How we manage emotional stress according to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory

“Vagal” refers to the many branches of the vagus nerve – the old pneumogastric nerve as it was called – which connects all the major organs including the brain, heart, lungs, stomach and intestines, all of which the vagus nerve interfaces with in sympathetic and parasympathetic control. Although it is usually referred to in the singular it is a paired nerve. It is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system in the human body and extends from the medulla oblongata through the face and thorax to the abdomen, reaching all the way to the colon. Besides having some role in output to various organs, some 80-90 per cent are afferent nerves whose role is to convey to the central nervous system the state of the body’s organs – or more psychologically “How am I, how am I doing?”. It does this through its axons which converge onto, or emerge from, four nuclei of the medulla oblongata. Parasympathetic output is sent to the viscera, especially the intestines, via the dorsal nucleus of the vagus nerve. From the nucleus ambiguous it gives rise to the preganglionic parasympathetic neurons that innervate the heart. The solitary nucleusreceives afferent taste information and other afferents from visceral organs (except the adrenals). The spinal trigeminal nucleus receives information about touch and pain, the temperature of the outer ear, the dura of the posterior cranial fossa and the mucosa of the larynx. As well as supplying parasympathetic motor fibres to all organs between the neck and the transverse colon, it also controls some muscles, chiefly those of the larynx and some others in this area associated with swallowing, the palatopharyngeus muscle for example.

Porges encourages the vagus to be thought of imaginally as, not a nerve, but as a cable that connects brain and body – a portal from the periphery telling the brain how the body is. So, when you feel good the vagus is conveying this to the brain, and when you feel bad this is also the vagus communicating to the brain.

The meaning of Porges’ term “polyvagal’ –  poly meaning many – refers not to the meandering of the nerve fibres of the vagus nerve itself but to the phylogenetic history of our human nervous system; we have a heritage of neural circuits that have changed as they have evolved. There are two main principles of polyvagal theory. The first is that there is a uniquely mammalian pathway that is the newest neural feedback system and this one functionally takes precedence. This is the part of the vagal system that is super-diaphragmatic – above the diaphragm. It is a uniquely mammalian pathway that is myelinated and serves the heart and the bronchi and also to the muscles of the face and head. Since the facial muscles are wired into the vagus, then facial expressions can become a window to how the vagus is influencing the heart and bronchi. For example, if a person is stressed the muscle tone in the face if often flat, especially to the orbicularis oculiaround the eyes.

The other principle of polyvagal theory is that we functionally have 3 autonomic nervous systems, and these neural circuits provide a response hierarchy.  When we are challenged we use the newest circuits, but if these turn out not to be fit for the task, then we regress and use older circuits from our phylogenetic history. From the bottom up the oldest vagal circuit would be the one we share reptiles and this circuit is geared to shut-down and immobilisation. Immobilisation is a common feature of trauma – for example during a mugging the autonomic nervous system might turn this response on. Immobilisation and shutdown would be a result of the old unmyelinated vagal system mobilising, and would be characterised by reduced blood flow, especially to the brain. Allied to this are a whole host of possible neurophysiological digestive problems, such as IBS – hence the prevalence of vagotmies in the 1950’s.  Also immobilisation in a psychological sense of not being able to mobilise the creative aspects of one’s personality which is an almost ubiquitous feature of clients coming for psychotherapy. The protective features of immobilisation counteract what David Boadella has characterised as an “ability to surrender oneself wholly to an experience.” Also, immobilisation is related to “disappearance”, to dissociation – as though dissociation is our modern attempt to “play dead”, or go into hiding in the presence of a predator.

The next functional nervous system would be that of our flight/flight system. To fight the mugger off and run after him would be an example of this, associated with increased heart rate and prioritising the blood to the skeletal muscles and away from non-vital functions. This system is synonymous with the heart and bronchi branches of the vagus nerve. If successful, fight/flight is normally an excellent system for dealing with threat. But it does not always work, is not always mobilised – and this is the whole story underlying trauma– that this system fails to come online and the input is given over to the older functional system to process. The newest circuit – what Porges calls the face-heart connection or social support system – keeps us safe by keeping us in connection to others. When people convey to us that they feel safe then we feel comfortable and vice-versa and this is embedded in the newer vagal system, which includes the face as well as the heart/bronchi pathway. 

This newer system is capable of regulating the other defensive physiological systems – if only it were given a chance. i.e. in deprived social circumstances this is seldom possible. The physiological features of the social engagement system have at least three components all geared towards regulation and the parasympathetics of calming down, of downregulating sympathetic activity. The muscles of the face associated with ingestion, the upper part of the face especially around the orbicularis oculiwhich is an important site for social engagement cues. Lastly the muscles of the middle ear where we can detect prosodic features in the voices of others and trigger the neural regulation of the middle ear muscles, which results in tuning out priorities for detecting lower frequency sounds phylogenetically associated with predators. According to Porges, this is the reason that people suffering from trauma cannot tolerate noisy places, because such places are filled with low frequency sounds – and because for functional reasons the neural regulation of the striated muscles of the face and head are turned off due to the mobilisation of the earlier vagal systems – and turning the top system off results in hypervigilance for a predator. All three systems, or certainly the oldest two, are not subject to voluntary control, for reasons discussed below.

