Primal Therapy and Embodied Distress
Janov taught us that the anxiety neuroses are caused by “imprinted pain”. I think that the term ‘imprinted distress’ makes the primal process more understandable.
What is imprinted distress? Imprinted means embodied…stored in protein. And, distress means the uncomfortable, defense-related feelings we have whenever our embodied survival reactions are released from protein storage.
When our lives are threatened, we try to remove ourselves from the danger. We fight against it, run away from it, or our movements may become frozen. During any of these options, trillions of cells are contributing, in their own specialized way, to generate coordinated sensorimotor events that make these behaviors possible. Additionally, consciousness is progressively shutting down, leaving our body to act out an unconscious physical struggle with the threat. Because it represents survival, the things you did to fight the threat get remembered...filed for future reference.
Memory is information stored in protein. The process is called memory consolidation. Once consolidation occurs, the information about your physical struggle becomes inactive and unchangeable. In this way, we carry our trauma reactions around with us all of our lives, awaiting environmental cues that cause our embodied survival reactions to transform back into their energy state. This is called memory recall.
This is what we are hoping to obtain with our primal session: the release of our stored survival reactions from protein storage, back into energy.
Our unprocessed survival reactions contain information that the medial prefrontal cortex can use to interpret and shut down those reactions….if they are not mapping correctly onto present reality. It is understood that this information can be connected to consciousness, if we allow ourselves to sit with the distress signals as they present themselves to us…if we expose them to the “light of our awareness”. Understanding this, we immediately see that repressing or medicating these distress signals is EXACTLY the wrong thing to do, if emotional HEALING is the goal.
Newly formed survival reactions are initially unstable and sensitive to disruption. It takes 6 hours for these reactions to consolidate into long term memories. This is why Peter Levine advises working with newly traumatized people as soon after the trauma as possible. It also explains the importance of the attentive mother, who creates a secure attachment bond with her child… who sees her child’s distress and helps him process it in a timely way (Aletha Solter).
Left unprocessed, distressing survival reactions consolidate into stable long-term memories. Consolidation involves the synthesis of new proteins on nerve cell surfaces, one of the storage sites being the lateral and basal neuclei of the amygdala (LBA). While stored in protein, the reactions cannot be experienced or changed. This memory making process is only vaguely understood:
"...somehow the electrical impulses within the nerve circuitry stimulate the DNA inside each nerve cell. As a result of this stimulus DNA sends RNA out into the cell with a message to construct specific protein memory molecules, usually on the cell's surface. This newly formed protein in some way stores a long term memory that is subject to recall." LeDoux
Under laboratory conditions, Ledoux has demonstrated that, if the survival reactions are brought back into their energy state, their re-consolidation can be prevented by injecting a protein synthesis inhibitor into the LBA within six hours of recall. This is very interesting research, which may someday be used to enable humans to get rid of their anxiety neuroses chemically.
An interesting thought about this: even IF the brain injection of protein synthesis inhibitors is approved for human use by the FDA, there remains the problem of getting our survival reaction memories back into their energy state, prior to the injection. Looks like primal work has a future!