About Jamie What is Somatic Expression? CalendarPhotography Somatic Expression Articles Somatic Expression Links Somatic Expression Products Contact Jamie McHugh Home Page

“What does it mean to regulate our behavior and physiology? We can look to the dance of the immune system to give us an image of biological self-regulation.”

Monthly Aspectarian March 1997

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, Chicago, IL, USA.

Health can be viewed as the capacity of the organism to regulate its own behavior and physiology, and produce appropriate coordinated response patterns to a challenge. When an individual cannot regulate his/her own behavior and physiology, regulatory disturbances may take place that, in turn, may lead to disease under certain conditions. 1

What does it mean to regulate our behavior and physiology? We can first look to the immune system for a model of biological self-regulation. Your body functions within a prescribed range referred to as homeostasis. When a threat in the form of a virus or bacteria intrudes, your body amps up with increased immune activity with white blood cells (cyotoxic cells, phagocytes, etc.). When the danger has passed, another team takes over to de-activate this response and return back to homeostasis. A similar phenomenon is at work in the autonomic nervous system, which fluctuates between the sympathetic, or fight-or-flight, response and the parasympathetic, or relaxation, response.

Researchers have conjectured that the initial trauma of HIV infection sets in motion a non-stop overactive immune response. There is no cessation as the body loses its capacity to turn off the activation phase. Constant stimulation of the activating immune mechanisms without a resting phase wears out this function over time. During this activation phase, specific receptor sites on the lymphocytes are open, making them continually vulnerable to further HIV infection. Autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, also reflect the body at war with itself. The organism cannot discriminate self from non-self, reflecting a state of psychic distress or confused identity. Looking at these metaphorically, I am struck by existential human conditions that are reflected by these biological processes.

Steven Vasquez, a somatic therapist in Texas, has indicated that the cellular and psychological responses to threat go through the same developmental stages: Recognition; Mobilization; Transformation; and Cessation. We can think of the biological trauma of HIV and cancer as being analogous to other forms of bodily and psychic trauma such as abandonment, sexual abuse, or even betrayal. Trauma creates shock, a startle reflex frozen over time, that temporarily inhibits movement. When we don’t have the necessary internal resources to sufficiently mobilize against trauma so it can be adequately transformed and resolved, the organism cannot return to optimal balance. Freezing of movement becomes a habit with repetition, an adaptation to life’s uncertainty and surprises that can distort the mechanisms of communication and self-regulation in the body.

People who feel emotions but actively inhibit their expression (inhibitors) and people who report not feeling emotions but who, in fact, express them to others through non-verbal channels (repressive copers or those with illusory mental health) are the very people at greatest risk for illness and probably have the worst prognosis for healing. 2

There is speculation that each feeling state and its active expression accesses a natural pharmacoepia within the body that regulates healthy functioning. So we have within us one of the natural mechanisms of healing: the chemistry of expression. Sympathetic activity generates arousal and stimulates the production of the hormones of fear and excitement. The hormones of fear and distress have been shown by research studies to impair aspects of cellular immunity in vitro. As Fritz Perls pointed out so eloquently, though, “Fear is excitement without the breath”.  And the exhale, the expression of feelings through action or words, can change a potentially unhealthy chemistry into a life-affirming one.

Primary emotions like anger, fear and sadness do not have any harmful effects on our bodies. They alter our physiology, but so does every biological function. It’s only when we habitually block feelings that they become the “toxic” states associated with weakened immunity: anger becomes resentment or chronic depression; fear turns into panic; sadness yields to hopelessness. 3

The autonomic nervous system interacts intimately with our perception and cognition, each triggering the other. Whereas it is virtually impossible to intervene directly with our immune systems and biochemistry, we do have the power to modulate our insight and our responses, which alters the chemistry of feeling and perception. Cognitive re-framing is a primary tool in this process; the meaning we give to our life experiences, as well as the contexts for meaning, such as philosophical and spiritual perspectives, expands the frame of reference. In this way, I can inhabit a much larger experience than merely my own. I trade in isolation for belongingness, seeing myself as part of the larger stream of life.