Now, isn’t all this just a fancy neuroanatomical way of saying that when your environment is safe and secure, and you know you are loved and respected because of the tones of voice and the expressions on the peoples face in your social world are all benign so you feel good? On one level it is, on another level it isn’t, chiefly because there is another complex of consciousness operant within the nervous system, working independently, which Porges calls neuroception. Largely out of cognitive awareness this neuroceptive system is constructing an interpretation of everything that is happening, evaluating risk and in doing so tries to trigger a neural component that fits the environmental context. The response is primarily a physiological response which is evaluated by the nervous system and out of this a personal narrative is created to account for the context that our neuroception has created. And sometimes this personal narrative, constructed chiefly from interpretations of sensation made by an atavistic neuroceptive system, may be totally irrational, may bear very little relationship to a current situation but only to neuroceptive templates, which presumably are instinctual. So, in shutting down or mobilising for fight or flight a narrative is needed for a person to make sense of the information being presented in their body, what their body is doing. The strength of polyvagal theory lies in the possibility of the other two systems being redeemed by the social engagement system, and by the educational possibilities of describing and enabling this in people suffering from trauma. For example, telling a client who has issues with relationships and trust that they should simply learn to trust people – the feel the fear and do it anyway school – does no good at all and is ineffective because the person has their own personal security guard (their neuroception) that is always on the look-out for danger.

I can illustrate some of the workings of the vagal system with a personal story, an event that occurred when I was 10 years old. It was not a life-threatening event, but a shocking one nevertheless, and occurred in the presence of many other people who were mainly in flight or flight mode. There was lots of noise, and a confusing array of visual stimuli for a young child. I arrived to this scene totally unprepared, like you would when you turn the corner of a street and find something shocking happening in front of your eyes. As I put my mind back into my 10 year old body I can feel my body become stiff like a board. My mouth opens slightly as if to speak but I can’t say anything, do not even know if anything can be said and I feel a constriction in my throat – the freeze response is kicking-in. However, although I am confused, at another level I am acutely aware of what is going on, and I scan the room noting and interpreting how everyone is. This is neuroception, but at that time I am not aware that I am aware and it is only looking back that I can detect it. I try to get eye contact with the person responsible for my care, i.e. I am looking to be regulated via the social engagement system. However, the care-giver is shut down and offers no response. Now there is no regulation from the top down available – and it is interesting to note that although my initial response is to immobilise I am still looking to be regulated via social engagement, this system is still available and wants to kick-in, Porges’ heirachy theory. This all happened within the space of, at most, 2 seconds and is instinctual and not volitional, i.e. it is orchestrated by the ANS. In the coming days I make a connection unconsciously to an event the day before; I had inexplicably been overtaken by a feeling that something was wrong, but I did not know what. This now becomes part of the narrative that accounts for what my body is telling me via feedback from the vagus – and so the intuitive event of the day before is now interpreted as a cause. The whole thing was my fault, I am responsible and this inevitably leads to feelings of low self-worth. Then two days later I am in hospital with suspected appendicitis due to severe abdominal pain, a product of the old unmyelinated vagus “surging”.

It is quite common to experience clients who have varying degrees of shut-down facilitated by the older unmyelated vagal system, which results in the social engagement system being shut off, often accompanied by low self-worth and feelings of shame. I am reminded of a male client in his late twenties who came to see me and had therapy with me for three years. He was quite possibly one of the most talented and engaging people I have ever had the pleasure to sit opposite to. I remember on our first session after he was telling me his story and near the end of the session I fed back to him how much I had been enjoying him, and communicated to him my embodied sense of it. He looked at me in astonishment and told me in an incredulous voice that he had not been expecting that. Towards the ending period that we had agreed some 6 months prior during our therapy, he came to this realisation himself; that he had never been enjoyed as a child, as a product of being engaged with by his caregivers, and that what had happened during our time together, despite all our clever interpretations, was that he had simply become acclimatised, and allowed himself to be enjoyed, and had discovered play, which had previously been a foreign concept to him. In Porges’ view play and seeking novelty is an essential part of nervous system regulation, recruiting aspects of defensive systems with social engagement. In play, aspects of the two older systems are played out while at the same time maintaining the social vagal system and safety. It is a unique feature seen in many species of mammals which enables them to excercise and hone all three systems. In trauma victims those who do not seek ‘novelty’ do not do so because they do not have a path back to safety, to being regulated from the top system down. In the case of the above client, when I first initiated play (rather cack-handedly as I remember)  it led to a freeze response in the client. However I was able to attune myself to him and initiate play at a lower level with gradual increasing incrementations which were eventually initiated by him, and thinking back now I can see that in our engagements what was happening was that he was becoming au faitat moving between all three vagal systems and not just being stuck in the lowest one – so he could tolerate freezing, but was able to mobilise away from it using social engagement cues, and similarly was able to be aggressive and evasive while still being socially engaged.

