Being a therapist, I am in the emotion business. These physiological changes are firing off throughout every moment of the day. Some are fun, and happy, and others are pretty damn uncomfortable. If all emotions felt good, well, I would be out of a job.
So, let’s talk about emotions and where they live, and how we can release them once deemed unhelpful. If you said emotions lived deep within the cerebrum in the limbic system of our brains– you are correct (AND a total nerd). We often think about emotions taking shape in the brain, because they do! BUT, when we experience an emotion, we can feel it through our entire body. For example, you’re getting ready for a big presentation and say, “I have butterflies in my stomach.” What you are likely referring to is the fluttering sensation in the abdomen that often accompanies feelings of excitement, anxiety, or fear.
An issue I regularly encounter in the “emotion business” is that we humans tend to rarely be consciously connected to the sensations in our body until they get fairly pronounced. I often ask clients, as a way to align their body and mind, “what are you noticing, right now, in your right foot?” I usually get answers like, “it feels cold,” “I’m sitting on it- it’s asleep,” or “it’s sweaty.” Here’s the thing– that persons’ foot was likely cold the entire time, they just weren’t paying attention to its condition. If we don’t notice a feeling, we can’t do much in finding a solution when it’s no longer useful. This same logic applies to anxiety, fear, stress, and anger. These emotions can become physically rooted in our bodies.
When I experience stress personally, I clench my jaw, and I clench, and clench, and clench until I begin to experience physical tension in my neck. If left unattended, it moves into my shoulders. My shoulders begin to migrate up towards my ears. It can start to impact the entire back of my torso. I begin to consciously notice the emotion when I experience physical pain. Sometimes the initial stressor has passed; sometimes it remains.
It’s important to recognize that emotions have a purpose, but that they sometimes leave a residue. I think everyone can benefit from thinking about how our bodies hold emotion, and how we best clean up after the party. So, as your ally and accomplice in the “emotion business,” I offer the solution I’ve found most helpful in curbing lingering emotions that manifest in the body:
1. Regularly come home to your body. Doing this leads us to touch base with our emotional state. This may sound like I’m speaking “therapist,” but it is because I am (medium sorry)! A great place to start is with a “body scan.” Just like a computer we should “scan” ourselves regularly so we can identify, define, and treat problems that we may not even be aware are there. Sit in a comfortable chair, with your feet grounded on the floor. Shift your attention to the crown of your head. Slowly, inch by inch, scan down your body. Work to be open and curious about sensations, noting the feelings we typically brush aside during our day-to-day. It can be a tangible sensation, such as “I feel my shirt on my back,” or “a tightness in my calf,” or it can be more abstract; “my chest feels light,” or “there is warmth in my core.” Noticing these sensations, remain curious and see if you can identify the presence of any emotions. What can be mentioned can be managed, as the old saying goes. This process is what can lead me to notice the physical sensation in my jaw and say “ohh that is stress!”
2. Step 2, respond with a long, avoidant nap– okay, not really. The next step I’ve found useful is to validate the emotion. It is not only acceptable to experience the sensation/feeling, it is the first step towards its healing and eventual release, assuming the value of the emotion has run its course. I think many of us have the inclination to talk down to ourselves regarding the emotions we experience. A great way to practice validating ourselves is to imagine what you would say to your best friend if they came to you feeling stressed. You would validate the shit out of them! Now try offering the same kindness to yourself.
3. The third step can be tricky, but is my favorite. After noticing and identifying my emotion, I give my body/mind/spirit/self permission to release it. I view it as a relaxing way to cleanse my neural synapses of the stimuli that make them fire in ways that are not helpful (I AM the total nerd as mentioned above). The action chosen to help release will vary in efficacy from person to person. For me, consistent levels of stress or uncertainty is best identified, validated, and released through gentle yoga that puts my jaw, neck, shoulders, and back through a series of intentional movements (“if ya don’t stretch, ya stress!”). If you can’t get down with “downward dog,” don’t worry– there are other options. Here are a few ideas: Practice focusing on the tight muscle, and work consciously towards intentionally tightening, and then untightening that specific area. For every inhale- tighten, and every exhale- untighten. Many of my clients also love to journal to work towards release. I would keep a journal, but I hate it (varying efficacy– told ya). What I do love is writing down a list of bullet points of what I feel stressed about. This helps organize my thoughts and feels cathartic. Connection with another kind and caring human also works well for me. This usually involves a phone call to my cousin who willingly helps me process whatever ultra-toxic feelings I am experiencing (she loves it).
Then- wash, rinse, repeat. Emotions are not meant to be permanent (unless it is my husband’s undying love for every aspect of my being). Their function, value, and presence is designed to provide us a happy and healthy life, free from the lions, tigers, and bears our brain sometimes mistakenly sees in long to-do lists, traffic, and political upheaval. Not to say the world can’t be a scary place, but sometimes we need to transition these feelings/thoughts/sensations along. I try (not always succeed, but try) to incorporate this process of identifying, validating, and releasing expired emotions first thing, into my morning routine. Give it a try! Make yourself a cup of coffee, check the news (maybe don’t), brush your teeth, and practice allowing yourself to come home, even for a moment.