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Primal Therapy: Why We Must “Feel to Heal”

In my book Fear Memory Integration I include a discussion of experiments that Joseph LeDoux conducted regarding fear memory retrieval and extinction.


We have understood for many years that fear conditioning results in the formation of extremely stable sensorimotor memories. These memories are energetically connected, unconscious survival reactions consisting of “muscle tensions, proprioception sensations, organized sequences of muscle movements, and the homeostatic settings of internal organs as regulated by the autonomic nervous system”. Doyle Henderson. Proprioception: The ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium. Even if a person is blindfolded, he or she knows through proprioception if an arm is above the head or hanging by the side of the body. The sense of proprioception is disturbed in many neurological disorders.


One of LeDoux’s discoveries was that new protein molecules must be created on which to store these reactions as a long term memory. The storage site is along the nerve cells of the amygdalae. Memory consolidation takes 6 hours. Once consolidated, environmental cues can re-invoke these felt memories by returning them to their disembodied, energetic state once again. Our feelings emerge out of this state and generate internal distress and consequent fear behavior.


LeDoux also discovered that, if you disturb the protein making process in the amygdalae while the fear memory is being re- felt, the memory is extinguished. If the memory is not reactivated, the same intervention fails to extinguish the memory. In other words, you must feel it to heal it.


Ledoux’s description of a fear conditioned memory makes it very clear to me that Janov’s Imprint is such a memory: “The ability to rapidly form memories of stimuli associated with danger, to hold on to them for long periods of time (perhaps eternally), and use them automatically when similar situations occur in the future is one of the brain’s most powerful and efficient learning and memory functions. But this incredible luxury is costly. We sometimes, perhaps all too often, develop fears and anxieties about things that we would as well not have.” Joseph E. LeDoux (born December 7, 1949) is an American neuroscientist whose research is primarily focused on survival circuits, including their impacts on emotions such as fear and anxiety.


Van der Kolk adds to this: “These emotionally labeled sensations [survival reactions] are believed to be indelible or at least extraordinarily difficult to extinguish. Once the amygdala is programmed to remember particular sounds, smells, and bodily sensations as dangerous, a person is likely always to respond to these stimuli as a trigger for fight or flight reactions.”


And, finally: “…lack of integration of traumatic memories seems to be the critical element that leads to the development of the complex behavioral change that we call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Intense arousal seems to interfere with proper information processing and the storage of information into narrative (explicit) memory.” Note: vdK’s last sentence implies the reality of the brain’s ability to automatically “gate” pain. Bessel van derKolk (born 1943) is a psychiatrist, author, researcher and educator based in Boston, USA. Since the 1970s his research has been in the area of post-traumatic stress. He is the author of the New York Times best seller, The Body Keeps the Score.


Janov says: “…the memory of a repressed trauma is far more complex than simple verbal recall; it contains the original state of the entire system during the trauma and can be literally relived.” And: “In the primal, whatever the individual cell networks did originally to survive they will do again”.


In these statements, Janov implicitly foreshadows LeDoux’s results, That is, the feeling (imprinted memory) must be felt. This can only happen if the imprinted feeling is cued out of protein storage and back into its energetic state, where it can then be made conscious.


When you look at medical psychiatry, the very opposite is happening. Imprinted fear information is suppressed by medicating it. So, the feeling is never felt. This temporarily diminishes anxiety, but leaves the source of the anxiety untouched and subject to repeated recollection. This leads to chronic anxiety being treated by “chronic” dosing of medication to quell that anxiety.


Science cannot, as yet, safely infuse our amygdalae with protein inhibitors. And, even if we could, LeDoux’s experiments show that we would still have to know how to feel the feeling first, prior to being infused. We need the primal process. Maybe someday infusion will become available to us.


In the meantime, there is another option: make the fear memory available to the medial prefrontal cortex…….


Or, as Janov would say: “the only way the primal pain [fear memory] and the act-out [behavior] it generates can be eradicated is through experiencing the memory of the trauma, to make it conscious.” The medial prefrontal cortex is part of our conscious, high road information processing system.


A primal enables the cortical processing of fear information, thereby enabling the MPC’s control over the previously suppressed imprinted information:


Ogden says: “the medial prefrontal cortex … play[s] a role in the extinction of conditioned fear responses. By exerting inhibitory influences over the limbic system, including the amygdala, the medial prefrontal cortex thereby regulates the generalization of fear and overall increase in the fearful behavior mediated by the amygdala.” Pat Ogden, PhD, is a pioneer in somatic psychology, the creator of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy method, and founder of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. 



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