Integration is the main task of therapy

Delyse Ledgard, RCCTherapy process

What do we mean by Emotional Integration?

In therapy, our main task is to integrate new experiences. This is no less true whether we are getting over a relationship breakup or dealing with depression, or obsessing over losing weight.  People come to therapy because they keep repeating responses and habits that keep them stuck in past experiences. 

Daniel Siegal identifies integration as ‘ the linkage of differentiated parts into a functional whole and sees emotions and emotional processes as central to healing and integration.  He explains that emotions serve to link our thought processes such as perception, meaning, and memory with movement, behaviour, and relational attachments that stick together in neural firing patterns. Emotions wash through us as sensations that have their own signature.  They are categorized into what we experience as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy, surprise and shame and depending on the social interplay will result in different degrees of integration.

Essentially when different aspects of our experience are linked together that experience is integrated.  Daniel Seigal describes the features of enhanced integration as being flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable.  When this happens our experiences flow easily and we can take in new information.

One could say that this describes good mental health.

Let’s compare successful linkage vs interrupted.

What happens when our experience is linked successfully?

When we feel frightened and distressed receiving soothing from others calms our fear and increases our capacity for tolerating the experience.  A soothing presence provides a sense of safety and comfort so the physiological reaction of fear begins to relax.  Our heart rate starts to slow down, we can breathe easier and our muscles relax.  As we relax we can stay present to the different aspects of the experience including emotional, sensory, cognitive, and relational.  What we learn from this experience is that we are not alone, that people are there to help and that we have the strength to get through difficult experiences.

What happens when our experience is interrupted?

On the other hand, when we feel frightened and distressed and receive harshness or neglect our fear is likely to increase.  This lack of support and comfort adds to the threat.  As the fear increases, we become overwhelmed making it more likely that we will cut off from our experience because it is the only way to reduce the fear that has become intolerable.  As we are unable to remain present in our experience the physical, cognitive and social aspects become linked into a chaotic, rigid and isolating configuration.  So in this case, we might learn; that we need to disconnect from our emotions as they are dangerous and will overwhelm us, that we are alone and others are not there for us and that we can not cope with life’s difficulties.  Over time if this kind of experience is repeated we have limited access to our emotions, sensations and the body and less ability to integrate ongoing experiences.

What can we conclude from this comparison?

When we don’t receive soothing and comfort, particularly early in life, we will end up cutting off from our bodies and our experience.  This has serious consequences to our capacity to be present to our experience, integrate new experiences and cope with life’s difficulties.  This is how we become stuck in outdated and old patterns that are very difficult to change and our experience is fragmented.

An extreme example is someone who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress where flashbacks could be described as isolated moments of experience that keep firing within their system disconnected from a coherent whole.  A more commonplace example might be a feeling of mistrust that arises in response to meeting new people resulting in an ongoing sense of isolation and feeling unloved.

Impaired integration results in responses to present experiences that are guarded, paralyzed, constricted, confused and carry a physiological sense of collapse.  In other words, the person walks in the world as a victim.

Healing Impaired Emotional Integration.

In order to heal these outdated patterns, we need to access the mind-body systems involving sensation, emotion and movement to integrate new information and link these fragmented aspects of an experience.  In therapy, we do this in several ways which facilitate the awareness of the body as we process experiences.  These include mindfulness, somatic processing, somatic empathy, sensory/motor techniques and grounding tools.

The importance of being able to take in a loving presence can not be understated.  This is very difficult for many people where a secure loving connection has been disrupted.  As we see from these brief examples it is easy to learn that people are not there for you and you have to go it alone.  A solitary mindfulness practice, for this reason, can only go so far.  If we do not activate our mind-body system that relates to a safe connection (called the social engagement system) we will not be able to fully integrate our experiences into a sense of internal security.

In Daniel Siegal’s words, “When we are safe and seen, when we have the sense of ‘feeling felt’ and being psychologically held in mind by another, we develop a sense of inner security.  In many ways, we have linked the differentiated mind of another within our own.  We have integrated a secure relationship into the fabric of our psyche.”