Anxiety, breathing and the body (Previously titled- Gestalt Therapy Shibboleths)

Anxiety is excitement without breathing… really?

A Gestalt body psychotherapist (finally!) responds… with pictures!
Shibboleth: 1 a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning Joseph Epstein>
Gestalt Shibboleths
Fritz Perls, the main founder and showman of Gestalt therapy, was a great sloganeer. He gave early adherents of the Gestalt approach many pithy, overly simplistic, but memorable bumper-sticker phrases. These bumper-stickers highlighted the unique view that Gestalt therapy was trying to bring to the overly intellectualized psychoanalytic view Gestalt therapy was reacting to, but they have themselves become shibboleths, empty of meaning. They hang onto our thinking and training like a bad smell whose source one can’t quite locate, preventing one from more cogent thinking.
One such notion put forward early in Gestalt therapy especially bothersome to me as a body-oriented therapist is that anxiety is excitement without breathing. The notion being that if you encourage an anxious person to breath, the anxiety will convert into excitement, the natural feeling of energy mobilized towards novelty and growth. In other words, anxiety is really suppressed excitement.
A participant in one of my workshops recently asked me about this principle. I was surprised that this notion is still being floated in Gestalt training circles, hence my interest in detailing my view here.
As a somatically based therapist there were so many things wrong with this slogan. Where to begin? Items…
1. It gave a singular, and wrong, explanation for anxiety.
2. It didn’t reflect the body process of anxiety I observed.
3. It reinforced a view that the client didnt have anything real to be anxious about, but was somehow foolishly avoiding the growthful goodness of excitement.
4. It didn’t fit with what I experienced in my own struggles with anxiety disorder
5. It wasn’t useful in working with clients.
Besides all that it’s just dandy… not!
The function of diminishing breathing
Is there a link between diminished breathing and anxiety? Sure, but you have to understand how breathing functions in our psychophysiology to appreciate just how experimenting with breathing changes the experience of anxiety.
Diminishing our breathing has an immediate effect on diminishing our overall body sensation. This function is built in to our nervous system and is seen most starkly in the startle reaction.
When you hear an unexpected noise at night you will monetarily hold your breath, freeze your body, and focus all your attention on listening for sounds. Holding your breath and freezing your movement dampens down your internal sensations so that the external stimuli of the sound can be more acutely perceived. Information engineers call this improving the signal-to-noise ratio. The signal, the sound we heard, is now louder relative to our internal sensations.
This is why, similarly, when you ask a client to attend to what’s going on in their body, they often automatically stop breathing in response. Not because it’s a defense, but because it is a natural response to limit the larger “noise” of body movements so as to discern the subtler signals of affect and other internal sensations. But this natural, automatic response has a paradoxical impact because, as I noted, diminishing ongoing breathing even momentarily also diminishes the intensity of our internal body sensation, the very thing we have just asked them to attend to, quite significantly. This mechanism of diminishing breathing, so useful when we are trying to attend to external stimuli, is just the wrong thing to support attending to internal stimuli.
Two Principles of Breathing and Body Sensation
So now we have two useful somatic principles relating to breathing and body sensation.
On-going breathing supports awareness of body sensation.
Stopping or diminishing breathing dampens or curtails body sensation.
In order to support awareness and attention to body sensation we have to coach the client to maintain ongoing breathing. We do this by making sure that, first, we the therapist are doing this ourselves. I always tell my students that, if there is going to be only one person breathing in the consulting room, it should be the therapist. And then by coaching our clients in unobtrusive ways: “As you pay attention to your body, just keep breathing in and out… keep breathing as you feel into yourself… etc.”
Ah, some simple principles. Don’t we feel better now? Just keep breathing and we’ll get through this…
And since, from a phenomenological and somatic point of view, affects (feelings) are essentially a type of body sensation, managing our breathing is also sine qua non the most immediate way we manage our emotions, in other words, feelings are fundamentally bodily events.
Making “I” Into “It”
Another somatic process available to us to manage feelings that are unsupportable (overwhelming, forbidden, would have intolerable consequences in relation to others, etc.) is what has been called disowning them or dis-identifying with them in Gestalt therapy. Although this sounds like a mental process, as related to feelings it is very much grounded in our somatic nature.