Using Porges’ wiring analogy we could think of the “three nervous systems” as a house that is wired to receive power through its systems of wires within walls, and switches to turn lights on and off. A good functioning social engagement system would enable us to move from room to room seamlessly – be able to see where we are going because we know all the switches work. When the wiring does not work we are unable to see where we are going and where we are, and so we must stumble around and knock into things in the dark. We inherit the houses we live in, the wiring is provided by our good or bad care givers, but however badly we have been wired, there is always the possibility of a re-wire via social engagement in a safe environment in the present time, and thus we can undo the perpetual cycle that John Bowlby characterised as “we do as we have been done by”. Lastly, we might see people as poorly regulated rather than mentally ill,  “…to recognise in the mental illness merely an exceptional reaction to emotional problems which are not strange to us”. (Jung) Such an exceptional reaction, in the polyvagal view, is caused by the mobilisation of older strata of the ANS that we share with reptiles in response to the lack of availability of the newer system of social engagement.

Jung and Kalsched on Trauma – some reflections

                                         Jung and Kalsched on Trauma – some reflections.


Jung only wrote one paper specifically using the idea of trauma or “nervous shock” to elucidate his thinking, by the way of psychoanalysis, on the then infant science of psychology. Perhaps his almost complete silence on the matter of traumatic events, and their relation to his psychology in his later works, reflected his disagreement and break up with Freud; trauma theory was something associated with Freudian psychology and Jung could hardly be seen to be still treading in the master’s footsteps when he had his own more spiritual psychology to pursue.

Freud had learnt from Charcot and Janet how a secondary personality could be considered daimonic, a force that was capable of possessing the personality from within and often under hypnosis this force would identify itself as a daimon. These powers of possession were thought to originate in traumatic events and this induced a trance-like state, which made the traumatic experience difficult to access in memory form. Charcot and Janet in their early work even named and subjected these daimons to flattery to enlist their help so that their trance-making powers over the patient’s consciousness could be transferred to the doctor helping the patient to gain access to the traumatic memories.

Freud furthered these advances in psychology by applying Charcot’s hypnotic techniques to his own hysterical patients and through these experiments started to formulate a psychoanalytic theory of trauma and it’s effects, and the first results of this were published in Studies in Hysteria in 1895, a book the Freud co-authored with Breuer.

In Jung’s essay on the subject he follows the development of Freud’s theory from Charcot and Piaget’s theory of nervous shock and thence to Breuer and Freud’s work on a theory of psychogenesis and the importance of trauma in the aetiology of hysteria. In Freud’s new theory hysteria was understood as the result of a trauma that was incompletely abreacted, that is, a failure of expression of affect associated with the traumatic event by the experiencing subject, and it was the task of the therapy, aptly name the cathartic method, to release the blockage of affect. Jung pays great homage to Freud’s concept of repression, a concept he believed lead far beyond trauma theory and to his own experiments with the word association test and the theory of feeling-toned complexes. He discovered here that associations relating to complexes were much less easily remembered and often forgotten and that they need not be related to traumatic memories, merely painful experiences. Jung notes that there is an incongruity between the concept of repression and that of trauma as “the concept of repression contains the elements of an aetiological theory of environment, while the trauma concept is a theory of predisposition.” (CW 4 para 214)

This predisposition led back into the mists of earliest childhood and apparent recollections of sexual scenes that were connected with the aetiology of neurosis in later life. However, Freud’s original view had to be revised as it transpired that the sexual trauma reported by his patients turned out on the whole to be unreal, that is fantasy. This leads Jung to conclude that,

“(…) the trauma, other things being equal, has no absolute aetiological significance and will pass off without having any lasting effect. From this simple reflection it is perfectly clear that the individual must meet the trauma with a quite definite inner predisposition in order to make it really effective. This inner predisposition is not to be understood as that obscure, hereditary disposition of which we know so little, but as a psychological development which reaches its climax, and becomes manifest, at the traumatic moment.” (Ibid. 217)

In fact Jung questions whether the trauma really needed to occur or not to produce psychic illness. This point is taken up by Donald Kalsched, who argues that Jung did not really think this at all in his clinical cases and cites Jung’s early case of a traumatised patient whose secret inner world had her living on the moon where she tried to save the children from a winged vampire who had dominion over the land. The source of the trauma and her subsequent admission to hospital had been sexual abuse by her brother.

