Chapter 7: Effects of distress

A. Degrees of distress

In this and the following section I shall try out a more detailed theoretical model of the way in which distress affects behaviour in humans. To begin with, I postulate three degrees of tension or distress.

  1. Enabling distress. This is the degree of tension that facilitates behaviour. In animal-like distress of a bodily kind, fear energises effective flight or last-ditch defense, anger energises adaptive aggression as when a parent attacks a dog molesting a child. At the level of personal needs, the distress is such that it provokes personal and interpersonal fulfilment: sorrow at parting provokes loving preparation for the return; anxiety about what is unknown generates systematic enquiry; frustration with the material leads to redoubled effort and application.
  2. Neutral distress. At both the bodily and the personal levels, the degree of distress is such, the individual is such, and the situation is such that behaviour is relatively unaffected, is neither enabled or disabled. And this refers to distress that is fully registered at a conscious level by the person, not to distress that is subliminally registered, cut off, occluded.
  3. Disabling distress. This is the degree of distress that produces maladaptive and unfulfilling behaviour. In states of physical threat or attack, fear immobilises where flight is both possible and more effective; anger generates counter-productive berserk attack. When the person is distressed, grief may produce alienation, withdrawal and social incompetence; fear may produce rigid superstitious belief and practice; anger may generate severe depression or useless destructive attack.

It is this disabling degree of distress that I wish to consider in more detail. For a source of stress - a stressor - to be disabling, there must be some critical functional relation between the vulnerability of the subject, the intensity of the stressor and its frequency of repetition (if many stressors, then their combined intensities and frequencies), the available coping resources of the situation. When physical stressors are applied, such as electric shock, light, cold, noise, fatigue, physical danger (as in war), then the vulnerability of the subject is very much a matter of the toughness of the nervous system, to put it crudely. And this seems to apply not only to Pavlov's dogs but also to soldiers under combat conditions.

But personal stressors of a purely psychological and social kind or from primary sources, where there is no physical threat or pain involved, are a different matter. Here the vulnerability of the subject is very much a question of her cognitive appraisal of the situation, the sort of knowledge and coping skills she can bring to bear upon it, of the degree of insight into what is really going on. I postulate, therefore, that the greater the person's insight into the reality of the interpersonal stress situation, the less the tendency of the stress situation, the less the tendency of the stress to have a disabling effect on behaviour. Conversely, the more deficient, inadequate, immature such insight, the greater the disabling effect. On this measure, human infants and small children are the most vulnerable since, however enormous their potential intelligence, their actual ability to understand what is going on is either virtually absent or very limited.

The younger the person, the more it is reasonable to estimate the intensity of the personal stressor in relative independence of the state of the subject; the older and more insightful the person (where insight is related to affective and interpersonal skills), the more the intensity of the stressor is determined by how it is appraised. In other words, the more a person's intelligence is functioning awarely in present time with discriminating appraisal, the more she determines what constitutes for her a source of personal distress that is disabling. Such present-time functioning however does presuppose the person is released from the disabling effects of past distress.

The child, then, through lack of cognitive appraisal of sufficient sophistication, is highly vulnerable to personal stressors. And if such a stressor is, say, the distorted behaviour of a parent, then it is both very intense and very frequent. Nor can the environment help, since whatever resources it contains, their effective use depends on the knowledge and skills of the adult or older child.

The younger the infant, the more physically dependent she is and the more intimately I assume her physical and personal needs are interfused, so that any frustration of her physical needs will ipso facto be a frustration of her personal needs, primarily her personal needs in their most vulnerable passive form - to be loved, to be understood, to be wisely managed, facilitated and enabled. Conversely, her earliest fulfilment of personal needs will be in terms of the satisfactions of physical need and physical contact.

Once some measure of independence is reached through crawling, exploring, walking and above all talking and comprehending speech, then the child's personal needs can increasingly seek personal fulfilment as such, and can increasingly be frustrated independent of any physical needs not being met.

However a basic principle I assume is that even when the distress is primarily personal, its impact is still psychobiologic; it has a physiological component or basis. This is because the body is the medium of personal needs, and their fulfilment includes distinctive kinds of verbal and non-verbal expressiveness. To frustrate a personal need is to impose a physical stress on the physical mechanisms involved in its fulfilment; this stress is the correlate of the latent or overt psychological distortions of the person.

