Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP), Emotional Embodiment and Building Capacity for Painful Emotions.
Integral Somatic Psychology™ – or ISP™ – is a relatively new breakthrough approach in trauma healing, developed by Raja Selvam, PhD, that emphasizes emotional embodiment and building capacity in the body to hold difficult and painful emotions.
ISP is informed by Raja’s decades of personal experience in the trauma therapy world as a practitioner, student, and senior educator and is backed by a wealth of research findings on trauma treatment and recovery.
Here is the link to the ISP website where you can read what Raja Selvam has written about ISP and about himself:
Developmental Trauma and the Suppression of Emotions
And here is how I explain this approach to my clients. For those living with unresolved developmental trauma or other severe trauma, it starts with a situation where there is a strong experience of threat or lack of safety and intense and difficult emotions – fear, terror, lack of connection, betrayal, confusion, and our essential needs not being met. We are this tiny person with these overwhelming and painful emotions, and it’s just too much. We fear that we cannot survive because it is too much.
In response to this, our body and brain come up with ways to stop the intense emotions and disconnect us from the pain. And then later after the threat is resolved (which could be after minutes, weeks, or years) the experience remains stuck in our brains and bodies, so we are carrying very painful emotions around with us throughout our lives. And because our bodies and brains continue their work of restricting, containing and suppressing these emotions, each emotion is often held in some small and specific area of our body system, in our heart or in our gut or in our head.
Full Embodiment of Emotions
As humans, we are designed to feel our emotions throughout our whole body. If you think of an infant or toddler in a secure and happy home, the child may go from joy to anger to curiosity to alarm and back to joy – all in less than an hour, and with each emotion, the child will be fully in the emotion with their entire self. That is how we are all designed to work. Not to be at the mercy of emotion in any moment that one arises, but able with the right timing to fully feel our emotions from head to toe and throughout our energy body as well.
And when we are able to fully feel emotions – Raja cites various studies that have measured this – when we are able to fully embody emotions, then our cognition improves, our behavior improves, and our psychological life improves. It is very beneficial for us to be able to fully feel.
Defenses Against Emotions
But we have automatic physiological defenses that are designed to prevent us from feeling overwhelming emotions. And the hidden emotions from our developmental trauma were indeed overwhelming. Had they not been, we would have just coasted through them at the time. Now that we are adults, we have a lot more capacity to hold these emotions. We will not die or explode or dissolve if we feel what was too much to feel as a child. But the emotions still feel like they are too much. And when they feel too much, even in the present, even when we know that there is no current threat, our bodies dutifully shut these emotions down.
The ISP Emotional Embodiment Approach to Building Capacity for Emotions
There are various somatic approaches to healing, including Somatic Experiencing®, in which the body is supported in finding and feeling these difficult emotions. Integral Somatic Psychology goes further, where the client is invited to stay longer and go deeper with the emotion than what might happen organically in the healing work. To make that possible and tolerable, the client is invited to expand the emotion in the body so that more parts of the body are helping to hold it. This requires swimming upstream, so to speak, gently and intentionally moving in the opposite direction than how the body would normally respond to this unpleasant feeling. So doing this work of emotional embodiment is quite uncomfortable in the moment. But despite the discomfort, it is tolerable and is done at an incremental pace according to the client’s capacity. And for those of us who have been carrying so much intensity for so long, the temporary discomfort is welcome when it leads to long term relief.
And ISP can indeed bring palpable relief. You can read some case studies on the ISP website and in Raja’s book that will be published later in 2021.
One metaphor Raja uses is that of a heavy bag of groceries. When you carry a heavy bag with one hand, it is quite difficult. When you use two hands, it becomes easier. Similarly, when more parts of our body are chipping in to help carry the pain of terror, rage, shame or other painful emotions, it becomes easier for the whole body.
ISP and Rosalie’s somatic coaching practice
I was so excited when I first heard the concept of ISP, I immediately began to search for an ISP practitioner to work with myself. This work has made a huge difference for me personally and I am beyond excited and grateful be to able to include this practice in my work with clients.
I have completed two of the three modules of the ISP Professional Training and am scheduled to complete the third module in October 2021.
I do not use ISP in every coaching session with every client, but it is a tool that I am always aware of and that I use quite frequently. It has been amazing for me to see the impact of this emotional embodiment work on my clients and on myself in my own personal work.
A Recorded Emotional Embodiment Process that You Can Use
Inspired by the emotional embodiment work of ISP, I have created a half-hour guided process that takes the listener through an experience of an emotional embodiment practice. It is necessary to listen to or read the introduction to the process first before trying the process itself, to make sure that you understand the purpose and intention of the practice, and to ensure that you have the needed support for anything that could be stirred up through the practice.
The Intro to this practice is here:
The practice itself is here: