We live in a culture that stresses suppression of emotions. Don’t show your tears or your anger. Hold it all in – and be nice! Yet, emotions such as anxiety, anger and sadness are not truly unhealthy in and of themselves. Our emotions provide valuable information. Welcoming your emotions and learning how to decipher their code and language can lead us down the path to wholeness.
The body offers emotions as messengers, signals that something is not quite in synch with our needs, values, or inner drive for fulfillment, to contribute meaningfully, connect with others, and so on. By welcoming these emotions, and asking questions, they can share information to guide us to something we need to know about our health and well-being.
As we learn their language and heed their message, we can then learn to live with them, and use them to help us make better life choices, while being free of their potential negative impact on our body and mind.
Of course, there are positive emotions, too. They also need to be questioned; for example, we need to examine our euphoria as we indulge in luscious desserts or buy another new outfit. However, we are going to focus on the emotions that contribute to feeling bad and stress that causes pain and suffering.
Stress itself isn’t really the problem. It’s how we handle stress that gets us in trouble. At an early age we taught ourselves how to handle stressful situations. Based on our core beliefs, our subconscious is automatically triggered by words, language, actions or circumstances around us. Perceptions and judgments arise along with a whole chain reaction of thoughts, sensations, feelings and emotions.
Often emotions seemingly rise up for no apparent reason. Yet, there is always something that triggers them, whether from your external environment or inside you.
One way to address this is to pause whenever you notice that you are feeling discomfort, distressed or depressed. Take a deep breath and ask yourself what you were thinking or doing before the feelings arose, or what happened around you. Creating this awareness can help you consciously work things out or make the appropriate changes in your thinking. Each time you pay attention to these triggers you’ll begin to experience a release of the negative emotion or feeling more quickly.
What you are actually doing is re-wiring neuropathways and brain patterns that you unwittingly formulated long ago. The good news is that modern brain science tells us that the brain has plasticity. No matter how old your brain, you can change these patterns and eliminate the reactions to previous stressors.
The body can hold memories of stress stored over time. For many years my job involved a lot of phone work. This was before headsets. Over the years muscle tension accumulated in my left shoulder, neck and ribs. Even after I started using a headset, my body automatically positioned itself as it had learned to do. A pattern was ingrained within my body and brain. One day I realized what was happening and moved the phone to the right side and consciously worked at retraining how I held my body.
The body and mind also can hold memories of a traumatic event or accident. This is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We frequently hear this term in reference to rape victims, people living through natural disasters and war veterans. It’s estimated that up to 20% of today’s returning veterans have some degree of PTSD and 30% for Vietnam veterans, many who continue to suffer today.
Many years ago, I was at a friend’s home and accidentally chipped a ceramic piece. The friend said not to worry as her husband could repair it. However, the next day she phoned me extremely angry about the incident and the fact that “you didn’t even say you were sorry.” Following that call the emotions poured out of me. I suddenly had a flashback of being a little girl playing with a little porcelain tea set that I broke. My mother, bless her heart, was an ‘emotional spanker’. When she discovered what I had done – she became very angry and punished me. I now know my mother was doing the best she could based on her challenging life. But, at the time, I simply felt ashamed that I wasn’t a perfect little girl for her.
While my experience can hardly be compared to those who have experienced war or disaster, I was reliving a traumatic experience. We all experience mini traumas early on that can come to haunt us into our adult life if not nipped in the bud. To this day, the words “I’m sorry” are expressed like a knee jerk reaction whenever I “mess up.” But more and more I feel compassion, for myself and others who may be reacting.
Engaging mindfulness to welcome emotions
I’ve worked for many years with military veterans, mostly men from the Vietnam era, facilitating a guided meditation called, “Integrative Restoration, iRest.” Research has shown this modern adaptation of the ancient practice of Yoga Nidra to reduce the effects of PTSD, insomnia, chronic pain, and more. I am so proud of the dedication of the men I’ve work with who, after only three months, experienced many positive effects.
One of the hallmarks of the iRest protocol is to welcome emotions, as well as sensations, thoughts and beliefs that show up. We’re not trying to change anything. Rather, by welcoming and learning to be with the emotion or belief, the nervous system and the brain begin to return the body to its natural state of well-being and equanimity.
You can use your positive emotions to help combat the negative ones. In the iRest protocol we welcome emotions by feeling into each emotion and where it shows up in our body. We do the same with an opposite emotion followed by feeling back and forth between opposites. Finally bringing both together neutralizes their impact, restoring the body and mind to natural calmness.
Many factors impact how our body experiences emotions – foods we eat, exercise, the thoughts we think, and our inner exploration can play a role. Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, being in nature, and recreational activities all can contribute to a healthy functioning of our brain, mind and body.
Balance and Harmony
As a former dancer I love moving my body, and often take a break to just move spontaneously with music or in silence. I recently led a workshop with female veterans, many who have the added impact of sexual assault issues. The workshop is called, “The Joy of Being in Movement.” This playful, expressive and guided meditative movement and body exploration experience provided them with a great outlet to express and release the emotions of the child within.
Our bodies, in synch with our brains, are constantly seeking a state of balance and harmony. We only need to tune into its channel and heed its life-enhancing message.