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S2 E49 TRNSCPT Dangers of Emotional Expression

[00:00:00] Jennifer: So I don’t think this conversation is gonna come as any surprise for our listeners who have been following Trauma Rewired this season- in nearly every conversation, one of the three of us says repressed emotions are dangerous in the body. We sat together on November 15th for emotions in the nervous system. I feel like that conversation really laid some groundwork, and today we get to take this into a much deeper place. psychoneuroimmunology, PNI, is a discipline that has evolved in the last 40 years to study the relationship between immunity, the endocrine system, and the central and peripheral nervous systems.

[00:00:42] We have a lot of research and science that we’re gonna put together today as well as our real time experiences to bring this all together. Psychoneuroimmunology refers most simply to the study of the interactions among behavioral, neuro and endocrine, or neuroendocrine and immunologic processes of adaptation.

[00:01:07] Its central premise is that homeostasis is an integrated process involving interactions among behavior and the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. That’s from Dr. Robert Ader, professor at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. So I would love to open this conversation up today with Matt and Elisabeth.

[00:01:26] Matt, if you would like to start us off today in a real big picture of why emotional expression is so important to health and especially our nervous system health.

[00:01:37] Matt: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me back. I love the topic. The importance of overall health. I mean, especially with the way we’ve been talking, we really can’t overstate it. We have to be able to express our emotions to regulate not only our emotional self, but to regulate our physical body to reduce the buildup of stress.

[00:02:04] And there’s connections between suppressed or repressed emotions and risk of depression, anxiety. It degrades our social connections and relationships. All kinds of stuff and when we can express them, it creates a catharsis, right? Like a release that is not just a random explosion, right?

[00:02:28] It’s not just a blow up, but there’s a healing property that comes with that or a healing characteristic. And so after we release expressions, we often just feel better. and we have better health overall within the nervous system to kind of drill down a little bit, essentially, if we’re not expressing emotions, then the nervous system stays in an activated stress response, or we often talk about a threat response.

[00:02:56] It’s kind of the same thing, but we’re gonna build up stress hormones in our body. We’re gonna have more adrenaline, higher levels of cortisol. Eventually we’re gonna dip into what’s called cortisol bathing, which means we get really good at being in survival mode and really bad at thriving in life. And then it increases the risk within the nervous system of stress related neurological deficits, and then eventually even neurological disease.

[00:03:23]  That all increases the risk when we don’t get to express emotions. The flip side of the coin is we can express, we can deactivate stress hormones. And the stress state of our nervous system tunes down that survival response and we can kind of return back to a state of balance in homeostasis. So it really is a regulating type of thing to express emotions.

[00:03:51] It’s very healthy short term and long term. And to not express them creates huge problems within our physical body and in our nervous system.

[00:04:03] Elisabeth: Yeah, definitely. And I think it’s so important to understand it is vital to the health of our bodies and our nervous system to be able to express emotions. And our bodies were really built for it with all these natural processes so  why do so many people have a difficult time experiencing feeling and expressing emotions in the first place?

[00:04:26] And I think that’s so layered and just very broad in our society. A lot of people can suppress their emotions, you know, feel an emotion, know that they’re feeling it, but kind of work to keep it shoved down because we live in a culture that doesn’t tend to favor emotional expression.

[00:04:50] Emotions make people uncomfortable. We’re taught from an early age that maybe they’re too much, we’re punished, we’re sent to our room. If we express our anger we’re thought of as weak, and that gets imprinted and it just doesn’t feel safe. Like you might be rejected from the herd, like you’ll lose some of your relationships and attachments if you express your emotions.

[00:05:16] But I think also too, at a deeper level, there is a repression of emotion that happens for a lot of people where we don’t even know that we’re not feeling the emotion, where we’re not cognitively aware of our inability to express and feel the emotion because it’s so deeply repressed  in the layers of our subconscious mind.

[00:05:43] And I think that that is often more linked to complex PTSD and things that happen during early childhood development where it’s very unsafe to express your emotions because maybe they’re too big and a small child, their nervous system and body doesn’t have the capacity to experience that emotional energy and safely express it and safely regulate around it.

[00:06:14] And they don’t have caregivers that are capable of helping them process and co-regulate when they express that emotion and they don’t live in an environment where it’s safe and conducive and they have the support and again, the regulation that they need around that emotional expression. So their nervous system can get very dysregulated, homeostasis very disrupted, and it actually becomes dangerous to your survival to express and experience that emotion.

[00:06:41] And then the relationship with the primary caregiver is such that you really might lose that bond permanently if you express the emotion or you might be severely punished. And it really becomes in the nervous system, the brain and the body of that child incredibly threatening to survival, to experience and express that emotion, and then that pattern continues into adulthood at a level that’s so intense we really don’t know, oh man, I’m angry, or I’m really sad and I’m just not feeling it and expressing it. We’re not even aware that that’s going on.