On this model the human child, that has not been unduly interfered with, has an organism that is spontaneously active with, and expressive of, personal capacities seeking fulfilment in the given world. Any major suppression of this creative psychosomatic spontaneity of the young person is registered as psychosomatic distress, hence there will be a somatic component in the release and resolution of such distress.

B. Disabling personal distress in the child

From the clinical and experiential evidence now available, I postulate the following possible ways in which the human body-mind reacts to intense and/or frequent personal stressors.

  1. Encysting. The distress is occluded, so that the pain - which would be too great for the child to experience and resolve - does not enter consciousness or (disrupt) distort behaviour but is still latent as a line of stress in the system. This is a strong form of automatic protective inhibition. The possibilities for encysted distress are:
    • It lies latent, never directly distorting behaviour into negative or disruptive forms. Even so, it may affect later behaviour radically by repeatedly inclining the person to do inoffensive or apparently positive things which serve to avoid it, and hence whole areas of potential activity which the person could have entered if the distress had been resolved are permanently shut off. Thus a person may go in for compulsive chastity and meditation as a way of keeping early personal traumas occluded. This is relatively benign but deeply systematic distortion.
    • It lies latent but erupts later in life strongly distorting behaviour when activated by stimuli that key in - in some important way, perhaps that of critical similarity - to the original stressor stimuli. Hence there could be a sudden acute breakdown of behaviour.
  2. Automatic distortion. The distress is occluded automatically as a form of (weaker) protective inhibition since the pain would once again be too great for the child to experience and resolve. But while the experience of pain cannot fully enter consciousness, the child's behaviour is distorted where the distortion is:
    • A stereotypic and maladaptive attempt to avoid experience of the pain.
    • A stereotypic and maladaptive attempt to satisfy the personal need which the distress-experience frustrated.
    • A stereotypic and maladaptive attempt to draw attention to the child's genuine need for help in getting out of the psychological trap.

    Distortion may be

    • Intermittent. It only occurs periodically as a reaction to particular sorts of triggering situations. In the absence of such situations the distorted behaviour is not evident.
    • Chronic. There is a persistent mode of being in the world involving attitude, belief and behaviour - that is distorted. The person may confuse her personal identity with such a chronically distorted way of being.
  3. Induced distortion. The child's distress finds release through catharsis: sobbing, trembling, storming. Thus the child is able to experience and release the pain, but parents and/or other authority figures make persistent demands that the catharsis be shut off, demands which finally become internalised and autogenic. Behaviour then becomes distorted, and the analysis of the previous paragraph applied. Most children will have ample opportunity to engage in distorted behaviour; in distorted forms of play with other children, in the repetitive minor and major wranglings of intra-familial life. But there can be two degrees of double induction (both catharsis and the resultant distortion are suppressed):
    • Parents and/or other authority figures demand that the child suppress some of the distorted behaviour itself, at any rate of the more grossly disruptive and inconvenient forms. In this case, the condemned behaviour may:
      • Undergo further distortion.
      • Become surreptitious and go underground, being practised in private or with underground peers.
    • If distorted behaviour is widely and very heavily put down by parents or others, the result may be induced encysting: and distress and the distortion are thrust totally below the apparent veneer of conformist behaviour, only to erupt disastrously perhaps at a much later stage.
  4. Distortion hierarchy. It may not be unreasonable to postulate also a distortion hierarchy. But it clearly should be taken lightly and flexibly, since personal distress is so idiosyncratic.
    • Encysted distress, when it finally erupts, produces the greatest distortion of behaviour which has the highest resistance to resolution.
    • Automatic distortion will be next in terms of degree of distortion and resistance to resolution, especially in its chronic forms.
    • Induced distortion comes last, but only where there is a modest degree of double induction. If the double induction is heavy, then we go back to a.

    A particular individual may combine all these three forms of distortion. Given child-raising practices throughout our society, I assume that everyone has some degree of induced distortion and double induction.

