We cannot think our way through an emotion. Emotions must be experienced!
That is because we have a thinking brain, emotional brain and body brain that function somewhat independently. We have to learn the difference between a thought, an emotion, and a physical sensation (Review Part 1 and Part 2 ). And we have to practice experiencing each of them. Emotions have to be felt viscerally for us to achieve long-lasting relief.
Most of us spend a lifetime figuring out how to avoid emotions. But that’s because we aren't taught better ways to work with them. The society we live in does not yet recognize that mental health is a byproduct of our being able to name and safely experience the myriad of emotions that life brings.
You may at first resist tending directly to your emotions because, let’s face it, emotions can feel overwhelming.“How big will the feeling get?” or “Will I be able to stand it?” are just some of the concerns that can come to mind. The truth is, we can all learn to tolerate and even embrace getting in touch with deep emotional experiences and the sensations they bring forth in our bodies. The benefits include feeling less anxious, less depressed, calmer and more authentic!
Two-Minute Exercise to Experience Your Three Brains and the Self:
Find a quiet, calm moment and slow yourself way down by feeling the ground underneath you an taking 4 or 5 deep belly breaths.
Now, think of a recent experience that had some (but not too much) emotional punch to it. It could be as simple as remembering a compliment someone gave you or a nice moment with your friend, partner, or pet. You could remember a scene in a book or film that made you sad or scared, or the last time you got slightly annoyed. We are conjuring up a past memory to bring up an emotion to re-experience now.
Think about the details of the memory, noticing the images that go with it as if you are watching a movie. For example, as I write, I am remembering a happy moment with my child a few weekends ago. I see us in the kitchen cooking together. The image makes me joyful. Make your memory as vivid as possible so the emotions grow stronger. Holding the memory in mind, see if you can label one or more emotions that your memory evokes.
If tuning into your emotions feels scary or you notice you don’t want to — that is OK — just imagine a peaceful place like the beach or mountains to calm your nervous system. Part 5 of this series will validate why we are sometimes afraid, uncomfortable or reluctant to get in touch with emotions.
Let’s go back to the exercise. What emotions come up for you as you bring up your memory? Without judging or evaluating yourself, name the emotion your memory brings up for you now. Literally ask yourself, “Do I feel sadness?” Do I feel joy? Do I feel excitement? Do I feel anger? Do I feel fear? Do I feel disgust? Do I feel anxiety? shame? guilt? Try on each emotion above, one by one, until you find the ones that fit. When you find the emotion word that fits best, validate it saying to yourself “I feel ________ (insert the emotion that best fits).” There should be a sense of recognition that you have labeled the emotion correctly.
Great! If you’re having trouble, don’t worry and definitely don’t judge yourself. Just read on, keep trying and you’ll get it with some practice.
Now, let’s check in with what is happening below your neck. If you slow down enough and give yourself a good 15 seconds or more, you might begin to notice changes in your posture and physical sensations. I cannot stress enough how important it is to slow down for this part, as the body takes much longer to be perceived than the thoughts in your head.
Scan your whole body slowly — very slowly — from head to toe, seeing if you notice any sensations that go with the emotions you’ve noticed--they can be extremely subtle. You might sense a weight or a lightness, a muscular tightening or relaxing, energy up, out, or swirling cyclically, fast heartbeat, quick or shallow breathing, butterflies or a knot in your stomach, just to name a few common physical reactions. You also might notice impulses to move: to fold in on yourself; to retreat; to set a boundary; to stand, sit, yawn, or jump around (if you are exited), and even to make a fist if you are working with anger. Rest assured all emotions have associated physical sensations. In fact, what defines an emotion is really just a collection of physical sensations that we come to recognize as a specific emotion.
Lastly, know there are no right or wrong answers, just subjective perception of your internal experience. Anything you notice is right, by definition.
Now, here is the explanation for what you just experienced:
Your Self is the part of you that conjured up the memory at my request and noticed the images, noticed the emotions and noticed the body sensations.
Your thinking brain spontaneously generated thoughts that arose during the exercise like “I can’t do this” or “this exercise is stupid” or “this is really interesting” or “This is too hard” or “I think I’ll make chicken for dinner.”
Your emotional brain triggered the emotions connected to the memory.
Your body brain caused the changes you noticed in your body.
Learning to work with thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations no doubt requires courage, patience, and self-compassion. The benefits are enormous, however, as this is the work that allows us to become grounded in our most calm, confident, and openhearted Self.
Great job for trying! A+
For an accessible, story-driven, deep dive on understanding emotions to enhance your wellbeing, check out: It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018).