Published February 27, 2018
Modern life is full of emotional challenges. The pressure to succeed, need to “keep up,” fear of missing out and desire for good relationships and work satisfaction can all evoke volatile combinations of emotions.
However, what we learn in our society is not how to work with our emotions, but how to block and avoid them. We do it quite well: Between alcohol use, prescription drug use and screen time, there are a multitude of ways to avoid our feelings. When we do acknowledge them, we swat them away with mantras learned since childhood. (“Mind over matter,” “get a grip” and “suck it up” are familiar ones.) Thwarting emotions is not good for mental or physical health. It’s like pressing on the gas and brakes of your car at the same time, creating an internal pressure cooker.
Emotions have energy that pushes up for expression, and to tamp them down, our minds and bodies use creative tactics—including muscular constriction and holding our breath. Symptoms like anxiety and depression, which are on the rise in the U.S., can stem from the way we deal with these underlying, automatic, hard-wired survival emotions, which are biological forces that should not be ignored. When the mind thwarts the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and symptoms. Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.
Most people are ruled by their emotions without any awareness that this is happening. But once you realize the power of emotions, simply acknowledging your own can help greatly.
Consider Frank, a patient of mine who was greatly bothered that he could not afford the kind of car he really wanted. Something as simple as Frank’s thwarted car desire triggered a mixture of sadness, anger, humiliation and anxiety. He also had physical symptoms, and although Frank had some inkling that his stomach troubles had to do with stress, he was unaware that emotions in particular were causing his intense stomach pains. Because he hadn’t paid attention to his emotions, he had no tools for what to do to feel better.
Current neuroscience suggests that the more emotions and conflicts a person experiences, the more anxiety they feel. That’s due, in part, to the vagus nerve, one of the main emotional centers of the body. It responds to emotions triggered in the mid-brain by sending signals to the heart, lungs and intestines. These signals ready the body to take appropriate and immediate action in the service of survival. The body is ready to react to perceived danger before the person is aware that an emotion has been triggered. It’s the reason why emotions aren’t under our conscious control. With Frank, for example, his eyes saw the car, and all of a sudden he felt sadness, humiliation and anger. His stomach went into an instant state of upset.
Frank’s stomach continued to hurt until, through therapy, he learned to tune into his body to recognize and separate out each emotion, name them and tend to them one at a time.
The role that emotions play in creating both physical suffering and healing is becoming a more popular focus in psychotherapy. Yet the growing field is still not part of mainstream standards of care. An education in emotions is still not mandatory in social work programs, doctoral programs in psychology and in medical schools.
Yet simply teaching people that emotions are not under conscious control would help them tremendously. Basic biology and anatomy explain that we cannot stop our emotions from being triggered, as they originate from the middle section of our brain that is not under conscious control.
However, when people are given education on emotions and skills for how to work with them, they can begin to feel better. Frank healed his stomach by allowing himself to feel sad. He mourned the loss about not getting his fancy car. He validated his angry feelings after learning they were natural. And he learned specific skills to release his anger in ways that were healthy and not destructive to himself or others. He practiced self-compassion in response to his humiliation, and that decreased, too. Once he experienced all of his feelings, they passed, as core emotions do when they are deeply felt in the body. By working with his emotions, he changed the firing pattern of his vagus nerve and healed his stomach pain.
My clients tend to avoid painful or conflicting emotions in their lives—just as most of us do, because that’s what we were taught. But to heal the mind, we need to experience the emotions that go with our stories, and those are located in the body. When we are taught about the automatic nature of emotions and learn to identify and work with the core emotions beneath our anxiety, we feel and function better.
Hilary Jacobs Hendel is the author of It’s Not Always Depression.