Emotions and Their Impact on the Body – Part 1
In this blog, I am going to address how we experience our emotions in our bodies.
We have access to a wide range of emotions and they all leave imprints on the body.
The more we are aware of our emotions, the more we will notice what happens in our bodies as we experience fear, anger, disgust, joy, disappointment, betrayal, relief, frustration, grief, sadness, pride, acceptance, love, peace, apathy, etc.
Many times we ignore what we feel and the emotions go underground. This is when they are more likely to leave an imprint on the body. For example, whenever we experience a negative emotion such as fear or anger, there will be a decrease in our muscle strength and tone (David R. Hawkins, Letting go – the pathway to surrender, 2012). We will not sense it and go on about our lives unaware. And yet the body will hold onto and carry the emotion for us and eventually, may even protest.
Another way emotions are held in the body is when we experience the same emotion again and again over time. For example, if we feel anger many times per day over many days, months or years, we may find that our stomach area feels constricted, cramped or knotted. The emotion of anger will go undetected and we will focus on the somatic discomfort instead of the emotion that started the sensation. As you can imagine, not addressing the recurrent anger will have profound implications for our health. (Also see Gabor Mate – When the body says no).
Emotions are just that. We are built to emote. Animals and plants emote. If our mind interprets emotions as natural and free flowing, there will be no attachment to anemotion and it will flow in and out of us without leaving a permanent imprint. Animals are capable of doing this because their minds do not interfere with the natural flow of life (see Peter Levine’s video on how animals recover fully from mortal danger).
We, on the other hand, may identify fully with our emotions and may believe we are destined to be their slaves. How can they leave if we make a permanent home for them in our bodies?
Furthermore, we may start gaining from the attachment and identification with our emotions. We may get pity or attention, we may start justifying why we cannot do certain things because our emotions stop us, we may rely on someone else who knows better or can fix things for us, which absolves us from taking scary risks. Unfortunately, the gains are illusory, as it is quite likely that the above will add on more layers of emotions such as guilt, self-punishment, worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness. These emotions in turn will leave additional imprints on the body, which will make it more difficult to shed off and recover from.
What to do?
I find it helpful to take a few moments and go inside. I ask myself what am I feeling right now. I name any emotion I experience and let it be. I notice it with compassion and curiosity.
What are you?
Who are you?
Where are you coming from?
Are you trying to tell me something?
Is there something I need to learn here?
One question at one check in session may be enough.
As I do this, most of the time the emotion will come and go, and with it, all the thoughts that are connected with it. This becomes easier as we develop a regular way of going inside.
Let’s use an example here to make this clearer. I close my eyes and as I ask myself what am I experiencing, and I discover I feel guilty about not completing a task I promised to do. I do not go into the thoughts that come with guilt such as judging myself for being lazy, calling myself names such as ungrateful, or planning how am I going to keep my promise. Instead, I pay attention to the guilt itself. I find it uncomfortable and yet my body feels fine. I decide to watch the discomfort and as I do, I may discover that the discomfort turns into sadness. I may remember that the sadness is related to promises I was given and not kept but I decide not to go with the memory (thought). I stay with the sadness and watch it with compassion. I notice it dissipating and possibly, leaving. As I check back on the guilt, I notice it is not there anymore. I feel free to choose to keep my promise about doing the task, with “no strings attached”.
It is harder when experiencing recurrent emotions. As we become more aware, we notice that the recurrent emotions have been with us for a very long time and probably passed on to us when we did not have the awareness and the ability to choose. Therefore, there probably is an imprint on the body already. This is helpful as we can rely on our bodies to tell us the story of the emotion.
Let’s use an example again. As I check in with the state of my emotions, I notice that lately I have been angrier than usual. I decide to zoom into the anger and allow it to be there. I do not will it away, suppress it (consciously) or deny it. As I notice it, it becomes bigger and I notice I hate it. I decide to watch hate and feel disgust at my hatefulness. I choose to watch disgust and let it be. It may dissipate on its own, it may go onto a different emotion or I may remember that any time I got angry, I was scolded for “not being nice”. I may realize I have learnt to repress anger unconsciously;to be the obedient child I was expectedto be. As I remember this painfully, I start crying and experience sadness. I stay with the sadness until it dissipates. It may turn into acceptance or love towards my parents who did the best they could to make me who I am. I realize the recurrent anger presented itself as an opportunity to look at this part of my life and put it to rest.
Let’s look now at an example where the emotions are not that easily accessible and they are stored in the body without our awareness. Let’s use fear this time. I notice I have recurrent migraines that are becoming more and more frequent. I go inside, hold my head in between my hands and become curious. I feel throbbing on my right temple. I put my hand on it and observe. The throbbing becomes more pronounced and I notice fear. What if I have cancer in my right brain? I decide not to go with the cancer thoughts and stay with fear. The fear grows bigger and my heart starts pounding. I put my hand on my heart and listen. I have a hard time breathing and I notice how I want to move away from all of this as it is becoming harder and harder to just be with the sensations. I choose to stay with the discomfort of the body. I may not know where is this coming from and yet I trust the wisdom of my body as it is trying to tell me something I do not yet know consciously. If it becomes too much, I may decide to stay with a small piece of the experience and come back to it later. For example, I may decide to stay with the breathlessness. I notice the constriction in my chest and how my body wants to close around it. I open my chest and listen some more. As I do that, I am able to breathe somewhat easier. I am conscious I am not changing the body message or forcing it. I go back to the right temple and notice some ease there too. I feel grateful and decide to come back to the fear the next time I check in.
In the next blog, I will go deeper into certain areas of the body that carry our emotions and demonstrate some ways we can help ourselves out from blockages, holding onto emotions and thus freeing much needed energy.
With blessings for your health,