[00:07:27] Matt: The trickiest part of this, and she kind of alluded to this, is that as especially in early childhood, the perception of that threat, our brain can’t tell whether it’s real or imaginary. And so even as adults, our brain really works on the prediction and the perception of threats, not the reality of threats.

[00:07:49] Matt: And so in some cases that person Elisabeth was describing actually is in an unsafe environment and to express emotions to a caregiver, guardian sibling, like can be physically or emotionally dangerous. In other cases there may have been some trauma there. And the perception continues even after that person leaves that environment.

[00:08:15] But it becomes a deeply seated belief pattern. And I know we’re gonna get into that a little bit more deeply in a few minutes, but it’s just really important to understand that our brains on their own can’t discern between real threats and imaginary threats or the maybe kind of threats like maybe it’s gonna happen.

[00:08:38] It’s still going to protect us from both of them equally and with the same intensity because maybe being in danger is perceived as threatening and as bad as actually being in danger.

[00:08:57] Jennifer: I think that’s a real beauty about nervous system regulation is understanding  the different threats that are coming at you and being able to regulate around what is true in the environment, what is true in the internal landscape, and then how am I going to kind of meet these two, right?

[00:09:19] To find the balance of what is happening, how I’m reacting, maybe the way that my lens has changed and to view from your own nervous systems capacity to do so. For me, when the movie of my life plays, I see a lot of Fight trauma response. I see a lot of Freeze. Those are the two that I would probably most associate with, even though we know these things are just cycling through sometimes, right?

[00:09:52] We don’t have that Control button to be like, no, I’d rather run instead of Fight. But those are the two states of F that I identify with most closely- Fight and Freeze. And there’s this interplay between them. But the anger mostly gets turned inward to myself. I mean, if you are around me or you know me, you even hear me on the phone like you would hear my vocal tone change.

[00:10:17] I recognize the shift in my vocal tone. I get this real prickly kind of feeling that comes up and it’s like I’ve got my little pricks out. Don’t anyone get too close to me. And I know that feeling in my body and it’s a response that I often have to track back to say, what just happened?

[00:10:41] What just happened that elicited that response from my body? What is setting that alarm off, the safety alarm? And now I can do that, I can trace it back. But when I couldn’t do that and for the better part of my life up until really a couple of years ago I didn’t have that practice to understand and definitely didn’t understand the ways and to release that energy.

[00:11:03] And so it did create a lot of anxiety, racing thoughts, replayed scenarios and conversations. I get very impatient, incredibly unfocused, crying people have always said, I’m a real emotional type of person. I think the anger eventually just expresses in tears and then reaching for food. To self soothe those emotions that I didn’t understand how to, that were either coming up or didn’t know how to handle them in real time.

[00:11:37] And I can see it all now and there are studies that link anger to cancer specifically. And I lived with a ton of anger for so long. Like that fight response was real for me. And so being diagnosed at age 37 with stage three, ACE score of 4,  I know where the anger comes from and I think while there’s some science that is there now to validate the toxic stress being present and how important it is now to me, that I can make a real-time decision to let that emotion get discharged because it supports a healthier environment in my body.

[00:12:23] I can cleanse at a real system level by not holding onto emotion. You know, I’ve been there and done that. I’ve been sick. I know what the consequences are to this stored emotion, and I just refuse to live that way ever again.

[00:12:42] Elisabeth: I just wanna jump in real quick and kind of echo on what Jennifer was saying in that I have been there many times in my life before having these tools where something happens and I find myself in the behavior. Like I’ll be mindlessly scrolling on Instagram or I’ll be reaching for the food, I’ll have a binge.

[00:13:08] And it’s so, I don’t even know that there was a trigger of an emotion. It’s like I’m just immediately into the behavior and I think that that comes from so much repression. And then as Matt was talking about the difference between perceived and real threat I was thinking about in childhood.

[00:13:31] An example of that for me is after we left my family in Germany, I grew up with a single mom who worked a lot. And so there was a lot of actual time alone, but she was under a very high stress load all of the time. So her threat bucket was very full and tended to be someone who moved into dissociation. And when I would have these massive emotional outbursts, which I did because I also had a lot of trauma prior to that, and I would have these big tantrums, it was very stressful for her. And I think she would move pretty quickly into a dissociated state.

[00:14:09] And so she was still there with me. I wasn’t really being neglected. There was still someone there to protect me, but emotionally she wasn’t available. And I could also, I believe as children we read the nervous systems of our caregivers and it felt like abandonment, my system perceived it as abandonment every time I expressed that big emotion.

