement lesson in session 3 described above involving the muscles of the face:

 

Q: Can you describe any noticeable changes or shifts in your body sensations throughout the NSV series?

A: I definitely feel lighter and more connected, my movements are more fluid and I have a more coherent body schema. My mood improved too, feel more stable and calm and less reactive, tinnitus, headache, and tension in neck and shoulders diminished greatly. I have to say that during this part year I also did a course in Aryuvedic massage and integrated that and Yoga in my daily routine and started to sing and dance more, but the Feldenkrais method definitely helped too and I actually integrated the exercises learned in lesson#3 in my daily routine.

 

Q. How did your understanding of your body and its sensations evolve during the six sessions?

A. Well, it definitely feels more mellow. I got to experience how plastic the mind-body continuum is and how little it takes for small subtle changes to happen, both toward balance and toward unbalance. I also got to experience my body as my true home(self), after a long time of feeling dissociated and definitely at war with my body, my emotions and my mind.

 

Q. Were there any specific exercises or practices that resonated with you the most? If so, why?

A. I very much enjoyed lesson #3. As I opened my jaw the nerve on the left side of my neck started twitching and slowly my left leg started relaxing too. Usually, when I lay down in supine position with my hips opened and feet pointing outward, my point of my right feet can touch the ground while the left one can’t, during this exercise my left foot too was completely on the ground. I could feel energy on my pelvis area and a sensation of wholeness. Also a lot of energy on my head and cervical area, amazing.

 

I too experienced the salutary benefits of teaching the NSV Series, which undoubtedly helped me to deal with my personal grief and trauma in the context of personal and national loss. Looking towards the future, I plan to teach a new NSV focusing on evolutionary development. Let me know if you too might be interested in participating and experiencing the unique NSV approach.

 

References

1.     Golani, I. “A Mobility Gradient in the Organization of Vertebrate Movement: The Perception of Movement through Symbolic Language.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15: 249-308.

2.     Rosenberg, S. 2017. Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California.

3.     Darwin, C. 1872. The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. New York: D. Appleton.

4.     Ginsburg, S. & Jablonka, E. 2019. The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

5.     Colzato L.S., Sellaro R., Beste C. 2017. “Darwin Revisited: The Vagus Nerve is a Causal Element in Controlling Recognition of Other's Emotions.” Cortex, Jul:92:95-102.

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