Since Jung’s writings on actual trauma are so scant Kalsched takes up the idea that the feeling toned complexes exhibit a full range of traumatic encounters, either actual or transpersonal, through the archetype at the core of the particular complex. He argues that the secondary ego states encountered in complexes are Jung’s equivalent of a trauma theory, but that Jung differs from Freud in that sexuality alone is not seen as the precipitating factor. A variety and full range of tragedy and misfortune uniquely conditioned by individual life events and ancestral conditions are seen as occupying feeling toned complex dissociations. There is also the question of the archetypal core of the complex itself being experientially traumatic which Kalsched summarises in the following.

“These archetypal images defined a deeper strata of the unconscious which gave them a numinous character. As carriers of the numinosum, they participated in aboriginal man’s experience of the sacred, at once both awe-inspiring and terrifying, i.e. potentially traumatic. For Jung, it was among these numinous ambivalent archetypal images and their associated complexes that the search for a universal trauma-related unconscious fantasy in neurosis would have to proceed.” (Kalsched, 1996, p.72)

Kalsched is interested primarily in proving his thesis of archetypal defences of the personal spirit brought about by specific instances of trauma in cases of severely distressed patients. This archetypal defence mechanism prevents real relationship from happening on a pathological scale. For Jung, however, the collective dissociation of the personality arises from the birth of modern consciousness itself in the mists of tribal antiquity and the phenomenon of cross-cousin marriages, with ever expanding population and the rise of the exogamous tendency and the pushing down of the endogamous aspect into the unconscious. It is this that results in the characteristic dissociation of the personality that, according to Jung, everyone suffers from, which takes’ the form of projected contrasexual archetypes of animus and anima, which since the decline of the ideals of Christianity which held these contrasexual factors in its mythologem exert a force which is dissociative. One could equate Kalsched’s archetypal defences simply with persona, which in the un-analysed person can be identical with the field of consciousness. The persona is what one most wishes to be, and thinks one is, thus its function could be seen to protect the individual who is traumatised from finding out the whole story of their inner world – in other words who they really are. What object relations and psychoanalysis calls ‘false self ‘ or ‘caretaker’ needs no other explanation other than persona identification. In view of Freud’s initial discovery of sexual traumata and fantasy as a factor in dissociative states, and in view of Jung’s later thoughts on sexuality, it’s spiritual significance in the divine marriage and it’s relation to the incest archetype, one can discern a broad cultural shift since the birth of modern psychology with Freud, and with Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God. For if the divine is no longer found through conventional religious dogma where can it be found? One answer is that it can be found in the complexes and their archetypal core, and since it is individual life experience that the complexes contain, including trauma experiences, then this is the place where the divine is found. This is not a particularly modern idea since it is expressed in Corinthians as “My grace is sufficient for you for My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is precisely in traumatic experiences where these weaknesses are to be found.

It seems to me that because trauma somehow has a connection to the divine, whose nature is inexplicable, it is something that is difficult to theorize about and to bring within the realm of scientific understanding. In Kalsched’s thinking the defence against experiencing trauma locks away the personal spirit so that it can never be harmed. This personal spirit in Kalsched is elevated very high on a scale of values; it is the most valuable thing that exists.

In systemic work, such as in Bert Hellinger’s Family Contellations (and others) the individual is downplayed. What is important is the group, and specifically I mean the family. On the systemic level we could say that specific trauma fails to be abreacted on an individual level because the group-oriented portion of the unconscious is functioning to maintain the group and it’s ideals. The group must be protected – after all the individual depends on the group for survival and anything that ensures the group’s survival also insures the individual’s survival. So a systemic based theory of trauma might reverse Kalsched’s theory since on a scale of values it is the group, not the individual, that is most valuable.

This does not mean that I am refuting Kalsched’s theory of trauma. I am, after Jung, suggesting that theories are the very devil in psychology. If we really take the prospective function of the psyche seriously we have to follow what is individual in each case as the basis, not a theory. I think this is why a trauma theory disappears from Jung’s writings; when he embraced the prospective aspect of the psyche, with its individual basis, a general ‘reductive’ theory of trauma became untenable.


Kalsched, D. (1996) The Inner World of Trauma London, Routledge

Jung, C.G. (1961) Collected Works Volume 4 Freud and Psychoanalysis London, Routledge & Kegan Paul

Two souls – the essence of a framework for mutual support.


The essence of a healing systemic work captured in just one image. Two souls, in physical bodies, holding and supporting each other while standing on the thin ice of life itself. In moments of crisis, we reach out and hold each other.   – Daan van Kampenhout.




