Depression and Panic - The Somatic-Emotional Connection

An interview with Stanley Keleman
by Terrence MacClure

Interview Part 1

Interview - Part 2

My interest is in one of your therapeutic modalities. You refer to it as the 'five steps', or the 'how exercise', or 'the bodying practice' or 'a somatic-emotional practice' or simple as 'a practice'. How does this practice or principle relate to depression and panic?

The purpose of the exercises is to be able to have an influence on your behavior. In this particular instance, we're talking about depressive and panic behavior. Your brain influences your body and your emotional life by shifting its attitudes. Attitudes are an emotional and physical shape. This is partly the neurophysiology of emotional behavior. The exercises continue this dialog between brain and the muscular attitude with the emphasis on managing depression and panic.

I'll relate a depressed form to five steps. In this person, everything is moving in, compressing and compacting. They are squeezing and stiffening themselves, maybe as a defense against be overwhelmed. They are overformed with density. To identify and know what's happening and what you're doing is the first step. I've just given it to you. Then step two is to do that more. Compress yourself a little more. You've now volitionally created an additional part of the larger pattern, on purpose. Step three, is to do what you just did slightly less, then less and less. Then, in step four, you merely wait. Incubate. And step five is finding out what you learned and how that may have affect your daily life.

The small window you've created, taking the same depressive pattern you have and doing that more, then undoing it, feeds back to the brain. And it tells the brain, "I did this much, and I undid what I did. I managed myself." This eventually begins to have an effect on the more global pattern in the brain. Feeling better is not the goal. Self-management is. Particularly with the extremes.

What do you usually expect to witness when you're working with someone in this way?

When you ask someone to undo, by doing it more then doing it less, you have stepped into how a person has to reorganize a depressive way of being in the world. And the problem they will run into, as I say over and over, is that their unformed part has no shape. There are no pathways of action. It has to then be reformed. People do not have a structure for relating differently, and this helpless pattern perpetuates the depression.

When you help someone form themselves, what exactly do you mean?

Finding the appropriate behavioral shape for the situation they're facing. An appropriate behavioral shape to contain the excitement and vitality their life can generate. That means having the neuromuscular emotional coordination to organize new expression and gesture in relationship.

What exactly is the danger of disorganizing someone's depressive identity?

When you begin to work with someone to deal with the depressive organization the specific danger is that disorganizing some of the density and compaction raises a threat to the person of too much stimulation and arousal. They will respond to the fear of being washed away by increasing their density. So, it becomes imperative to understand that you as a therapist do not need the approval of the patient by them telling you that they feel better so you feel justified in continuing in your act. It requires accepting the misery or the complaining within the context that it serves the function of both expressing themselves and maintaining that level of arousal which will not wash them away.

So, you see the importance in the exercise: do it more, do it less. The idea of doing it less is to be able to turn the reistat just enough so that the light shed is the appropriate light and not a big jump. Because everytime you make a big jump you run the risk of a depressive response. You have to agree that less is more and that compacting is a personality trait, a way of organizing being in the world. How to come to terms in forming that, rather than trying to feel free of the way you have organized living is managing your basic processes.

When using the somatic practice, how does one manage panic, when there is no form to begin with? I mean, it's unformed excitation, right? So, do you excite yourself more, then less, etc.?

You'd strategically rigidify yourself to give yourself an emotional shape. You'd purposefully give yourself a firmer, manageable body form that doesn't compact, which would also take a little edge off the panic. You are choosing a form as a way to undo a degree of panic and not liquify and spill in every direction.

Could too much rigidity anesthetize you?

Too much can be numbing, in which nothing can be aroused. That's why you learn the nuances of these forms in your situation. It's also helpful to know that sometimes you do need to panic. It's there. And for good reason.

It's interesting to me that a lot of people when first taking antidepressants report being agitated, nervous, panicky, and sometimes fragmented. The depression may be gone, but now they're left with panic. I would say that they would now be on the unformed part of your continuum. Having less solidity and body. Then, in this panic, these same people are often given a tranquilizer to deal with this terror. That tranquilizer gives them more body on your continuum; less fragmented. It's just interesting to see that the biochemical management, or juggle, has the same continuum. The major thing that is missing is the development of that persons volition, which your education seems to offer.

Also, the internal environment changes on an antidepressant. A different oil in the car. A different grade of gas. But, the structure may not be built for this. The structure really hasn't changed. The car itself hasn't changed. This person will have great insights, probably communicate well, but doesn't know how to organize a different behavior in a profound enough way.

I need to be careful here but, my general impression is that most pscyopharmacologists do not know exactly how their stuff works. That's okay. They seem to have a general idea. They know it ends up in the brain. And the brain is the organ they're trying to fiddle with. How do your five steps relate to and effect the brain of a depressive?

We are talking about reforming and rebuilding the brain. One of the central ingredients is to mobilize the part of the brain that emphasizes hibernation and inhibition. It's almost as if the receptor end and the motor end are squeezed out and the synaptic junction or middle portion is compacted and overactive. In that sense, the primary ingredient is to resurrect the flow of traffic in the reticular activating system. We're looking at the central brainstem - midbrain mechanisms that we want to uncompact and have a cortical relationship.

Let's say a person becomes familiar with their somatic forms during depression and panic episodes. Their use. How have they benefited?

Eventually, they learn how not to be so compacted and overformed during depression. The exercise of managing the compactness helps. Which means they are more responsive. During times of panic, they eventually learn to give themselves an appropriate form, i.e., a container or channel for expression that can act with that excitement. And maybe it's simply vacuuming or running.

That reminds me of Woody Allen when he says, "I have bad reflexes. I was once run over by a car being pushed by two guys." Probably a worse case scenario of inappropriate form for the situation.


The five steps are obviously not some sweet oblivious antidote. It doesn't seem like quick time, either. Nonetheless, I know that depressives, panickers and everyone all along the continuum want to feel better sooner than later and take the edge off. And I can even hear some saying, "instant gratification takes too long". To this attitude and urgency what do you say?

The 'five step practice' doesn't 'get rid of'. It develops the ability to 'live with' and reorganize. It develops your volition. It gives you an appropriate form for your situation. And that's a completely different story.


Abridged journal kept by client suffering from depression who practices the exercises

Terrence MacClure is a writer and video producer from Berkeley.

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