[00:14:31] And so you learn pretty quickly when I express this emotion, I get abandoned. The person that I need that connection with is suddenly checked out of their body and, and not present with me. And so it becomes the go-to, to just ignore it, shove it down, cover it up because it feels safer than there’s someone else there with you that is still present or not experiencing so much threat that they’re moving into their own protective outputs.

[00:15:05] And even though that’s not real danger, it is perceived in a little body like neglect.

[00:15:12] Matt: Yeah. It’s real to that little body though. It’s real to the nervous system of the person who’s experiencing it. And that’s something that we try to keep in mind, and I think all practitioners or clinicians would do well to remember that a little more frequently is that the experience of threat, whether it results in emotional pain, in distress or physical pain, is always gonna be unique to the individual.

[00:15:41] It’s their individual nervous system doing its absolute best to perceive and protect itself within the environment and to be able to make predictions about what it can safely do next. and those predictions are based off of previous experiences, right? So my previous experiences are different than Elisabeth’s, different than Jennifer’s, different than Joe or Tom or Bill or Sally.

[00:16:05] And because of that, I’m gonna have a very unique, (laughter) sorry, I always laugh at myself when I say it’s very unique, but I’m gonna have a unique take and a unique perspective on the situation that’s gonna be different than any other person on the planet. And to me, it’s very real. I get an emotional reaction, physiological reaction, hormonal reaction.

[00:16:33] My nervous system reacts, everything activates and turns on as if the threat is real. So who am I to say as a practitioner or a coach or a clinician, that that threat wasn’t real for someone either in their childhood or in their adult life? Absolutely no right to just roll right over that.

[00:16:57] What you said that’s really important that I kind of wanna tease out a little bit is the response, or I guess the results of suppression and repression are a little bit different, right? That explosion or that blow up that you talked about when the anger finally boils over is a little bit more of a response to the short term suppression.

[00:17:21] Like, I’ve been swallowing it and swallowing it and I just can’t hold it anymore and it’s all gonna come out. And we’ve probably all done that before. And that can be harmful for relationships for ourselves, like, but it’s our nervous system almost cleansing itself of everything that we’ve been holding onto.

[00:17:42] And that catharsis that comes with it, even though the expression in certain ways can be very unhealthy. So an explosion happens. But I find repression very interesting because what ends up happening in the long term is that when we repress, we actually block out or kind of forget the trauma that occurred in the first place.

[00:18:08] But that doesn’t mean that it has no effect. We start to engage instead in different types of coping behaviors. And really what I mean by that is typically we see either avoidance behaviors where I don’t want to be either be in the environment or situation or I don’t want to emotionally engage.

[00:18:33] So I’ll almost avoid sometimes in any way I possibly can. So we see those or we see numbing behaviors or compensations that will take away the pain. That exists from that situation or that environment. And the reason I said it’s interesting to use that word is that the unwanted behaviors and the coping actions or, or avoidances they typically occur on a subconscious or a non-cognitive level because all of the big emotion behind it and the original experiences have been repressed.

[00:19:12] We don’t really remember them. Like, we don’t really know why we’re so angry or why we feel so sad or abandoned, but we still behave in a way where we’re like, ah, I don’t understand the driver. I don’t understand why I keep doing this. And the unfortunate part is, is when we do that long enough, we end up thinking that we’re broken or that we are dysfunctional, or there’s something wrong with us because it’s difficult without, you both have kind of talked about that objective view that where now you can take a step back and go, what triggered that?

[00:19:47] Like asking that question that Jennifer said, ‘what happened before that happened’. But without that ability, it’s really hard sometimes to unpack where some of those compensating behaviors or avoidance behaviors are coming from when we’re mired in that sense of repression.

[00:20:10] Jennifer: Before we go on, can someone, one of you take the opportunity to define the difference between suppress and repress.

[00:20:19] Elisabeth: So suppressed is more intentional. You’re making a cognitive decision to not show something. I’m angry. I know it, but I’m gonna try not to react to it. I’m gonna shove it down. I’m sad. I know it, but I’m gonna wait till I’m all alone, or I’m not gonna let this person see, or I’m gonna hold it in.

[00:20:43] Repression is- I do not know that I’m doing that. I don’t really know what’s going on behind my behavior like Matt was talking about, you just end up in the behavior, like I was saying, like I would just find myself binge eating or scrolling and most of my trauma is like that. I don’t remember what happened.

[00:21:03] I only recently in the past, like I don’t know, six years learned what happened, and all of a sudden all these things started to make sense. Why did I drink alcoholically? Why was I a binge eaterr? Why was I such a workaholic? Why? Even though I had all of these practices spiritually, and I worked with coaches and I was in recovery, like why couldn’t I get out of these behaviors?