    • The distortion hierarchy corresponds to three assumed degrees of psychosomatic tension. When the tension is very high, encysting follows; when it is medium automatic distortion results; when it is above the child's threshold of conscious tolerance, then induced distortion may occur where child-raising practices are ill-formed.
    • The trauma of birth, of early infancy and childhood are obvious candidates for encysting and automatic distortion.
  5. Physiological correlates of distress One model derives from the work of Pavlov and Penfield: there are relatively isolated and dissociated areas of cortical functioning, pathologically inert neural circuits, which may correspond psychically to memory images of traumatic events charged with distress-emotions, intact but occluded from consciousness and so producing compulsive distortions of experience and behaviour. The inert or isolated circuit is balanced by a pathological excitatory process elsewhere, this latter being the physical correlate of the distorted behaviour.
    • The other model derives from the work of Reich: there is a systematic, relatively permanent, and unconscious contraction of bodily musculature which inhibits the free flow of bio-energy and is the repository of occluded painful emotion. The model extends to include pathologically inert contraction of organ tissue, and pathological hypotony as well as tension of muscle.
    • The two models appear to be theoretically entirely compatible with each other, presenting two aspects of the somatic response to disabling distress. Clinically too, the evidence is that there are two complementary gateways to the opening up and dispersal of occluded distress: one is ideational, by the use of powerful provocative imagery by the therapist or others, and the progressive unfolding of associations and imagery within the client's psyche; the other is bodily, by the use of external physical pressure on tense muscles by the therapist and by vigorous mobilisation of body energy undertaken voluntarily by the client.
    • These indeed appear to be the four major prongs of the re-integration process:
      • Emotionally provocative imagery from outside.
      • Progressive opening up of associations and images from within.
      • Physical pressure from outside.
      • Voluntary energisation of the body from within.

    But more of this later.

  6. The complete distress history If we look at the whole programme of disabling personal distress in the child, it contains the following factors:
    • The external stressor and stress situation.
    • The child's degree of discriminating insight and appraisal; its suspension and distortion under stress.
    • The child's spontaneously active personal need that is frozen, suspended, interrupted, frustrated by the stressor.
    • The child's resultant psychosomatic distress.
    • The occlusion from consciousness of this pain, the occlusion being either automatic or parentally induced - both leading to self-regulating repression.
    • Resultant distortion of behaviour, immediately or later in life, intermittent or chronic.
    • Further surreptitious distortion that follows from some of the original distorted behaviour being parentally suppressed.
    • The child's unreal, alienated conformist behaviour - itself a special sort of distortion demanded, and adopted, for social survival.

    A child, then, may be interfered with in three successive waves of attack. First, the spontaneously active personal need may be suppressed; secondly, the attempt to discharge cathartically the resultant distress may be suppressed; thirdly, some of the distorted behaviour that follows from the first two suppressions may itself be suppressed. Indeed, a fourth wave of attack is possible, if further surreptitious distorted behaviour is found out and suppressed.

C. How does personal distress distort behaviour?

Various theories have been put forward. I do not propose to review them in detail but only to discuss the most plausible possibilities as I see them.

  1. The record theory. The whole of the stress situation, including the child's state of being, is recorded in literal undiscriminating detail in the child's psychosomatic system. This is an imposed programme, not a selected programme, that is recorded:
    • Because the child has only a primitive appraisal and selector ability and
    • Because this ability is itself interrupted and suspended under the impact of the trauma.

    Because the distress or pain charge on the programme recorded is occluded from consciousness (automatically or by constraint), we then have a relatively autonomous dynamic system powered by two frustrated energies - the energy of a frozen or suspended personal need, and the energy of undischarged distress emotions. In any future situation sufficiently similar in relevant respects to the original stress situation, there are two interrelated effects:

