Is this how the body stores emotion?

December 28, 2013

The connection between emotions and the body is readily acknowledged. Every massage practitioner will tell you that frequently when you work on a body, the client may not only release physical tensions but also emotions. Emotions are also “felt” in the body.

In my own sessions clients often report their feelings. When they say “I feel sad/angry/joyful” I ask them how they know that they are feelings these things. The answer is almost always a reference to a physical sensation which they link to an emotion. For example, a client reporting that they feel sad will often state that they know they are feeling sad because of a heaviness or tightness in the chest. When experiencing anxiety, many people will report an unsettled feeling in the stomach or a tightness in the throat and so on. We can easily see, therefore, that feelings are not only “felt” as emotion, but also experienced as sensation within the body.

The exact mechanism by which this mind-body correlate occurs has remained unknown. In the last few year however, the first signs of how this process may operate at a physiological level has begun to emerge. The key may be something called fascia.

Fascia is connective tissue which lies around muscles, organs and other viscera. In fact, fascia surrounds pretty much everything in the body. Unlike muscles which have a specific function and which reside in a specific part of the body, fascia is like a web of tissue covering the whole body. If you’ve ever seen a chicken breast in a supermarket, the body of the breast (the muscle) is often covered with a white membrane of tissue. This is fascia. Fascia creates a continuous network of tissue throughout the entire body which responds to contractions, trauma or tensions within the body. You can visualise it like a balloon. If we squeeze one part of the balloon, another part will expand to accommodate the extra pressure elsewhere. So it is with fascia. This means that if tension is exerted on one part of the fascia it will be transferred throughout the entire network and “absorbed” by the network of fascia. This explains how damage in one part of the body may cause physical complaints in a seemingly unrelated part of the body. For example an injury to the leg can, after some time, cause pain in the shoulder or arm.

The question remains how does this connect with our emotional state? I believe that understanding how fascia responds is the key to this puzzle. It is understood that muscles actively respond to tension. If they are under pressure they contract. It was long thought that fascia, however, was passively plastic – that is to say it had the flexibility to move when the muscle moved but it did not move of its own accord.

Recent research has offered a different perspective, and one which I believe is the explanation of this body-mind correlation with emotions. Research has recently understood that a certain type of cells within the fascia actually cause the fascia to contract or release. These cells are called myofibroblasts and they can actually alter themselves to alter the fascia webbings and the connections within it.

What is fascinating is that myofibroblasts respond not only to mechanical tensions (e.g. contractions in surrounding muscles) but also to neurochemical stimuli. For example, these cells alter their state when oxytocin is stimulated. So could this be the answer to the link between mind and body when it comes to experiencing emotions? If for example, myofibroblasts cause fascia to relax and release tension when oxytocin is detected in the body’s system or if other neurochemicals may cause the fascia to contract this may explain the reason that we feel emotions in the body and not just as cognitive constructs.

Much further research is required before we fully understand the importance and role of fascia in our emotions. However, if this hypothesis is correct the implications for psychotherapy are significant. It might mean that addressing psychological issues without releasing the corresponding somatic (bodily) effects would be looking at only half the puzzle and therefore offer only a partial solution to emotional issues. It would also explain why bodywork therapies, such as Psychosexual Somatics, which address both cognitive and physiological aspects of emotion are so effective and offer such a powerful therapeutic mechanism. It would explain why such an integrative body-mind approach can offer a much speedier resolution to emotional issues than pure talk therapy. In time, our perspective on talk-only therapies may change and we may increasingly come to seek out psycho-somatic therapies which take both cognitive and somatic components of our experience into account. I look forward to more research being published on this topic and further evidence emerging for the link between mind and body.

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