Holding Back, Suppression, and Repression

Perhaps the most important concept in the entire Reich and Lowen tradition is suppression of feeling and impulse. This is not just a matter of hiding information or sentiments, it is an actual impedance of the flow of charge in the body. An impulse is an incipient action that arises in the muscles as a state of preparation for action, and in the mind as an urge to do something. Impulses are a manifestation of emotion. A very young child probably carries out all impulses to the extent he or she is actually physically able to. As a person matures, they are expected not to carry out every impulse, this is self-possession.

Holding back is using conscious choice judiciously to not fulfill an impulse. The mind is still aware of the impulse, the urge is still there. If this is not too frequent, the musculature that was primed subsides into relaxation and the impulse also leaves the mind. It is known that if an impulse is strong or persistent, doing something else physical will displace it, in the musculature and therefore also the mind. In fact, some people are known as 'impulsive' because of sudden 'thoughtless' actions, but these impulsive acts in an adult are usually undertaken to 'get away' from the real impulse. A continuous environment that steadily provokes natural impulses but punishes their expression is stressful. Many families meet this criteria, as do many modern jobs. But holding back is usually a transient state because the person can take other actions to handle whatever was provoking the impulse. These other actions are driven by a modified impulse. Maturation is a process where the impulses that are provoked by common stimuli change over time to be more responsible and social. Holding back is not required, the mature impulse can be followed most of the time.

However, with the consolidator or masochist character, holding becomes fixed because it is evoked by such a broad range of impulses. The state of continually holding keeps the impulse alive, and so there is a stalemate with decreased action but strong urges which usually produces a state of anxiety. Muscles may hypertrophy but mostly are not unduly contracted.

Where impulses are at an early age a cause of fear, suppression occurs. Suppression is a strong contraction in the musculature against an impulse. Not only is the action not carried out, but the muscle cannot prime for the action due to continuous contraction. Suppression can be transient, but usually it is frequent and so becomes continuous and global. The contracted muscles can be used for instrumental action, but this is a matter of will not impulse. The look and feel of spontaneity is lost. This is muscular armor. The natural urge to do things is lost in the mind also, and becomes replaced with other motives. Desire is more than impulses but when impulses are lost, desire fades. The contraction in the muscles also decreases sensation, especially proprioception. The strongest evidence for this is the observation that when muscular spasticities are loosed, impulses and sensory vividness increases. Also, it can be observed that true spontaneity (not erratic unpredictability) coexists only with graceful easy movement.

Another mechanism of suppression, especially of feeling and memory, is gating in the nervous system. This is emphasized in the work of Arthur Janov. All sensory input from the body subject to gating or blocking on its way 'upstream' to consciousness. Gating is where the output of a neuron is less than the sum of its inputs, due sometimes to biochemical ceilings on neuron capacity but mostly due to neurotransmitter interaction. A great deal of gating occurs in the brain stem below consciousness. If it did not happen at all, the mind would be overwhelmed with routine information of physiological functioning etc.. However, brainstem gating varies from person to person and time to time. When arousal and sympathetic tone is high, more raw input gets through, when arousal is low and parasympathetic tone is high, less input gets through. Remember, input is both information and charge. Ideally gating enhances functioning by 'cleaning' the signal and enhancing the 'signal-to-noise' ratio. Meditation may work by enhancing below-consciousness gating in a way that is somewhat quietistic but improves clarity.

Gating is naturally also prominent in intense, painful, or prolonged stimuli. Endorphins, other painkillers, serotonin, drugs of abuse, alcohol, nicotine, sugar, self-mutilation, and many other elements have a role in gating. In this way, volitional intent can be brought to bear on gating. This internationality is even more evident in excessive activity. Instrumental activity and distraction both seem to crowd out unwanted feeling via gating. That perhaps is why our culture has become so busy and so involved with spectacle. Gating of course is dissociative. Likely, obsessive compulsive behavior is a maneuver to enhance or shore-up gating.

Concentration is also a means of gating that has an origin more in the mind than brainstem. Deep concentration means the exclusive of all other awareness.

Gating is involved in backward masking. It has been shown certain stimuli of the right quality suppress at least the memory and possibly the effect of an earlier stimulus. Think of the act of gasping and holding the breath after something frightening. It seems likely that muscular stimuli are able to backward suppress autonomic system or gut feelings, possibly more so because of greater myelination in the voluntary nervous system.

Meditation, besides its relaxation and other effects, seems to 'open gates' and work against suppression. That is responsible for much of its benefit but also that is why some individuals are overwhelmed and have 'psychotic-like' reactions to meditation. It may be advisable for people to build up the energetic capacity of the organism before attempting meditation as a means of ungating

Muscular armor certainly works together with gating and perhaps it somehow works through gating. Gating may lead to a back-up of nervous 'pressure' that can overwhelm or leak, which produces anxiety. An interesting theory is that for some, epileptic seizures discharge this backlog all at once and 'reset the gates'. Electroshock therapy, interestingly, is an induced epileptic seizure. Slow or incomplete nerve myelination in development or demyelinating diseases may have some role in suppression.

Leaking is a slang term for the negative behavioral and interpersonal effects that are wrought by suppressed feelings and impulses making their way to the surface in distorted form. Leaking through projection is very common. Suppression is not elimination. Jungian shadow is a concept devised to explain characterological suppression and leaking through reactivity.

With suppression, real maturation never occurs. Ego defenses remain primitive because the full spectrum of adult feelings never reach the ego. People learn pro-social behavior but it has to be intellectually driven because impulses have dropped out of the picture and are not developing. Mentally driven behavior often has resentment lurking behind it. No action gets the intended result all the time. When actions have been driven by natural impulses, there is still peace of mind because the person knows he did what he wanted to do. When actions are driven by intellect or precepts, what the person does is indeed what the person chose to do but it cannot be what they wanted to do. Any imperfect result leads to blame and other-focus. It might be objected that impulses are dangerous, after all do we all not have impulses to kill somebody? This is frequently just hyperbole, but lets stipulate that this sometimes happens. This is a problem only because the arrested impulse of an infant exists in an adult. Remember, no impulse has to be carried out. The role of impulses is not to guide self-determination but to bring realness to action.

Suppression is strong in the oral or communicator character, and very strong indeed in the creator or schizoid character. Suffering negating events very early is associated with weak impulses, which gives rise to the question of whether certain impulses require some neuro-muscular development post birth. Depression is the complete lost of impulses.

Absence of thoughts or memories in the mind is called repression and is a by product of suppression. When bodywork is done to decrease muscular tension, memories and 'uncharacteristic' thoughts usually arise. Suppression cannot be overcome by rebellion, which is a mental choice that produces instrumental action lacking feeling and pleasure. Cognitive or conversational work can partly, in focusing on provocative topics, raise the emotional temperature and 'push through' suppression a little, but by and large bodywork is required to free feeling and impulse.