I came across this quote and picture online, and was inspired by the simplicity and beauty of the sentiment. Then I wondered who do we reach out to and hold, and who holds us, in times of need and moments of crisis? When do we reach out, in what circumstances? Can we reach out to those around us? Are there some people who are more appropriate to reach out to than others? In counting the numbers from my own life, I had many fingers left as counters. I had to gauge whether or not my prospective holder would be able to handle my crisis, would not buckle under their image of me as a strong source of support myself. What effect would my needs for support have on them, how would they cope with me, and how would I be with the risk that in my moment of crisis, there would be nobody who would have the humanity to put aside themselves for a while and help me?

In our age, of course, we no longer need to have a web of mutual support around us, because we can turn to professional helpers, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, shamans, counselors, etc. Provided, of course, that we can afford it. If we cannot, the best we could do is to be prescribed drugs form our General Practitioner, and perhaps gain something from the human contact in his or her consulting room, a smile or two perhaps, a kind word, a little reassurance.

However, increasing numbers of people go down these avenues when the problem has become so enormous that they are totally overwhelmed. They cannot turn to those around them, because there is no habitual, inbuilt system of local support in the modern world. This was not so in antiquity.

Raymond Firth, in his celebrated 1936 study of Kinship in ‘primitive’ Polynesia, paints quite a different picture of native life on the island of Tikopia. Kinship in this context in threefold; it is consanguineous but also social and economic. The general body of kinsfolk is referred to by the Tikopian’s as te kano a piato which is specific to each individual person. These are the people who an individual can turn to in times of stress, or conversely in times of celebration. It can be translated as “the whole of the families” or “the collected families”. Unlike other native kinship terms it is not a clearly defined unit to which one either belongs or does not belong, but rather it “has it’s borders vaguely defined, fading away into the broad plain where classificatory kinship needs the spur of economic interest, neighbourliness or the touch of rank to make it effective”[1] In a small community, such as that on the island of Tikopia consisting of around 1200 inhabitants, family ties are the basis of social and economic life, but not exclusively so. Moreover, kano a piato is not exclusively called upon in times of drama in one’s life. It is a system of natural cooperation between persons who are involved in living together in all its social and economic ramifications.

In our modern world, we go out to work and we get paid and we have downplayed the other aspects of life which used to go hand in hand with economic survival. That is we need not equate the social and the economic. This in turn seriously narrows our network of support, those on whom we can depend when our very survival is called into question.

Many years ago, when I was in my mid twenties, I was practicing my guitar in my lounge where I could be seen from the street as the curtains were open. It was the evening time, and mid way through playing some Bach I was interrupted by the doorbell. I went to the door and found a middle-aged lady looking up at me from the steps. She apologized for interrupting me but said she had seen me there and had just wanted to talk to someone. She had been drinking a little, but she was not drunk. I agreed to talk with her and we spoke for about 2 hours. She was not a desperate woman, as she explained. She had a job and a social life, but there was nobody she could talk to and gain support from. So I listened, and gave her support. I have not thought about this event for a long time but I realize it made me feel better too, as well as her, that there is something gained from being a support as well as being supported, just as in Daan’s picture above. She talked about incidents from her early life, her mother, her abusive stepfather, incidents which she had never spoken about before. I was not a therapist then, but I didn’t need to be. I spontaneously became her kano a piato for two hours one evening in the 1990’s.

[1] Frith, R. We, The Tikopia Routledge, 1936 (reprint 2004) p.224



What is depression? A little light from Jung…

Depression is probably the most likely symptom to make a person seek out the help of a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. As a symptom it has a wide field of gradations ranging from a general feeling of low morale to a dark tormented condition of hopelessness which in severe cases can result in suicide. In the former state we might do well not to pathologise since periodic fluctuations of mood are normal and a natural counterpart to periods of happiness and as James Hollis observes “Could we even imagine the possibility of joy if we could not contrast it with its opposite?” (Hollis, 1996) Seen in this light a periodic feeling of low morale interspersed with periods of brighter moods is a natural and true consequence of being alive. Thus a certain amount of depression within a life is normal and healthy.


Psychiatry in the past divided depression into ‘neurotic’ and ‘psychotic’ varieties. The neurotic type was often termed ‘reactive’ meaning that the sufferer in this state was reacting to a significant event that was thought to have been the genesis of the depression. This might include a broken love affair, a bereavement or loss of employment. The psychotic form of depression however was thought to be endogenous, i.e. having its genesis in the personality of the sufferer without being set off by external events. In this form the depression is more likely to be accompanied by symptoms such as weight loss, insomnia or other psychosomatic conditions. In such cases a psychiatrist is likely to prescribe ant-depressant drugs without recourse to an in-depth analysis of the patient’s personality in order to find the root causes. (Storr, 1990)

Social factors may play an important role in cases of depression even when there is so definable traumatic event that may set it off. Women are particularly vulnerable to depression brought on by social factors, which can include being stuck in an unsatisfactory marriage, living under poor conditions, having 3 or more children under the age of 14 at home and generally having no life outside these restrictive factors. Chronic ill-health also can also an make a person more vulnerable to depression.