Psychological research on long-term survivors of AIDS has indicated a high correlation between enhanced immunity and: healthy self-care; maintaining connectedness; having a sense of meaning or purpose in life; and maintaining perspective. 4 Each of these criteria overlaps and informs one another. By focusing on WHY we want to live, there is the potential for a corresponding shift in the HOW of life. This translation of intention into behavior is a great challenge for many of us, yet it is also the path of transformation. We can be re-born in this life by re-incarnating ourselves through insight and action and by re-organizing ourselves somatically and psychologically.

Feelings are not just psychic constructs but something we feel as movement: warmth in the heart, a flutter in the guts, a streaming of energy throughout the body. In fact, the inhibition of feelings is also the inhibition of movement. We can observe this at times in the incongruence between words and facial expressions, for example, or the steadfast refusal of some people to cry or to shout. The awareness and movement of feelings very often is the stimulus for movement in life.

When we are angry, we’re moved to correct an unfair or threatening situation. When we’re sad, we’re moved to find comfort and contact. When we’re afraid, we’re moved to deal with or escape the source of danger. Emotions are the bridge between mind and body, stimulus and action. When we chronically deny, split off, or repress emotions, we’re destroying this bridge. 5

We live in a culture uncomfortable with the life of feeling and expression, and have ignored the education of what Daniel Goleman refers to as “emotional intelligence”. The chemistry and movement of feelings – whether through physical embodiment or verbal expression - is important for both our psychological well-being and our cellular integrity. When we begin to judge feelings, sensations and thoughts and differentiate them as good or bad, we automatically limit input into consciousness, which effectively diminishes our choices and adaptability. By recognizing that each state has valuable information for the organism, we can allow, experience and express the full spectrum of feelings without shame or blame.

McCraty et al, (1995) in their research on the effects of emotions on heart rate variability, found that the elicitation of positive emotions (such as appreciation) are associated with increased parasympathetic activity, whereas the elicitation of negative emotions  (such as anger), are associated with increased sympathetic activity. 6

This type of research is often misconstrued as indicating that one should only have positive emotions. This gets us off the hook in having to deal with so-called negative feelings, and supports repression of uncomfortable feelings, confirming the wishful thinking to not suffer and only have happiness, love and light. Many Westerners have adopted Eastern spiritual paths as a way to bypass the working through of painful memories and avoid facing difficult life experiences. This abdication of what is present is also reflected in the Christian mythology of Heaven - a place of peace and no suffering that we can look forward to in the future. Yet Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the Buddhist notion of inter-being: all things require their opposite to be complete. The garbage of our negative thoughts and experiences is the compost that grows the roses of our happiness. Both are necessary. Sometimes, it is a matter of looking deeply into the garbage to see the roses that are already there.

Don't wish for, don't wait for, don't expect happiness: just be it in the present moment. We need to know how to make peace and joy out of suffering as the quest for no-suffering is illusion, and creates more suffering: if you abandon suffering, you abandon happiness. The material of our suffering is the same as the material of our happiness. And the practice of mindfulness, the attention to the breath, the satisfaction with ourselves, allows us to heal this duality. 7

In our existential and psychological struggles, it is easy to forget that the body is no different than other life forms. We are all organisms with our own rhythm and cadence, our need to move out and move in, to condense, expand, rest and act. We can turn to biological process for guidance; to live our lives consciously as elements of nature is to listen to another source of wisdom that lives deep within. This wisdom is accessed through conscious attention and activation of the body’s natural technologies: breath, vocalization, contact, movement and stillness. The proprioceptive (internal sensing mechanism) feedback from our somatic expression can create a base of internal support for experiencing and exploring our feelings, relating to them not as the monsters we may have imagined them to be, but as bodily experiences of life.