Working with subtle energy, it has become apparent to me that this thing we call awareness is not just an aspect of our subjective experience, but is also is accompanied by energetic processes. Specifically, when someone is present and aware and feeling they are in their body, there is a palpable quality of energy that can be sensed in the tissue. This that can be felt easily with a little training. This is different from being aware of ones body, since we can have signal-from-a-distance as I call it, without being especially in the places the signal is coming from.
Now, heres the interesting part as far as our discussion here goes: we tend to experience body areas where awareness is in as “I,” and the parts where awareness is not as “It” (i.e. as an object), even though we have sensation. So, one way we disconnect from feelings that can’t be supported is to withdraw our energy of awareness from the body areas where we experience the sensations of that feeling.
Since many feelings originate or locate in our torso– sadness in our hearts, fear in our gut, anger in our belly– it is not uncommon to see that clients have habitually drawn much of their energy and awareness up into their head. Much of their insides are experienced as “down there” from the perspective of the head where “I” is located, is now an “it” rather than an “I.” The sense of “I” becomes identified with the act of thinking, the main sensation in the head where “I” is located, and sensations of the body are felt but as “things which happen down there.” (Figure 1)
Once Again, With Feelings- why feelings “arise”
Emotion, from the Latin to move outwards has a place in our body where it originates, a direction of movement through the body, and a place where it is expressed to the environment. I call this the pathway of expression. Many feelings originate in the visceral core of the body and their pathway of movement is up i.e. through the torso. So feelings such as joy, anger, or sadness, are experienced as “rising up,” that is, their pathway originates “below” in the torso and tends to move upward towards our throat to be voiced, and our face to be shown and expressed. (Figure 2)
So what happens when a feeling that is utterly disowned, a feeling we have had to completely disconnect from in order to survive, is stimulated and begins to “rise” in us? Especially when diminishing-breathing, tightening muscles (retroflection) and other means don’t stop them from arising.
Funny you should ask.
When an emotion that we have had to reject, and thus has been subjectively relegated to “it,” begins to “arise from below,” we first withdraw further up and away from it (Figure 3). Since the initial sensations are mostly subliminal, we dont feel the initial emotional quality but rather only the sense of emergency that something bad is occurring; unknown, foreign, and out of control.
This is why people report anxiety as something that happens to them:
It just happens,
It feels like the anxiety just takes me over,
It comes from nowhere.
In other words, instead of experiencing the original feeling as it is, we experience our reaction to it, which is that some awful (rejected, forbidden, dangerous, etc.) thing is going to overwhelm the “I.” We withdraw our awareness further upwards, away from the rising feeling and experience the fear of something bad happening rather than the original feeling (Figure 4). In more extreme cases we actually numb enough that the body below feels disconnected and we feel dissociated (Figure 5).
Three natural responses result:
1. A feeling weve disconnected from begins to arise.
2. We diminish breathing to dampen sensation and tighten muscularly to diminish movement and thus flow of energy and expression.
3. We pull away from what we are afraid of. Since we are trying to pull away from a feeling arising inside our own body, we do this by pulling our awareness, breath and energy upwards into our upper torso or head.
4. We feel fear as a response to something bad happening.
So now, finally, we can reformulate the misleading bumper sticker we started with (anxiety is excitement without breathing) and look at the problem as a body therapist might:
Anxiety is the emergency reaction to a feeling rising in the body from which we have disconnected via diminished breathing, muscular tension, and withdrawal of awareness, energy and sense of ownership.
That feeling could be excitement, but is more likely sadness, loss, loneliness, anger, shame, or other seriously problematic feelings.
The processes by which we maintain disconnection from, and suppression of, the feeling are fundamentally somatic ones, and we see these become more emphasized and exaggerated when the feeling is somehow triggered or stimulated by circumstances:
In a following blog I’ll talk about how we work with this as a body process.

Copyright Jim Kepner, 2010, all rights reserved.
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