    • The original record replays itself in experience and behaviour.
    • Further distress is generated both by the new situation and by the counter-productive effects of the replay, so that the original recording becomes, as it were, more deeply grooved and ingrained with systematic elaboration of the early programme.
  2. The symbolic maladjustment theory. Given that the undischarged emotional pain and the frozen personal need are occluded from conscious experience, then all subsequent distorted behaviour can be seen as a compulsive, stereotypic and maladaptive (self-defeating and self-punishing) attempt to alleviate the hidden pain and satisfy the frozen need. To use an energy model again, the trapped energies of the pain and the need circle round each distorting surface behaviour which unawarely acts out the blocked pain, the blocked need, or both combined. Thus a child may act out hidden grief by becoming withdrawn, alienated, shutdown, with no available attention for others; or the same child may act out a frozen need for love by compulsive clinging and demanding behaviour; or may combine the two by lying or curling against her mother in a withdrawn and emotionally inaccessible state. In later life, all kinds of behaviour may be seen as a symbolic acting out of the pain, the need or their combination: adult development and opportunities are co-opted into the compulsive maladjustment. But in all instances, the distorted behaviours are symbolic of, and give a clue to, the pain and need occluded.
  3. "The way the world is" theory. This is a theory which I have devised to clarify the human situation, but it is entirely compatible with the previous two theories as we shall see below. Given human beings with capacities for love, understanding and self-direction, in both active and passive or recipient forms; given that the world is such that the need to fulfil these capacities can be blocked through an overload of distress, and that the release of this distress can itself be blocked; then the blocked need and the blocked distress distort behaviour into certain characteristic forms - as follows:
    • The need to love blocked: compulsive possessiveness, irrational claims, demands and expectations, rigid helping and rescuing behaviour.
    • The resultant grief blocked (that is, the grief that follows from the need to love being interrupted): compulsive alienation, distancing, emotional withdrawal from others. This item and the previous item together produce the typical human phenomenon of possessive companionship combined with emotional sterility.
    • The need to be loved blocked: compulsive dependency, sympathism, attention-getting, clinging, huddling behaviour; trying-to-please behaviour.
    • The resultant grief blocked (that is, the grief that follows from the need to be loved being interrupted): compulsive self-pity, self-absorption, poor me. These two may combine so that the person typically clings but without reduction in anxious self-pity and self-absorption.
    • The need to understand blocked: compulsive dogmatism and authoritarian pronouncements of belief without appropriate supporting rationale.
    • The resultant fear blocked (that is, the fear that follows from the need to understand being interrupted): compulsive propitiatory rituals, superstitious practices. In so many human cultures, these two combine as uncritical dogmatic theologies supported by propitiatory rituals.
    • The need to be understood blocked: compulsive self-doubt and insecurity about one's own identity, extended into compulsive scepticism and cynicism.
    • The resultant fear blocked (that is, the fear that follows from the need to be understood being interrupted): compulsive social isolation and social withdrawal, retreat into private obsessive ideation. These two typically combine in the self-doubting, insecure, obsessive social isolate.
    • The need to be self-directing blocked: compulsive, unsolicited, inappropriate involvement in the choices, lives and affairs of others; self-defeating, stereotypic maladaptation to situations.
    • The resultant anger blocked (that is, anger that follows from the need to be self-directing being interrupted): compulsive aggression, destructiveness, malice aimed at others directly or through things. These two typically combine in compulsively disruptive and destructive interference in one person's affairs by another; or the distortion may be reciprocal.
    • The need to be freely engaged with directions from a greater whole blocked: compulsive allegiance to cults, causes, ideological movements; blind or stubborn fanaticism of membership.
    • The resultant anger blocked (that is, the anger that follows from the need above being interrupted): despair, dismay, depression, compulsive self-destruction, suicide. The typical combination of these last two is that of the unhappy fanatic, the compulsively miserable convert, the actively participating member who gets no relief from internal despair.

    As before, a scheme of this sort only separates out in analysis what is subtly and intricately interwoven in the real world. It is presented here not as a dogmatic typology but merely as a conjecture, a suggestion of certain typical kinds of distortion that may occur as a function of human needs and distresses being interrupted. And the scheme is conceived primarily in relation to personal stresses caused by human intervention. The distortions are all forms of symbolic acting-out behaviour, that is, the behaviour symbolises either a blocked need or blocked distress or both simultaneously. But the behaviour is also self-locking or self-defeating: it perpetuates its own maladaptation.