Depression can be thought of as a ‘disorder’ only when there is a certain predisposition towards it. Thus in a normal case of depression an adverse life event may set if off and yet the person can return to their normal state of equilibrium after a certain period. How long this might take is not quantifiable and would depend on the individual circumstances and the severity of the precipitating event. When the depression becomes a disorder – i.e. it can be thought of as pathological – then the person cannot return to the state of equilibrium and remains in a depressed sate.


Once a thing has fallen into the unconscious it is retained there, regardless of whether the conscious mind suffers or not. (C.G. Jung)


The characteristics of the depression in any one case would depend on whether it could be classified as ‘simple’ or ‘melancholic’. In a simple depression the tone is one of “feelings of weakness, lack of motivation, pessimism and loneliness.” (Steinberg , 1989). In melancholic depression however the symptoms are more severe, characterised by a

profound and overwhelming feeling of self-blame, hopelessness and self-deprecation. Such people suffer from a pervasive melancholia, disorder of thought processes, psychomotor retardation and somatic dysfunctions. Their thoughts are gloomy and morbid.” (ibid.p339-340)

Depression around mid-life is very common and in Jungian terms can be thought of as an inevitable collision between the ego, which may have developed in less than ideal circumstances in the first half of life, and the Self which wishes to be in the foreground in the second half of life. The collision of these two opposing forces creates a depression.

Jung himself did not evolve a theory of depression in itself but, in fact, saw all symptomology as basic to the alienated state of human kind in general where dissociation of the personality is the norm, involving projection of the contents of the unconscious rather than integration of them and thereby enlargement of the personality. Thus for example, a man possessed by his anima, “a creature without relationships” is prey to a “moody and uncontrolled disposition” (Jung, CW16 para. 504). Jung is always looking for the archetypal background of symptomology so the symptom itself is not a main source of focus for him. Thus he considers depressions, moods, nervous disorders as the appearance of certain psychic contents “which express themselves by their power to thwart our will (and) to obsess our consciousness.” (Jung, CW7 para. 400) These psychic contents Jung argues are a manifestation of God and to deny this is an act of repression and the personality as a result becomes impoverished. He argues that this impoverishment comes about because contemporary experience and knowledge , which is characteristically rational and one-sided, regard the experience of symptoms like depression as valueless and meaningless, something to be gotten rid of, when in fact on a higher level of experience they lead the way to wholeness via integration of unconscious contents.


Could we even imagine the possibility of joy if we could not contrast it with its opposite. (James Hollis)


These unconscious contents carry a charge of libido and since this libido is trapped in the unconscious through a characteristic one-sided attitude of the ego then the ego itself is depleted of energy. In speaking of the depressive world of one of his patients Jung remarks

The patient’s world has become cold, empty and grey; but his unconscious is activated, powerful, and rich. It is characteristic of the nature of the unconscious psyche that it is sufficient unto itself and knows no human considerations. Once a thing has fallen into the unconscious it is retained there, regardless of whether the conscious mind suffers or not. The latter can hunger or freeze, while everything in the unconscious becomes verdant and blossoms.” (ibid. para. 345)


Because the development of the ego in the first half of life has to be one-sided to fit in with certain circumstances, libido builds up in the unconscious as a counter-position to the conscious one. Through time and further repression of contents it has the power to invalidate all conscious contents. Thus in the above case that Jung cites the depression was caused by negative feelings that were “so many autosuggestions” which were accepted without argument by the patient, despite him being a “very clever young man who had been intellectually enlightened” (ibid. para. 344)


The dynamics of depression are thus to be thought of with reference to the concepts of compensation and introversion. The unconscious compensates for the one-sided attitude of consciousness by causing libido to be diverted from the object-world through the process of introversion leaving the ego depleted of libido which causes depression. In order for the depression to be lifted the unconscious contents must be integrated, contents which may be wildy different from the conscious standpoint, and this leads the ego to be replenished by the libido which can flow freely. In the above case the conscious attitude of the patient was so one-sidedly rational that nature rose up and annihilated his whole world of conscious values.


The depression turns out to have been trying to realise something, is directed towards a goal and this goal is transformation.


