The Body, Voice and Emotions

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Vocal Coaching By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Singing » Vocal Coaching
Last updated: 02/01/2018
Tags: body, emotion, vocal expression

This article is extracted from a paper I wrote for my Masters in Professional Voice Practice.

I wish to draw upon the knowledge of practitioners in psychology, body work and voice to support the idea of emotion as a somatic experience. I will explore how emotional trauma can cause tension in the body, and will also discuss how acknowledging and expressing stuck emotion can potentially have a transformative affect on our vocal freedom. This will incorporate the idea of body-mind unity, as well as the concept that the body has an ability of its own to experience emotion; that 'muscles are sensory organs in their own right. Sensations they provide are either emotionally significant or the emotions themselves' (Nathan,1999).

This part of the research is therefore taking an holistic view of vocal use. It embraces the idea that if any part of the body is not functioning to its optimum, the voice will be affected, and that to support the voice we must indeed support the entire being (Cuthbertson-Lane,2009). 

In order to understand how emotional stress affects the body, it is first of all necessary to have a fundamental understanding of how the nervous system works. The autonomic nervous system, which controls all the automatic processes of the body, is divided into two parts: the first is the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates activity, preparing the body for immediate action in an emergency. This is known as the fight or flight response, which stimulates the release of adrenaline, raises the heart rate, constricts blood vessels and increases muscle contraction. The second is the parasympathetic nervous system, which inhibits activity in the body. It is responsible for rest and repair, allowing relaxation and bringing the body back to homeostasis (Bunch,2005). 

When a person is under any kind of stress, this triggers the sympathetic nervous system. According to yoga teacher and author Swami Ambikananda Saraswati (1999), Many people are in a state of chronic stress, whether it be due to anxiety, a stressful lifestyle, or a past emotional trauma. If the sympathetic nervous system is constantly being stimulated, this will have a detrimental effect on the physiology of the body.

The psoas muscle, which attaches deep into the pelvis, is particularly connected with the body's fight or flight response (O'Conner,2017). In the case of chronic stress, the psoas is in a state of continual contraction, which means the hips and legs are on the alert and ready to move. As a result of this contraction, tension can arise in the lower back, neck and shoulders (Barceli,2017).

Restoration of this muscle to its natural resting length could therefore promote greater physical and emotional ease.

Steve Haines (2016) states that sometimes there is no obvious original event that caused the trauma; the cause is 'lost in the past'. Furthermore, he believes that as a result, a person can be left with a feeling of underlying stress, emotions can be overactive, and we can feel a general sense of overwhelm in day to day life. Therefore, it can be assumed that post-traumatic stress and everyday stress cannot really be separated, but are interconnected.

Emotion as Physiological

Peter Levine (1997), psychologist and trauma expert, writes that an emotionally traumatic experience can leave us in a 'constantly contracted state' long after the event has occurred. This contraction can cause us to close in and make ourselves small. It is easy to see how one can adopt long term postural habits from such experiences, and since 'efficiency of vocal apparatus depends on the alignment of the body' (Linklater,2006), such a habit will inevitably cause the voice to also be small and uncertain, and our breathing to be inhibited.

Stanley Keleman (1989), author of Emotional Anatomy, believes that the outer is an expression of the inner life; that thoughts and feelings are manifested in words and actions. 'For each affective event in the inner life of a person...there will take place physiological events which are moved with that feeling whether the person overtly moves herself or not'. Adding that thoughts do not have such a direct impact on the body, as they are not as intimately connected to the physical as emotions are, he goes so far as to say 'Without anatomy, emotions do no exist. Feelings have a somatic architecture' (Nathan,1999). This argument strongly counteracts beliefs of some renowned psychologists who have viewed emotion as primarily a mental process, for example, Richard Lazarus in his Cognitive Appraisal Theory, in which a thought process must take place before emotion occurs (Cherry,2017).

Wilhelm Reich, a pioneer of somatic therapy during the 20th century, developed the term 'muscle armouring', meaning that the psychological character that a person develops throughout his or her life causes physical rigidities and tensions. 'These...serve to negate or block impulses to action which are inconsistent with the neurotic character.' (Smith,1985). This provides another example of how our attitudes towards life shape our body, and how these attitudes can limit us in communicating aspects of ourselves that are not our usual, day to day personality. It also concedes with Kristin Linklater's explanation of how a person holds themselves back from spontaneous expression, where a primary impulse to express a feeling is often 'short-circuited by secondary impulses', which can prevent them from revealing what is authentic in that moment (Linklater, 2006).