Feelings are energies which are given to the body and then consciously experienced. They are not ours any more than the air we breathe is ours. We cannot control them. We can only say yes...feelings are part of the rhythmic flow, the stream of life. We don’t make demands on our feelings. We simply give them the space they need. We attend, allow and respect. Turning the attention to the body is the beginning of the process of compassionate self-care. 8

Our ability to care for ourselves through reflection, action/expression, and connection can be seen as valuable ingredients in healthcare. One could make an analogy between the cessation response/parasympathetic activity with the ability to psychologically surrender to our own inner movement. At a certain point, we need to believe the war is over, we can let down our guard, and trust the spaciousness of being. And yet to trust is not a simple task as we give up the protective illusion of control and make ourselves vulnerable to betrayal.

Betrayal is one of the strongest dramas of human existence. When we’ve been betrayed, especially by someone we are very close to, it feels crazy making. Can we even trust that the sun will rise tomorrow? When we are diagnosed with a disease, the shock of the body’s betrayal very often drives us even further away from our own center. This realization that security, life, and love are not guaranteed traumatizes the innocent self, which can have devastating psychic consequences: denial, revenge, cynicism, paranoia and self-betrayal. I wonder how the “somatic betrayal” of illness affects the will to live, as it is easy to project the accumulated wounds of a lifetime onto this cellular act. Illness can be seen as a confirmation of our own unworthiness. We can even take this a step further and cruelly imagine ourselves as the perpetrator. This notion has gained some currency in New Age circles with the adage, “you created your illness”. As if we are totally in control!

Either the profound wound of disease can deflate us into a state of hopelessness and despair - or into a state of openness. James Hillman, the Jungian psychologist, has referred to betrayal in mythological terms as the end of innocence, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the mortification of Christ on the cross. This “sacred wound” has within it the inherent gift of spiritual growth.

It may well be that betrayal has no other positive outcome but forgiveness, and that experience of forgiveness is only possible if one has been betrayed. Such forgiveness is a forgiving which is not a forgetting, but the remembrance of wrong transformed within a wider context, or as Jung has put it, the salt of bitterness transformed into the salt of wisdom. Just as trust has within it the seed of betrayal, so betrayal has within it the seed of forgiveness. Neither trust nor forgiveness could be fully realized without betrayal. 9

Our personal engagement with our own healing process is at the heart of efforts to restore balance in the traumatized self. At a certain point, we are called upon to forgive our betrayers - the virus or tumor, our parents, abandoning lovers, society, or even God. In this forgiveness is the seed of mature love that can permeate our entire being, energetically, psychologically, and perhaps even biologically. By letting everyone else off the hook, we free ourselves! As the Buddha said, “You could look the whole world over and not find another being more deserving of love than yourself.”  Is it possible to turn the spotlight of compassion, awareness, and caring onto our own being? And as we continue to research the interface between feelings, biology and behavior, we may discover: self-love is one of the greatest forms of organismic self-regulation and healing available.


1 Kemeny, M., Solomon,G. et al, Psychoneuroimmunology   

2 Davison, K. and Pennebaker, J., Emotions, Thoughts and Healing: After Dafter   in Advances, Vol. 12,  No. 2 (1996) (This issue of Advances is devoted to “Why Negative Emotions can sometimes be Positive”, a fascinating discussion on current research and considerations.)

3 Temoshok, Lydia and Dreher, Henry, The Type C connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and your Health  (New York: Random House, 1992) pg. 265

4 Ironson, G., Solomon, G., Cruess, D., Barroso, J., and Stivers, M., Psychosocial Factors Related to Long-Term Survival with HIV/AIDS  in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1995)

5 Temoshok, L. and Dreher, H. (1992) pg. 266

6 Ironson, G. et al (1995) 

7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Dharma Talk, Plum Village, France, January 25, 1997 

8 Schwartz, Stephen, Compassionate Self-Care,  in The Sun 

9 Hillman, James, Betrayal,  in A Blue Fire: Selected Writings (New York: Harper Collins, 1989)

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, March 1997, Chicago, IL, USA.

Copyright by Jamie McHugh. All rights reserved.

Return to top

Jamie McHugh.