This introversion of libido and the depressive state Jung sees as a kind of marker as to where the ego needs to go to be replenished. The patient must look back into the depths of the depressive state which has links to the past, to the personal unconscious, insofar as the past is an object of memory and therefore a psychic content. Jung says this can only be done by “consciously regressing along with the depressive tendency and integrating the memories so activated into the conscious mind – which was what the depression was aiming at in the first place.” (Jung, CW5 para. 625)

The depression turns out to have been trying to realise something, is directed towards a goal and this goal is transformation. This goal represents a “regression of energy in service to the Self” (Hollis, p.73) This Type of depression is what Esther Harding calls a “creative depression” and the hero’s descent into the underworld is it’s primary myth. The hero entering the underworld can be seen symbolically as the introversion and following back of libido and the encounter with the monster or dragon as some unconscious affect associated to a complex or archetype. and inasmuch as the hero is changed by the encounter, he has died. The introversion process itself is accompanied by depression firstly because the ego becomes depleted as energy is drawn towards the unconscious and secondly because change itself is always symbolised as death and this prospect, the death of long held values and beliefs, is naturally accompanied by depression. The symbolic experience of death can also be confused with actual death and this can lead to obsessive fantasies revolving around disease. The analysand going through such a rebirth experience can become convinced that actual death is around the corner. Steinberg relates such a case where “the symptom became so strong and the affect so real that “even his wife, who was a physician, was convinced.” (Steinberg, op. cit. p.342) However, after thorough analysis of dream material the analysand realised his paranoia was related to psychological change rather than actual physical death.

Jung’s approach to depression is consistent with his ideas on how the personality is structured and as such all symptomology can be seen as the withdrawal or redirection of libido from the ego as the centre of the conscious personality.

Recognising that Jung’s main focus was the transformation process and not the , of symptoms, Steinberg has questioned Jung’s (and others) assumptions about the aetiology of depression. One of these assumptions has to do with precipitating events and he argues that actually set backs in life such as the loss of a job often result in strongly adaptive coping behaviour where the libido is progressive rather than regressive, and that therefore a predisposition is an important factor. One significant factor in this predisposition is the severe loss of love early in life leading to the idea that a personal factor was responsible for the loss. This conclusion is usually supported by moral criticisms from the parents and the depressive is always motivated by the need to regain this love by the proper form of ‘redemptive’ behaviour. In this situation an adult can carry the childhood patterns of relationship into adult encounters and find similar relationship patterns in search of this redemption. This concern with primary sources of love makes depressives very sensitive to the environment and significant others, dispelling the observation or assumption that depressives have a lack of interest in the environment. Steinberg argues that the withdrawal evident in depressive states should not be confused with introversion as depressives usually have an extremely extraverted psychology which they have developed as a defence against the loss of love and that the real challenge for them is to develop their introversion by becoming attuned to their own needs rather than trying to satisfy the needs of others to regain their own sense of being loved. This is often plagued with difficulty as the discovery of individual feelings at odds with the environment are most feared because they lead to the threat of the loss of love.

One last thing to mention is the correlation of depression with impounded aggression; either this aggression turned in causes the depression or that the impounded aggression is the result of depressive dynamics. Steinberg put the situation thus;


The excessive and irrational guilt and self reproach from which depressed individuals suffer is often induced by parents who threaten to withdraw their love from a child unless he conforms. Such threats often centre on a child’s self-assertiveness, which the parents experience as hostile.” (Steinberg, op. cit. p.348)


I can agree with this to a point but my own experience leads me to believe that such situations are rather more complex. For example the parents don’t experience the child’s assertiveness as hostile since depression indicates that the child has failed to be assertive and therefore it is the child’s fear that he or she will be experienced as hostile that is the issue. The child is responding to family dynamics where there is an unconscious agreement between family members that the child does not have any rights to self-assertion. For example when I was 11 years old my mother told me that she was leaving because she had fallen in love with another man. Evidently I was meant to feel very pleased for her to serve her narcissism, which consciously I did. Many years later I told her about my experience and she denied it ever happened and told me that it must be a ‘false memory’. In reality at the time her animus was calling the shots and she was just as much a passive victim as I was. I believe these things stretch much farther back than the immediate situations at which the depressive person is said to have started to develop in a way that leads to depression. My experience is also that the depression or affect does lead into the unconscious, it is purposive and it uncovers a whole nexus of intertwined relationships which are inter-generational, basically primitive insofar as they lead back to ancient kinship customs (Jung, CW16 para. 441) and that bringing consciousness to these configurations does indeed lead to religious experience, insofar as the contrasexual archetypes acting properly as an inner relationship, leads to experience of the Self .




Hollis, J. (1996) Swamplands of the Soul Inner City Books p.47

Jung, CG.( 1966) Symbols of Transformation Collected Works Volume 5 London Routledge & Kegan Paul 2nd Edition

Jung, C.G (1966) Two Essays on Analytical Psychology Collected Works Volume 7 London Routledge & Kegan Paul 2nd Edition

Jung, C.G. (1966) The Practise of Psychotherapy Collected Works Volume 16 London Routledge & Kegan Paul 2nd Edition.

