Depression and Panic - The Somatic-Emotional Connection

An interview with Stanley Keleman
by Terrence MacClure

Interview Introduction

Interview Part 1

I'm very interested in how your 'somatic-emotional' practice exercises work to help the depressive and panicked character. But first, how do you as a somatic educator, define depression?

Depression is an identity. It is a way of being in the world. We're talking about depression as a way of using yourself that results in a pattern of behavior that you, in one way or another, live with or struggle to live with. It becomes a lifestyle.

This is a lifestyle and not a short term reaction?

There needs to be a distinction between the depressive character vs. the person who is suffering from some situational form of depression: a person who has a severe loss and has retreated, has not necessarily withdrawn from life. A person who has retreated because of a loss is not really in a depressive state, although we call it a depressive state. They're in a pause place in dealing with their losses, trying to mend the wound of a torn form of relationship.

That has to be differentiated from the person who uses depressive organization as an identity and as a way of being in the world: complaining, negating, the disruption of the promise of the future, keeping oneself deliberately smaller or shrunken as a personality organization. This is not simply a reaction formation.

The opening lines to 'Annie Hall' demonstrates that complaining and negating part as a way of being in the world. It goes: "...two old ladies are at a resort in the catskills. One says, 'this food is terrible', and the other says, 'and in such small portions'." Then the narrator says, "that's basically how I feel about life."

That's the attitude of people who have the philosophy: "I'm a skeptic" or "I'm a cynic", who are really hiding a depressive attitude toward life. It is a holding back and taking smaller portions.

How is a depressive character using themselves that leads to all this and why would they do that?

You can understand why they do that by understanding this: depression is also the psychology of being underwhelmed and panic the psychology of being overwhelmed. They're in relationship to each other. It's a continuum. On one end there is extreme underwhelming depression, on the other side there is extreme overwhelming panic, and in between you have the degrees. All these degrees and extremes are body shapes. Somatic shapes. Each shape determines your experience of depression and panic.

A person begins using themselves by holding a little, waiting, holding more, stiffening, squeezing, compressing, then compacting, until they are protected from being too overwhelmed or panicked. Any kind of freezing up begins to set the stage for depression which starts to go the other way on the continuum. You could say that a person who was startled and freezes themselves in response to being too overwhelmed is already in the outer extreme of depressiveness. They are now underwhelmed. And this is their use. This is the pattern: compression and compaction.

So, this use has a use. It can be a response to being overwhelmed and panicked. What is panic in somatic education?

The first response to any stress or challenge is always arousal, to be aroused. To be aroused means more excitement, more activity. If arousal is not containable, if arousal is of such intensity that boundaries are incapable of organizing what's available to itself, we will be overwhelmed, we will move toward unbounding liquefaction panic. Panic is down the road. Panic is a situation where there is not enough form. There's too much excitation.

When there's too much excitation, there is no form. Depression is an attempt to squelch and manage the unformed excitation. Performers are a good example of this. Kurt Cobain comes to mind. He moved toward isolation and hibernation, because of constant overarousal. Then was left alone.

When you begin to disorganize some of the somatic aspects of depression, the danger is they are now unformed and they panic. Leaving the extreme of one pulse. Depression has a function and you have to come to terms with what this function is. Just as much as to some degree panic and anxiety have a function.

This seems like a dilemma to me. One side is panic and fear, the other side depression and agony, neither one desirable, but both needed to regulate each other. Then to add insult to injury, it's your identity.

It is. It's one of the central dilemmas of dealing with a depressive. They are caught in the conflict between their fear of a liquidity: of disorganizing, unbounding, being overaroused, leaking out, and their fear of congealing and compressing into one unchanging despairing lump. So, they get locked in the place where they're afraid to be responsive, and they hold onto their unresponsiveness.

One of the goals in somatic education is to help a person form themselves. But, also, to help a person re-experience and reuse their basic experiences of how they sustain their excitement and how they think about a problem and how they will plan an action with this lifestyle. You are using all those functions and not just changing or trying to get at a memory or hurt or reframing a pattern of injury or insult.

You're not just lifting the veil of depression.

If you just lift the veil of depression, using whatever method, nowhere does it say that how to be here exists after you've lifted this cycle. Our assumption is that if you lift repression or if you get at stimulating the person and lifting their repressive mood or get them to talk about the feelings and encounters that depress them, that there is a ready made form that will pop up like a jack in the box and say, "here I am, no longer depressed, capable of functioning and out there".

This is an illusion to say the least. Compression, compaction or depression in inhibiting bodying, inhibits the way we use ourselves in social and personal situations. This means there is kind of a disused atrophy or unused atrophy underneath. Something is not being exercised.

This reminds me a little of Awakenings and Oliver Sachs. Something was lifted, and these people were left with old memories and atrophy, then went right back where they came from.

The situation Oliver Sachs ran into in that long term encephalitis disease where people were in a coma and they were congealed, was a short term arousal and a retreat into even a worse collapse.

I'd like to get something out of the way, because it's in the air everywhere. You have clients who have tried prozac at one time or another, and I only want to bring it up here because I think what you say about it relates to an essential ingredient in your work.

I have a few people who are taking Prozac. I wouldn't give you ten cents for some of their sessions. They talk about their mood shifts, then you watch the content and the application of the insights. It's as if they went to an interesting movie. The urgency to have to rebody yourself is gone, so that what you get, since the urgency is gone, is insight or being able to communicate is the pleasure. They're happy with that. Nothing has to reorganize itself. They feel better. They say there's a shift in their mood. "I'm not well, but it makes it tolerable." And this is the key sentence: to keep doing the things that they've been doing well, not to reorganize and relearn. I don't deny there are times that you need it. I only deny what its effect will be.

It's true there are illnesses that are biochemically induced. There are dopamine and serotonin based illnesses. What people leave out is that in a common response to a situation, like, having to control yourself when someone is shouting at you, you begin to shrink and hold yourself back. The body sends the brain two signals: compact, which stops the dopamine or serotonin, and, send some epinephron to to be charged and excited. So this muscular attitude starts stiffening even more to try to stop from being overwhelmed by it's own epinephron. This finally depletes the chemical that keeps us alert and aroused and you get exhausted and depressed. So, the chemical disturbance is not only caused on the inside by a mess up in the brain physiology, it's also a signal from the muscular attitude in response to a situation.


Interview Part 2

Terrence MacClure is a writer and video producer from Berkeley.

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