[00:21:29] And I had no idea what was underneath. Certainly couldn’t identify and express the emotions. Even now when something, I think we talked about this on the emotion episode, but I’ll go to the gynecologist and have a pelvic exam and immediately walked in the house and went to the pantry.

[00:21:54] I didn’t feel anything. I just went right into the behavior. And I now can stop and understand what am I doing here? Oh, there must be something that I’m feeling underneath this that I don’t want to, that’s not safe yet. But that took like a long time of creating safety in my nervous system and learning and exploring and even still, it’s not very conscious.

[00:22:26] I still don’t remember things. I just can identify it by the behavior really.

[00:22:32] Matt: Yeah. But both are very protective, right? Both are our nervous system trying to keep us safe. So the definitions there were great suppression is conscious. It’s trying to control or hide my emotions because it’s not safe to express them. Repression is more unconscious, usually, longer term, longer duration.

[00:22:56] But it creates those defensive mechanisms to protect me and help me engage or avoid either way in a safe way.

[00:23:10] Elisabeth: Matt, if you would just tell us a little bit about what some of the broad consequences to the nervous system are with emotional repression.

[00:23:22] Matt: Absolutely. So we kind of talked a little bit about coping or compensating mechanisms and avoidance behaviors, but on a more granular, kind of neurological level a couple things will happen when we have emotional repression because it’s a subconscious or non-cognitive process. It’s like our entire lens of how we view the world changes.

[00:23:50] So our brain typically, or not typically, always takes in all the incoming sensory inputs. Our vision, what we hear, our sense of balance, our tactile sensations and feeling from our body and from our skin, the internal sensation from our visceral organs. And it puts all of it together and kind of assesses it for threats.

[00:24:13] That’s the job of the amygdala and the thalamus and these deeper brain areas that are basically trying to figure out, am I safe or unsafe? And in kind of predicting the next moment they’re trying to figure out,  how much energy am I gonna need to put into this thing whatever it happens to be, right?

[00:24:33] So they’re trying to predict safety and energy utilization. So once we have had some traumatic experiences and are going through emotional repression, we’re forgetting the cognitive part, right? We don’t remember, maybe the trauma itself, we certainly don’t remember the emotions or why we’re feeling them, but they start to change the perception of everything that happens in the world.

[00:25:01] So those active brain areas actually can be trained, or you might say they can be conditioned to view the world differently. So rather than just looking at the world through my normal glasses that have a nice clear lens, maybe I’m looking at the world through red glasses, right? So it’s all anger all the time, or I’m looking at the world through blue glasses and it’s all sadness and depression all the time.

[00:25:25] But it changes our perception. And so when you change your perception, and again, non-cognitive, I’m not doing this on purpose, but when that perception shifts everything that I see, think, or feel, is going to be different than before that shift occurred. It may be off by one degree, it may be a full 90 degrees different, but how I hear other people’s words and tone of voice will change how safe or unsafe it feels to relate to others and connect socially, what types of environments I am safe to be in.

[00:26:06] Some people end up being fearful of large crowds. Other people end up being fearful of small, intimate gatherings or one-on-one conversations, right? It can go a lot of ways, but it moves it off of its normal I guess I’ll use the word, it’s kind of normal, healthy base of perception and kind of shifts it over.

[00:26:29] So we’re looking at the world from a different perspective. So that’s one big thing that affects everything literally from that moment forward. And then you have the neuro immunological piece that Jennifer introduced at the beginning, where you start to have different hormones and neurotransmitters flowing through your brain and your body systems.

[00:26:55] So you have more readily triggered adrenaline dumps, greater levels of cortisol, changing levels of dopamine and oxytocin and endorphins. Like everything gets skewed. Our HPA axis starts to become more easily triggered. So it can create those chemical reactions in the body more quickly and more powerfully.

[00:27:25] So our physiological, body changes, our metabolism changes, our hormone breathy change, our neural connections and nervous system function changes. So without kind of overplaying it too much, I would almost say like we become a different person on every level. So that sounds a little odd to say, but literally we become a different person when we have been through that level of trauma and emotional repression.

[00:27:54] And the hardest part about it is we don’t often recognize consciously that that has happened. We still think we’re the same person. We think, oh, I can just push through this, or everything’s gonna go back to normal. Or, I’m not any different than I was before that, or whatever. Or I’m not any different than anybody else.

[00:28:14] And yet we find ourselves doing these behaviors and they’re like, ah, why can’t I stop this? Why am I different? Why am I broken? Why am I a F up? Or whatever the language is that goes through our head and we can’t cognitively understand or explain the changes that have taken place. But almost every process within our nervous system has shifted because of that emotional repression and what it does in the brain and nervous system itself.

[00:28:48] Elisabeth: It’s a lot to take in. As you were talking, I was thinking the different systems and how they get changed by an event. And I was thinking specifically of the Interoceptive system, which is just the system inside of our body that tells our brain what’s going on inside of us- being able to read the signals coming from within our body and that there’s a lot of research linking either intercept interoceptive deficit or dysfunction to PTSD and depression and anxiety.

[00:29:21] And there’s this either inability to really read the signals going on inside of yourself, but there can also be a problem with interoceptive accuracy. Maybe we’re attributing too much threat to the signals coming from inside of us, and as that system becomes damaged from trauma or maybe just from issues in our society, or, I don’t know, we lose the ability to read those signals. It can become very threatening all of the time. And then that’s where we feel our emotions and our gut responses. And so maybe if we have had a high level of dissociation, which we talked about when we talked more about developmental trauma and the nervous system, then it becomes really difficult to read and hear and respond to those signals.

[00:30:15] And I was reading some from Gabor Mate before this- When The Body Says No, and he talks about how you’ll hear a lot of people talking about how the Fight or Flight response is outdated. That it was this really important tool in our early human survival when we had to confront predators in the natural world.

[00:30:38] And now we get triggered in situations that really don’t require that response and it can be harmful to ourselves, but he makes the argument that this system really isn’t antiquated, that it’s still useful, that it’s still working for our survival. And that really the salient stressors in our lives today for most humans are emotional.

[00:31:02] And so as we experience these emotional stressors, either through relationships or lifestyles or work environments that are harmful to us, that system is still alerting us to that, right? And that just like lab animals that are trapped in a really high stress environment and can’t escape, people find themselves trapped in these lifestyles or emotional patterns or relationships that are detrimental to their health.

[00:31:27] And the higher level of economic development you see in a society, there’s also a correlation between emotional repression and being able to express and experience emotions. And that the more anesthetized we become we become to our emotional realities the more you see this stress response occurring and also people not being able to respond to it so that we no longer have a sense of what’s happening in our bodies and we can’t act and self-preservation and so that physiological stress starts to eat away at our bodies.

[00:32:07] We have all those hormones that you were talking about, all of the stress hormones that can cause immune system disruption, but it’s not because that system has outlived its usefulness, but it’s because we no longer have the competence to recognize its signals. And either because of our society or because of past trauma or whatever, we don’t have the capacity to hear those signals our body is sending us and to change our environment, change our relationships, and move out of that high stress state.

[00:32:45] Jennifer: We’ve learned so much, haven’t we? To shut it down either from the misattunement from our primary caregivers, like you started off with talking about that misattunement. I do believe it is emotional abandonment and emotional neglect. It’s its own ACE score in a sense, when you have a parent that’s alive and in your nervous system you know that they’re completely detached.

[00:33:09] Like that’s its own ACE score. And then we’re taught by society that it’s also not safe to be feeling all of these emotions. When I first started working with the anger, it really scared me. It really scared me how rageful I actually was and the words that would come out of my mouth, it was scary to do that alone.

[00:33:33] And actually in the beginning, I didn’t do it alone because I was doing it with Elisabeth- was my first experience I think. This work is so important to do with somebody to hold that space for you until you get so used to it. Because number one, it is a very super vulnerable place to let someone else see your rage and the pain behind the rage.

[00:33:56] You know, it was really scary. Even as close as Elisabeth and I are, but with getting more comfortable in the practice it also rewires trust for someone who has complex trauma and doesn’t trust themselves, and it’s hard to trust other people Having support in your emotional practice also rewires your trust limiting beliefs in the process, like someone’s holding that space or I’m holding it.

[00:34:23] And I find support vital in this emotional experience, but eventually over time that practice that was so scary with someone else leads it to me being able to do it on my own in real time. It started out with maybe I take a pillow out to the garage and I scream and shout in my garage and hit this pillow, or maybe I’m in the car beating the steering wheel and that started off very privately, but now it’s like, I know that I might be doing that in the parking lot of the grocery store one day yelling and screaming, but it’s for me, right?

[00:35:00] Getting back to the health- I’ve met the cancer, I will not live like that anymore. So I do want to. I feel a lot of real personal connection to the release of that anger, like what it would do internally otherwise if I hold onto it. And so, you know, but I think it doesn’t always have to be like anger work doesn’t always look for me like beating something and pounding and screaming and yelling.

[00:35:27] Sometimes I get the hedge clippers out and I use a little bit more force when I’m trimming the bushes. Maybe I go out and pull some weeds. Like you can make it a little bit more active. It doesn’t have to be so scary. And so pruning trees is a beautiful way to release your anger. Like getting out and doing something that’s really physical and there’s so many ways to work with the energy of emotions in a safe way.