In our everyday lives we naturally express, both vocally and physically, feelings that we are comfortable with. We also subconsciously convey deeply held feelings, experiences and attitudes 'which have resulted in patterns of rigidity, constriction, inhibited movements...' (Nathan,1999). When we hold back in this way, we do so with our breath, and with increased contraction of the flexor muscles (Rodenburg, 2015).

Chronically contracted muscles can be seen as a coping mechanism, as this contraction helps us to dissociate with painful feelings. This is because in high intensity situations, the primitive fight or flight response will cause the body to suppress feelings (Cuthbertson-Lane,2009). However, often when the body remains in this state of tension, it needs help to begin to feel emotions again.

By cutting oneself off from painful feelings, it could be argued that pleasurable feelings are also repressed. This could be due to the fact that, according to Harvard Medical school Professor, David Borsook, pain and pleasure activate the same regions of the brain (Koman,2005).

As muscles are brought back to their healthy length, we are able to feel more deeply again. 'A person who is capable of feeling emotions freely and expressing them appropriately will exhibit a body which is supple, elastic and fluid in its movement characteristics. Where emotions are bound, so tissues are stunted, constricted and can appear relatively lifeless' (Nathan, 1999).

In addition to causing physical constriction, emotional trauma can result in a sense of detachment from certain parts of the body. It is common for a person to experience feelings of floatiness, immobilisation, busyness in the mind, and to be in a state of emotional numbness (Haines,2016). 'The constriction of sensation obliterates shades and textures in our feelings' (Levine,2010:).

As voice users, it is vital that we are in touch with, and responsive to, the subtle nuances of feeling, as well as being present and grounded in the body. Here, the importance of transforming emotional patterns to free a person physically and vocally, is clearly illustrated.

How the Body Stores Emotion

When muscles are habitually more contracted than is necessary, due to reasons discussed above, the brain forms new neural pathways throughout the nervous system which support and re-enforce this way of being. This is what is meant by the term muscle memory (Cuthbertson-Lane, 2009).

Research carried out by neuroscientist, Dr Candace Pert (1985), demonstrates that emotional memory in the body can be explained by the existence of neuropeptides in the 'emotion-mediating areas' of the brain, as well as on the 'mobile cells of the immune system.' These neuropeptides have been discovered in addition to classical, previously known neurotransmitters. Therefore, these neuropeptides communicate information between the brain and the body. Pert explains: 'A feeling sparked in our mind-or body-will translate as a peptide being released somewhere. (Organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands), they all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information...' (Pert,1997).

The abdomen and solar plexus areas of the body, which house the Enteric Nervous System, are important centres of emotion. The ENS is part of the Peripheral Nervous System, and consists of the small and large intestines, in addition to the stomach and oesophagus. These organs all contain neuropeptides and receptors. The gut and the brain aretherefore connected by this vast network of neurons (Sonnenburg,2015).

Many people unconsciously hold a lot of tension in this area, thereby possibly disconnecting from deep instincts and emotions. Linklater explains that the solar plexus and sacral regions are two important nerve centres: the solar plexus being our centre of emotion, and the sacrum being a place of instinct, creativity and sexuality. (Linklater,2006). These concepts cohere with the chakra system, present in many Easten philosophical belief systems, in which the sacral and solar plexus chakras being our creative and emotional centres. Linklater also points out that tension in the vocal channel can inhibit messages from the solar plexus centre to the brain, preventing free expression of our feelings (Ibid,2006).

Becoming more deeply connected with this area of the body is therefore vital for experiencing feeling, and to conveying that depth of feeling through the voice. 'Voice teachers regularly encourage students to 'connect with and speak from the centre'...What we mean by this is that we want students to connect with their deepest emotional resources...' (Cuthbertson-Lane,2009).

Restrictive emotional and physical habits are deeply personal, and as has been illustrated above, they tell the experiential life story of a person. However, they are also representational of the world in which we live; 'tense shoulders...taut intestinal walls...rigidified structures in general are all embodiments of a restricted world' (Nathan,1999).

If asked, I believe that many people would say that they do not know how it feels to be embodied in the physical, or truly present within themselves. It is certainly often a new and different feeling when we do become more in touch with the body through movement modalities such as yoga, dance, or different types of massage or bodywork. Writing in the Independent, journalist Hilary Lawson (2013) states that "It is challenging to maintain this strong sense of the body in a world that values the attributes of the mind so highly."

Lucy Redfearn Vocal Coaching Tutor (Dudley)

About The Author

I am a voice coach based in the Midlands. Whatever capacity you use your voice in, I can offer tuition on vocal power and resonance, clarity, confidence, text work, as well as help you to discover a more authentic voice.

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