Today, with the assault of digital warfare and a culture that values intellect over instinct, we are all challenged with regulation.
Phones, social media, and the news constantly disrupt our nervous system and are designed to keep us addicted and in a state of fear. Chaos, overwhelm, and confusion become the new normal.
We all spend too much time “in our heads” and not enough time in our bodies. This is most evident after we have a conversation with our boss or friend and ruminate about it for hours, even days after the conversation is long over. And when we can’t sleep and settle down at night after a long day at work because we are "wired." Anxiety, mental confusion, and depression have become the new normal.
If you are identifying with any of these symptoms it most likely means that your system is being challenged in some way. The good news is that awareness is the first agent of change. By recognizing that our system is out of balance we can then invite awareness around what is needed.
Science tells us that a practice of compassionately noticing, without judgment, the emotions and patterns of behavior that make up our personality could improve not only our mental health but our physical health as well.
In his book “When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection,” Dr. Gabor Maté explains that repressed emotions create hidden stressors. These stressors, in turn, cause disease. According to Maté, emotional patterns ingrained in childhood live in the memory of our cells and in our brains. They show up in our interpersonal interactions, which we come to know as our “personality.” If we learn to observe ourselves, we can begin to work backwards through this process and identify repressed emotions that are holding us back and contributing to ill health.
Psychoneuroimmunology studies connections between the mind, the emotions, the central nervous system, and our immune defenses. This relatively new field of research is finding that repressed emotions can cause considerable damage. Autoimmune diseases offer one clear example. All such diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, systemic lupus erythrmsyosus (SLE), diabetes, scleroderma, and multiple sclerosis have one thing in common: the patient’s immune system is attacking the body.
What creates this self-assault? It appears that emotions are part of the answer. Physiologically speaking, emotions are electrical, chemical and hormonal discharges of the nervous system. A strong emotion carries energy that needs to be expressed outwardly: when I am angry, for example, I might shout or cry or tell someone how I feel as a way to release this energy. If I am consistently unable to express myself in this way (perhaps because I was told not to as a child), I learn to disconnect from the emotion and keep the energy inside. The emotion doesn’t die, but instead acts as aggression towards oneself, with destructive consequences.
The word emotion comes from the Latin term emovere meaning “to move through.” Since emotions are constantly moving and changing, it can be a struggle to stay with them long enough to grasp their meaning. In fact, emotions have many layers. If you feel depressed, you are sad. But the sadness is connected to many other feelings, such as loneliness, invisibility, hopelessness, and so on. Similarly, anger often covers up feelings of vulnerability, rejection, and fear.
As humans, we are all in the business of meaning-making. And meaning-making is almost always in relation to another. The problem is that our current process may be deeply influenced by unexplored, earlier cognitions when our brain was still developing and had limited capacity to comprehend what was happening to us and around us. As children, when we would cry, get angry, or express exuberance, our parent/parents had a reaction based on their family history. We learned from their verbal and nonverbal reactions which expressions were acceptable and which were unacceptable. If we don’t see these outdated patterns and change them, we carry them through life even though they do not serve us. For example, if we think we are “too much” or “too needy” as adults it may be because we were too much and too needy for our caretakers many years ago.
Affect tolerance is the amount of emotion you can tolerate without needing to take action or shut down. It is considered a useful indicator of mental and emotional health. In between the polarized positions of avoiding and flooding, there is a middle ground where the body can process, make sense of, and integrate the energy of emotions.
Culture very often teaches us to control instead of express our emotional reactions. We perceive some emotions as “good’ and others as “bad.” In truth, all emotions are necessary and valid. Learning to identify them and hold them increases self-regulation, which in turn reduces stress. When the body does not have to deal with the energy turned inward by repressed emotions, it functions more effectively and heals more quickly.
Raja Selvam, the founder of Integral Somatic Psychology, and one of my body psychotherapy teachers explains it this way:
“Overwhelming and intolerable affect can lead to physiological defenses in the brain, and the body compromising their availability for cognition, affect, as well as behavior. Emotional difficulty is often, if not always, the cause of defenses in the brain and body physiology. The shutting down of the body due to physiological defenses against emotions can also compromise cognition and behavior that are now known to depend on the whole body in other ways than through the involvement of affect.”
Emotions can’t hurt us. But the way we think about emotions can. “I can’t stand feeling this way.” “It isn’t right that I feel so bad.” These thoughts tend to fuel the emotion and make us try to repress them. An alternative is to “sit with” the intense emotion and observe it as it ebbs and flows in the body. The longer you can stay with an affect the more regulated your system becomes. All emotions will come and go if we let them. Once the emotion has softened, then you can think of ways you want to respond (or not respond) to the situation.
Some good news is that expanding the window of affect tolerance doesn’t mean that we need to sit with only the “difficult” emotions. Organic Intelligence therapy, a trauma therapy that works with the body and its innate wisdom towards increased coherence, successfully uses “pleasant” affect to expand a client’s capacity to stabilize.
According to experts, there are seven ‘big” emotions: anger, fear, sadness, joy, shame, lust, and disgust. People welcome and reject these in many ways. One person may allow feelings of anger, lust and joy to flow, but deny or repress the four others. Another person may do the opposite, feeling only sadness, shame, and fear.
Which emotions do you feel regularly? Are there some that you never consciously feel? Which of the seven do you allow yourself to express? A healthy flow in the emotions probably includes them all. Not all seven emotions necessarily awaken every time something impacts us. But if all seven are available there is more flexibility and a bigger chance for success in processing an emotional impact.
Learning to identify, observe and process emotions has many beneficial effects. Try this simple experiment as a first step in a resolution that can truly make for a happier, healthier experience.
Judy is a New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) trained in Gestalt and body psychotherapy. She is the founder of the Full Gestalt.
Believing that the body holds the wisdom to heal itself, her practice combines talk therapy with various forms of energy work to facilitate awareness around malfunctioning energy patterns both in the body and in the mind.
Judy is also certified in Integral Somatic Psychotherapy (a master training in body psychotherapy), yoga therapy, and is a long-term student of Cranial Sacral therapy. Her work integrates body, mind, and Spirit, reconnecting disenfranchised parts with the whole so individuals can live fuller more authentic lives.
If you are interested in learning more about Judy, please visit this link.