  4. The three theories combined. Distorted behaviour as the elaborated replay of an old distress recording, as a symbolic, self-defeating acting out of blocked need and blocked pain, as typical forms that follow from general features of the human condition - all these are three compatible interpretations of the same phenomenon. The somatic correlate of the record theory would be that the early stress experiences induce in the organism a chronic cortical malfunction (perhaps a rigid polarisation of inhibitory and excitatory cortical processes) and associated with this a chronic unconscious tension and hypotony of the muscles together with other physiological distortions. I will focus on the record theory.
  5. The personal distress record from human sources of distress. This is the notion introduced in 1. above. If we consider an early imposed programme elaborated by repetitive replays, what are the main voices on the record and what are they saying?
    • The external oppressor's voice: "Don't do this, don't do that; don't be this, don't be that." "You should/ought/must do/be other than you are doing/being." The person can replay this voice at others so she in turn becomes the moralistic oppressor of others.
    • The frozen need's voice: "But I need, I need, I need... (to love, to understand, to choose ... to be loved, to be understood, to be enabled)". As the record replays in similar situations, this hidden voice will compulsively act itself out in symbolic distortions of behaviour - self-defeating attempts to alleviate the need, to lift the needle off the cracked record.
    • The voice of suppressed distress: "I'm hurting." "I can't bear the pain." or "They won't accept my pain." This contained pain will also act itself out in symbolic but self-defeating distortions of behaviour - self-defeating in their maladaptive attempts to alleviate the pain.
    • The voice of suppressed distortion: "They won't catch this behaviour, I'll hide it." Distorted behaviour becomes surreptitious.
    • The conformists's voice: "I'm no good. I should be other than I am. I should and shall behave in ways that they demand and expect." This is the inner correlate of the external oppressor, so that the person becomes her own internal moralistic oppressor, putting herself down and thereby sustaining the suppression both of her deeper human needs and of the resultant distress. This, however, is in early years a very adaptive voice for, given the child's total situation, it is effectively the voice of social and personal survival.

    Many modern radical therapies and growth methods tend to work almost exclusively in the area of this distress record, where the stressor is a human oppressor, typically the parent whose own behaviour is distorted. But there is another distress record, and in any comprehensive approach to personal growth this has to be taken into account and dealt with independently and in its own right. This is the following:

  6. The personal distress record from primary sources of distress. These are sources of tension inherent in the umwelt, the given scheme of things, prior to human invention and intention. My general theory here, to remind the reader, is that an overload of primary distresses rooted in the human condition can break behaviour down into interpersonal distortions so that secondary distresses of person hurting person can accumulate. I have already suggested there may be some degree of functional autonomy between primary and secondary sources of distress, in the sense that when a particular set of primary distresses drop below the critical threshold at which they break down, interpersonal distortions can be perpetuated by institutionalisation and cultural transmission. However, I also suggest that so long as secondary distresses abound on this planet, there is a highly general, unresolved primary distress recording which underlies and underpins the particular secondary distress recording a person is playing.
    To clarify the nature of this record, we can look back to the six primary sources of distress given in Chapter 2 and speculate on the voice of minimal overload, the voice that keeps the tension bearable.
    • The voice of the person distressed by survival tasks: "Let me give priority to physical survival and physical fulfilment. "
    • The voice of love distressed by the universal phenomenon of separation: "Let me stay close together with the tribe."
    • The voice of inquiry distressed by the inscrutability of the world: "Let me cling to what I already believe."
    • The voice of free choice distressed by the restrictive obduracy of the world: "Let me repeat familiar routines."
    • The voice of the person distressed by the instability of unprogrammed and unlimited potential: "Let me settle for minimal self-development."
    • The voice of the person distressed by the presence of other persons similarly distressed: "Let me keep strangers out. "

    No amount of work at the level of secondary distress, of the effects of parents' mismanagement and of rigid social practices, will of itself, I believe, break up these primary recordings. My point here is that simply participating in the human condition at all can, through cumulative tension, generate a set of mutually interlocking compulsive recordings that keep the person in a very minimal state of development. In one sense, these recordings have a psychological survival value since the person shuts down into a rigid and restrictive attitude before the level of primary stress becomes too much to handle. But in another and more radical sense, they are chronically maladaptive since they dam up a progressively mounting tide of personal frustration which eventually distorts behaviour into interpersonal strife. They call for a transpersonal, a spiritual, opening and awareness. See Sacred Science (Heron, 1998), Chapter 19: Co-creating, which presents a theory of the transpersonal context of the human condition.