Steinberg, W. (1989) Depression: a Discussion of Jung’s Ideas in JAP Vol. 34 issue 4 p. 339

Storr, A. (1990) The Art of Psychotherapy London Routledge

The Question of Psychological Types – book review

Beebe, J. & Falzeder (Eds.) The Question of Psychological Types London & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2013. Pp. 184. Hb

This book is a record of the the correspondence between Jung and Hans Schmid-Guisan written between June 1915 and December 1916, some five years before the publications of Jung’s Psychological Types. Schmid-Guisan had met Jung at a psychiatric conference in Lausanne while the former was an assistant physician at the Manhaim Clinic in Cery. Schmid-Guisan went to study analytical psychology with Jung in Zurich and was also his analysand. Gradually their relationship broadened into a friendship and the problems that both men encountered in their practises would often bring them together for discussion. As Jung wrote of Schmid-Guisan in his obituary,


At the time we were especially interested in the question of the relativity of psychological judgements, or, in other words, the influence of temperament on the formation of psychological concepts. As it turned out, he developed instinctively an attitude type which was the direct opposite of my own. This difference led to a long and lively correspondence , thanks to which I was able to clear up a number of fundamental questions. The results are set forth in my book on types. (p.169)


This ‘lively correspondence’, then, it what is set out for the reader in this new publication and translation. The problem is set out in the first letter by Jung, a problem which he encountered both in the difficulties of his daily analytical work and in his experience with other people in his personal relationships. In their previous discussions Jung and Schmid-Guisan had identified the problem as the existence of two diametrically opposed types. In speaking of their earlier face-to-face discussions Jung says,


“For one thing we saw very clearly: the problem is not so much the intellectual difficulty of formulating the differences between the types in a logical way, but rather the acceptance of a viewpoint that is diametrically opposed to our own and which essentially forces the problem of the existence of two kinds of truth upon us. Thus we arrived at a critical point of the greatest order, because we had to ask ourselves, in all seriousness, whether the existence of two kinds of truth is conceivable at all.” (p.39-40)


The two kinds of truth Jung refers to are introversion and extraversion and the correspondence between the two men cast them in their natural positions as introvert (Jung) and extravert (Schmid-Guisan) to which the two men adhere throughout the entire correspondence. At this early stage of Jung’s working out of psychological types extraversion is equated with feeling (‘feeling-into’ the object) and introversion with thinking and these terms as they are used here are rather experimental, having not acquired the fully worked out technical meanings that were assigned to them in Psychological Types. Nevertheless, Jung’s psychic model at this time did include for the opposite type and function being present in the unconscious in an inferior and less developed form, and this is evident and consciously recognised in both men’s exchanges leading to exasperating and quite emotionally charged disagreements in counterpoint to their more attentive and patient agreed roles in their conscious standpoints.


By the ninth letter exchange Jung has had enough, although Schmid-Guisan continues with a further three more letters. This last letter from Jung’s pen, entitled the ‘The Last One’ sums up the experience for Jung in no uncertain terms.


Your last letter strengthens my conviction that reaching an agreement on the fundamental principles is impossible, because the point seems precisely that we do not agree. To this end the (unconscious) uses every means, and be it ever so hair-raisingly stupid. (p.131)


It was perhaps because of this ‘hair-raising stupidity’ that Michael Fordham, one of the editors of Jung’s Collected Works, found the letters ‘”unreadable” and “very dull and not particularly illuminating” and, noting that Jung thought the letters were essentially preparation, was “against their inclusion anywhere” (p. 5) , either in Volume Six of the Collected Works as an appendix, or as a projected stand alone volume.


I am inclined to agree with Fordham here, although I would not go as far as to say that the letters are unreadable, although they are indeed quite dull, and exceedingly repetitive as each man goes over and over their own misunderstandings and how the other man has misunderstood them. They are nevertheless very confusing for someone used to mature Jung since the theoretical premises of two fixed functions, thinking and feeling which are in turn are seen as inseparably paired to introversion and extraversion respectively, leave a lot of ground uncovered. Similarly there is no mention of intuition and sensation as independent functions as we know them today, although Jung does allude fleetingly to these missing functions in his ninth and final letter.


The extensive and scholarly introduction by John Beebe and Ernst Falzeder goes a long to way fill in the blanks in this historical evolution of Jung’s thought, caught as it is in the space of six months. They include both a pre-history of Jung’s thinking on types pre these letters and an ‘aftermath’ charting the way content from the letters found their way into various publications before the publication of Jung’s fully worked out theory in 1921. Beebe’s commentary on the letters helps clarify some of the points the reader may miss, not least the somewhat murky references to Schmid-Guisan’s analysis with Jung. The book is well referenced with many helpful notes and includes Jung’s own summary of the first three letters as an appendix, and also his obituary of Schmid-Guisan.


The overall impression one receives from these letters is of a failed experiment which ends somewhat acrimoniously, with a lot of mutual frustration along the way, although the two men continued their friendship until Schmid-Guisan’s untimely death. This publication would be of interest to those readers seriously interested in the history and formation of Jung’s ideas, but for those of us who are still struggling with his mature ideas, the standard texts will suffice.