[00:35:56] It’s safe for me to feel, safe for me to express. And Matt, do you wanna speak to what happens physiologically in the brain and nervous system when anger is stuffed down?

[00:36:10] Matt: Yeah, sure. Let me add something to what you just said though, cause you brought up something really important that you did in your experience and that is at the beginning of working through that you had some structure, right? You just said you have to make it safe, which I 100000% agree with. But one of the ways to do that at first is to have some structure cause we know I’m gonna be very sarcastic here.

[00:36:36] We know some people if they went out with hedge clippers, it would get messy if that’s where they started, It would be like the next Jason Horror movie, except with hedge clippers. Because without structure sometimes if we try to dip our toe in or try to dive into an area, we can spiral.

[00:36:57] And without structure and guidance and safety, if we just kind of go, oh, I’m gonna just deal with this, it can be very unhealthy or potentially dangerous. So structure at the beginning is hugely important cuz we know we have a safe, supportive environment in which to express. And then we can ride that wave back down, calm it back down, and then kind of reenter and reintegrate back into normal life.

[00:37:25] Then step two or maybe four or five or six is as we get a little bit better at the expression, then we can start looking at how can I do this in real life? Within my day or within my week, where can I let out some of this anger that’s not gonna be harmful to myself or others and maybe it’s even gonna be productive.

[00:37:48] For me, I’ve been going through some structure and some anger training, I guess in learning that as I started to implement into the real world, for me it became like cycling where I would just push and push and push at those pedals because it gave me something to push against. And then at about the time that my body tired out, my emotions also tended to come back down and I found a sense of calm or a sense of peace at the end of that.

[00:38:21] And it did have that cathartic release and that ending. So anyway, you kind of talked around that, but that’s a really super cool and very important concept to go with this anger stuff. Neurologically what happens in our nervous system and in our body is- first of all, I wanna talk about what anger is.

[00:38:46] So I know that’s not exactly the question you asked, but I think this is really important. On the one hand, anger is a way for us to communicate information about our environment or about our state. So if I perceive a threat, my stress response is activated, I’m preparing for Fight or Flight.

[00:39:06] Anger is one way to tell you, ‘don’t get in my way’. Right? So it’s a communication tool. On one hand, it’s often non-verbal, but you can hear the tone of voice, you can see my face, you can read my body language. So all of that is one side of it, but it’s also a way to kind of regulate the nervous system itself.

[00:39:25] Like anger is right, because once the stress response is activated and my body’s preparing that Fight or Flight, expressing the anger and letting it out releases the built up tension. It releases all the stress hormones that have built up in that moment of Fight or Flight, or even in the longer term of Fight or Flight.

[00:39:46] So it’s like a communication tool. It’s an expressive tool, but here’s a way to think of it neurologically in connection with threat, and I haven’t seen this one a lot. This is kind of more of an anecdotal definition, I guess, but I think anger is often what happens in the body whenever reality doesn’t match our prediction.

[00:40:13] There’s some dissonance. I expect one thing or predict one thing, something else happens. Ugh, I get angry. Right? It might be a flash of anger or it might be a longer ongoing anger, but it’s like the emotional state of that dissonance between prediction and reality that I can’t reconcile.

[00:40:38] I can’t control it, but I’m gonna respond to it for sure. So if we hold onto that and the nervous system stays in an activated stress state, that’s where we get all of those, like hormonal changes and neurotransmitter changes that we were talking about earlier- kind of the same things as emotional repression as adrenaline and cortisol are gonna increase, metabolics are gonna be super hot and then they’re gonna be depressed in an ongoing term of time.

[00:41:17] All of those other neurotransmitters like endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, they all go off of their normal homeostasis levels. And it gets harder to be present in the moment. Like we lose our sense of connection with our body and our present moment because that anger kind of just burns.

[00:41:43] We use this language a lot. Like it burns hot, right? It’s this white hot emotion within us or this flaming red emotion, whatever color you wanna assign to it. But when we’re activated like that, we have a very difficult time producing oxytocin, feeling changes from serotonin levels, generating and receiving dopamine for rewarding activities.

[00:42:11] All of that stuff kind of gets shut down and we just live in survival mode instead. So it has really far-reaching effects even though we tend to think of anger as just an emotion. It’s very neurological and very physiological at the same time.

[00:42:31] Elisabeth: I really like thinking about anger with that definition of reality and our expectations not aligning. And then just from a very somatic perspective, which somatics is always thinking about the human animal, right? Our human animal body. And looking at the way animals interact with each other and seeing anger as a natural response to a boundary violation.

