For inner equilibrium and harmony, our body's use and expenditure of energy must be in balance. Think of an overheated car. It stops working well. The engine creates heat, and that heat must be released to keep it running smoothly. That’s basically what needs to happen when core emotions like anger, sadness, joy, and excitement are triggered in the brain. The energy core emotions create pushes to come up and out, like steam in a kettle. When emotions flow freely, balance is restored, and we feel better--we run more smoothly.
Unfortunately, most of us ignore or suppress our core emotions. This is problematic for health as the energy that is mobilized when emotions are triggered then ends up stuck in the mind and body causing psychological and physical symptoms.
Core emotions evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to mobilize physical energy for adaptive movements, which we feel as impulses. For example, we run when we encounter a threatening object; we fight when we are attacked, and we jump up and down with joy and excitement when we hit a home run. Running, fighting, and jumping are all physical movements that require and burn energy.
How do we suppress core emotions? With another category of emotions called inhibitory emotions. You will recognize the inhibitory emotions. They are the anxiety, guilt, and shame, from which we all suffer. These emotions excel at pushing down core emotions. In small amounts, inhibitory emotions serve a positive purpose. Too much inhibition, however, throws us out of balance.
Inhibitory emotions help civilize us. For example, when we were children and our parents scolded us for not wanting to share our toys with our friends, guilt and shame helped “motivate” us to curb the “selfish” impulses of our core emotions in favor of sharing. As a result, we learned to share. How? Because guilt and shame, evoked by our parents' teachings, becomes wired in our brain and henceforth affect our mind and body. The next time we don’t feel like sharing, our unconscious memory of past shaming events tells us we had better curb the covetous impulse and share lest we get hit with a dose of shame, a powerfully painful experience. So when all goes well, healthy guilt and shame suppress emotions and impulses in certain circumstances to help us to become good citizens and feel good about ourselves.
It's when our core emotions become chronically bound to inhibitory emotions that we feel unwell: disconnected, irritable, or worse. When we have too much anxiety, guilt, and shame, our core emotions never see the light of day, so to speak. They lay buried deep down inside without our ability to sense or validate them. As a result, we may experience persistent anxiety, depression, and other symptoms of blocked emotions. The outward energy of core emotions still pushes for release yet remains buried under the swirling energy of anxiety, guilt, and shame until they are freed.
When Jonathan learned his dog had died, the sinking sensation of grief was suddenly palpable to him in his stomach and heart. The rush of sensation inside him spread across his body heading up to his eyes. But before the grief could reach his eyes, where he could release it by crying, he stopped it with an automatic muscular constriction in his throat. Most of us have felt the proverbial lump in the throat. Jonathan stopped his crying and told himself, Man up! Not feeling his sadness was one of the factors that led to his anxiety and depression.
Core emotions arise with energetic impulses that push up and out for release. Anxiety, shame, and guilt are the inhibitory emotions that push down the upward energy of core emotions.
There are various ways to release core emotional energy so we feel better:
Name your emotions
Studies show putting language on what you feel helps calm the brain, mind, and body. We can practice scanning our mind and body for emotions, then validate the emotions we notice with a statement like "I feel sad" or "I am angry." This sends a signal of internal recognition that the brain likes. Naming emotions is an important step for processing them to fully release their energy. Try it! Click here for a list of emotions to help you name what you are experiencing
Name your physical sensations
All emotions have physical sensations. In fact, emotions are basically a bunch of physical sensations that we come to recognize as emotions during our infancy and childhood (when things go right). Sometimes if our parents struggled with their emotions, they passed that disability onto us. The good news is that anyone can learn to recognize and name their emotions by becoming familiar with how they make us feel physically and then practicing to name them when they arise. Click here for a list of physical sensations to help you name what you are experiencing.
Breathing through emotions
Breathing deeply as you notice and stay with emotions and/or their accompanying physical sensations helps emotional energy flow and release. If you try this, you should be able to detect a shift in energy towards relaxation. Alternatively, you might notice more inhibition coming up with increasing tension. Both are natural responses to staying with emotions. Why one person can let emotions flow and another person gets more tense has to do with the degree of comfort one has with emotional experience, how much education on emotions one has had, the amount of adversity one has experienced, the amount of emotional abuse and neglect experienced, genetics, mental health, and the amount of experiential psychotherapy a person has had. Try to notice and validate your own unique experience without judging yourself.
Listening to the impulse of your emotions
Scan your body head to toe to notice any impulses. You may feel like you want to scream, hit, fold up into a ball, run away, push something away, reach for someone or something, hug someone or something, speak truth to power, help someone, hide under the covers, and many more. Validate the impulse of your emotion and notice what action it is pulling for you to do (without doing anything but noticing with curiosity and trying not to judge yourself).
Full emotional release
As an experiential therapist, I help people fully experience blocked emotions. Each emotion has a wave where we perceive the energy of the emotion rising intensely, peaking, and then the energy dissipating. At that point, we feel ourselves calming down. Think about stubbing your toe. It takes a moment before we feel the pain, but we know it is coming. Then it rises, hits a peak, and thankfully starts to diminish. That’s what it is like to fully experience a core emotion. It is predictable in many ways and I have found that notion helpful in tolerating my emotions as I process them.
Naming and experiencing core emotions brings together left and right brain processes to achieve optimal balance and homeostasis. When we work with our emotions in the above ways, our mind quiets, our body relaxes, and we have more energy for new and creative endeavors. We feel more socially engaged, more connected to our deepest truths, and more confident being our true and authentic selves. Life is filled with difficult circumstances in which we have no or little control. I have found it encouraging to know that I can work with my inner world to maximize my wellbeing despite what's happening in the outside world.
Craig, A.C. (2014). How Do You Feel?: An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self. Princeton Unversity Press: Princeton, New Jersey.
Hendel, H. J. (2108). 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: New York