In my work with clients I am aware of the need to see the whole person. Our society encourages us to be very cognitive about our emotions. The body is generally seen as a vessel we try to sculpt or maintain, and we walk about like floating heads completely oblivious to how our emotions manifest in our bodies.
Emotions live in the body.
This is why your therapist will say to you, “How does that feel in your body?”
Everyone can appreciate the mind-body connection on some level, because we can recognize nervous butterflies and tension headaches. Many parents will talk about their children having “bad bellies” in the morning before school with an understanding that their child is anxious.
What does your body do when it is sad? Most of us cry. We can recognize that crying is a release. We feel better after. We need to cry. And yet, many people say, “I felt like crying but I (insert distraction here – went on my phone, binged netflix, went for a walk, did some work).”
We were taught as children not to cry, not to shout, not to rail at the heavens or stamp our feet. And many of us have aching joints, tense muscles, and sore necks.
Ask any ER doctor or nurse and they will tell you that many people present at the ER with chest pain who are truly stressed, anxious or panicked. The emotions that we are so scared of experiencing will manifest somewhere. They need to be seen.
Yet, this knowledge, which I believe is innate in all of us, has been shut down in mainstream North American culture for a very long time.
Our bodies have a beautiful language. Learning to tune into it is a process. We can start with stopping a couple of times a day, closing our eyes and asking ourselves, “How do I feel right now? What do I feel in my body right now?”
Kristin Neff, a psychologist who has intensively studied and published on self-compassion, explains that there are three components to self-compassion: Self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, self-compassion.org).
I believe that a daily self-compassion practice can be a gentle start for people to learn to support and manage their emotions and to start to recognize how emotions feel in the body.
I am going to include a link at the end of this post to a 5-minute practice that Kristin Neff has available on her website, self-compassion.org. I would recommend that everyone take a few minutes to do this – it will teach you how to support rather than struggle with your emotions during times of suffering or stress. It is a practice you can do every day to manage your feelings.
I personally started this practice when I developed panic attacks after my cancer treatments. It helped immensely because once I was able to support myself and allow the emotions to come up, I found they would pass through me.
As I got better at this practice, I went from constantly trying to escape my feelings of intense anxiety to taking a self-compassion break, feeling the feelings, and then going about my day.
The self-compassion break is a way to process suffering.
I often tell my clients that emotions are like crying babies – they need to be held, seen, cared for, and connected with.
Another useful metaphor is to think of emotions like a sunset or sunrise – you can bring your awareness to it, notice the intensity, and as you sit with it, it fades away.
There is an ebb and a flow to all things in nature.
Thank-you so much for your time, dear reader. When I think of you stopping by to read my post today, I feel a lightness and a warmth in my chest that I call contentment.