[00:42:59] When you see in the wild where one Being is encroaching on another’s space, environment, body, there’s a natural response of anger to assert that boundary and to claim your space. And I think that a lot of times and there are a lot of studies looking at that when we have a history of body boundary violations to the body at an early age. There’s a tremendous amount of anger there. And again, it’s not very safe to express that because often it would mean severing the bond with a caregiver that you really need for other reasons, for your survival, for co-regulation to have a community and a herd.

[00:43:53] And so that can get really, really repressed. But then as we’re not able to experience that anger, we’re also not able to know when something is unfair, abusive, neglectful and dangerous to our health. So those of us that can’t feel our anger and maybe don’t even know that we’re not feeling it, we’ll often find ourselves in behavior patterns where we are overworking, overgiving, overdoing, or in relationships where our boundaries are violated over and over again.

[00:44:31] And it’s because we don’t have the ability to feel that internal signal of ‘this isn’t right, my boundaries should be here’. And I think what happens a lot, at least what has happened that I see for myself is I have this inability to create appropriate boundaries in my life with my behavior, in my relationships, in my work.

[00:44:56] But then inside of my body, it’s like my body becomes almost hyper-vigilant about putting up those boundaries. In my behavior I can’t, but my immune system is reacting all of the time to those boundary violations too. I mean, autoimmune is an immune system that is on overdrive.

[00:45:18] And I think that a lot of times when we can’t express our anger in a healthy way and set appropriate boundaries, that becomes internalized in the body. Is the body almost like putting up too many boundaries and an immune system that’s overactive.

[00:45:39] Matt: Yeah. I should have talked a little bit more about the immune system cause that research is definitely out there. We talked about having increased stress hormones but will decrease cytokine production in our immune system when we have kind of an ongoing anger that’s not being regulated.

[00:46:00] The cytokines are like the regulators of the immune response. So they decide how sensitive or how attuned my immune system is gonna be. Then also we’re gonna have a reduction in our actual natural attacking cells like our white blood cells, T cells, lymphocytes, all the kinds of things that go in and attack the pathogens that are invading the body. We get a depression of those in the immune system. So it’s a little counterintuitive cause it’s this weird under activated, but hypersensitive state, right? We’re constantly getting triggered, I mean our immune system, is constantly getting triggered that it needs to respond, but there aren’t enough responders to actually get in there and take care of pathogens, germs, viruses, bacteria, molds those types of things.

[00:47:04] So you often have a nervous system that’s actually more susceptible to disease from external pathogens. And as that goes on longer and longer and longer you do run a risk of that spinning into an autoimmune condition which is obviously what you were bringing into this. Super, super important how that works, that it’s not just emotional and physiological and neuro, it has a super big effect on our immune system.

[00:47:36] Elisabeth: Yeah. In looking through When The Body Says No and The Myth of Normal by Gabor Mate, he brings up a lot of evidence of studies that show children with early childhood sexual abuse are much more likely to have autoimmune disease later in life. And kind of links that early boundary violation to the development of that later.

[00:48:05] And then I was diving down the rabbit hole a little bit more with that and found that, Dr. Bilstrom, the Director of the International Autoimmune Institute, talks about the biggest indicators of developing autoimmune later in life is early childhood sexual abuse.

[00:48:31] And that people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse have more than a 50% greater chance of developing autoimmune disease as an adult. There’s lots of literature between MS and the development of MS with early physical and childhood sexual abuse. Then again, we all know the correlation between higher ACE scores and the development of disease later in life.

[00:48:52] I believe that a lot of that has to do, like you were saying, not just with the neuro, but also with the emotional body and the physical body and the nervous.

[00:49:11] Jennifer: I don’t remember my childhood trauma. I don’t remember it in a way like I can just access that memory like I know exactly the date and the time and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. All those things. It didn’t happen like that.

[00:49:22] Jennifer: And you know, when I think about that movie that was playing and I look at the Fight and the Freeze and those oscillating Fs that were always present in my life I think of, like you saying the word homeostasis. And what is homeostasis for a child that has experience in early body boundary violation.

[00:49:42] So what is homeostasis like? I really struggle with that because I think, and I loved that definition of anger and the dissonance, but the prediction is that my body will be violated.

[00:49:59] That’s the prediction that has come true many times. Right? Might come true later when I hit the grocery store. Might experience a body boundary violation today. That is a prediction that almost feels really safe to be sitting in, but I do have a client that I work with really closely now for a couple of years, who does have pre-verbal early childhood sexual trauma and also has an autoimmune and MS runs in her generational line. And that is really hard for people to sometimes access the generational aspect of their immune compromises.

[00:50:43] But MS is sort of at the very end of the spectrum, right? It seems to be at the top of the autoimmune, right? Like it could all lead to MS eventually. And so in these spaces, she accesses the ancestral MS that lives in her body, in her soma that she can’t access in any other way. And in those she gets to rewire the DNA aspect of her generational autoimmune while she’s keeping her own autoimmune at bay.

[00:51:15] With the NSI, she’s doing the emotional work, but she gets to access another level of healing in her body that is not always safe to do so. And I think the Plants offer a level of surrender into an emotional place that we sometimes just can’t really get into. You can push up against if you don’t feel safe, but you really get to surrender, to reshape the experience, the experience of the trauma, and a real purging of the generational aspect of.

[00:51:52] Elisabeth: I definitely agree and I’ve witnessed some of these experiences for people. And I also think that that is another place where the NeuroSomatic Intelligence tools can be so useful because again, these emotions are so deeply repressed and at the level of our nervous system and our back brain, it can feel very scary in our body to express and release these emotions.

[00:52:21] I feel like that’s why Somatic practices- breath work, psychedelics, somatic therapies- all these things are very powerful and very necessary to express the emotions that are being held into the body. And I think it’s an absolutely necessary component to healing. And I think that it’s really important then to have a process in place of working with the nervous system to keep reregulating around that expression, to keep recreating safety.

[00:52:50] Because I have experienced myself, and I’ve also seen it with clients where there’s this big emotional release and then I had a rash all over my body and my joints swell up, and my body was just not quite ready yet to have that release. There was a lot of protective output and so I had to really scale back a little bit and work at a more foundational level with my daily nervous system training to create more capacity inside of my system to handle that. And then sometimes thinking about my dosage and how to know how much emotional expression to do with myself and with each particular client, to keep it at a level where I’m not either going to ignite some of those protective outputs, the really physical ones, or maybe push someone into an emotional flashback that they can’t get out of.

[00:53:43] Or you know a reaction that then starts recurring really frequently and making sure that I’m keeping it scaled appropriately so that we can move forward and continue to make that emotional expression safe.

[00:54:02] Matt: Yeah. That’s super interesting and cool. But what your story brought to mind for me was the idea of epigenetics. We can have a genetic marker for something that is part of our generational genealogical makeup, but whether that’s gonna activate or not, often depends on what inputs the nervous system immune system in our DNA actually receive.

[00:54:30] And that’s all of the work we’re talking about from NSI tools to regulation, anger, expression. I believe that is gonna move us toward not triggering or not activating that DNA marker so that we don’t end up going through something like MS. But very, very cool how those worlds kind of overlap.

[00:54:56] Jennifer: Right, it’s exactly what you’re saying. It’s epigenetic. It’s it’s the possibility of that gene expressing. You can inhibit the expression of that gene wanting to express through the NSI work, through expressing the anger, through working with your emotional state, with emotional regulation with all of your nervous system regulation, you are actively inhibiting an expression from happening.

[00:55:26] That could be, you know, it’s just like back there, like a little shadow.

[00:55:32] Matt: Yeah. And the tricky thing about epigenetics is we don’t know the combination of how many triggers do we have to have, How long does it have to go on? What is the ideology or the type of trigger or starting event that occurs? What other cofactors are there? We can’t define all of that stuff and say, well, this person is gonna activate that genetic expression and this person is gonna be inhibited.

[00:56:00] We don’t know. And so this is one of the reasons why it’s really important for coaches to be trauma informed and to be neurologically educated. Even if they’re personal trainers or massage therapists or somatic healers, whatever it is, they need to understand the nervous system and immune system and trauma, at least in my opinion, getting out my little soapbox here.

[00:56:25] But they need to have this education on all of these sides to understand that just making people do more is not always the right answer. That these things all kind of have to be balanced against one another and approached intelligently so that we can minimize those things that might be triggering toward a genetic expression and support the things that may be inhibiting toward that genetic expression.

[00:56:57] But there’s a lot of variables in that puzzle. There’s a lot of pieces to play with, but I think the more information and the more education that we have, we are in a far better place to help people have a longer, healthier life rather than inadvertently contributing to the dysfunction just because we didn’t know any better,

[00:57:21] Elisabeth: Man, there’s so much to talk about, and we had so many emotions that we were gonna cover today so we’re gonna split this up into two episodes for you guys. We’ll get to other big fun emotions like grief and shame, but also the enjoyable ones like pleasure and connection and joy in the next episode.

[00:57:42] Elisabeth: So make sure to circle back around and listen to that. And if this is resonating with you and you’re a coach, a therapist, a healer, a somatic practitioner, and you want to bring a little bit more of this neuro knowledge into your practice, then we are enrolling now for the next round of NeuroSomatic Intelligence certification.

[00:58:03] The link is in the show notes, check it out. You can schedule a consult with us. You can get more information by signing up for the email list. And we would love to have you come join our really amazing community of practitioners who are bringing applied neurology, somatics, and emotional expression into all areas of healing and growth.

S2 E49

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