Many of us come to therapy looking to be “fixed” quickly. Yet, one of the…
What are emotions?
Emotions are bodily sensations that occur in response to a stimulus. We are biologically wired to have them to both survive and thrive. They are our body’s cue to us that something is worth paying attention to. Emotions are, in essence, messengers. They function like physiological waves in our bodies—there is a swell, a crest and a coming down. If allowed to complete without interference, these waves last around 90 seconds (though they can feel like an eternity).
We have seven core emotions.
While we have a myriad of words to describe the emotional sensations we experience, research tells us that humans have seven, biologically-wired core emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, excitement, sexual excitement and disgust.* Each of these core emotions has a set of physical sensations and a behavioral urge that accompanies it.
When we feel fear, we feel our pulse quicken and the hair on our arms stand up. We feel the urge to freeze or flee to regain safety. When we feel sadness, we feel heaviness in our chest and tightening in our throat. We withdraw to self-soothe or reach out to others we trust to help soothe us. When we feel anger, we feel a rush of energy to our extremities and a tensing of our body in preparation to fight. We feel the urge to set a boundary and assert ourselves.
Both the sensations and urges that accompany specific emotions happen automatically; the thoughts we have about our emotions occur second and are highly subjective. In other words, our thoughts are a less reliable source or information than our emotions in understanding our inner experience.
We have three inhibitory emotions.
In addition to the seven core emotions, we have what are called inhibitory emotions—anxiety, guilt and shame.* We learn these early in our lives through social interaction. Inhibitory emotions block us from experiencing our core emotions, which can leave us feeling stuck and confused.
For example, when you start to feel sad, shame comes in and blocks you from the sadness (because you grew up learning that being happy is acceptable, but being sad isn’t ). Or perhaps when you feel angry, anxiety or guilt creep in (because you are not “supposed” to get angry).
As part of our early socialization, many of us learn to block or judge our emotional experience. If we are left alone with big emotions when we are very young, we may experience anxiety, guilt or shame when they arise. The end result is that we come to believe that certain emotions are either overwhelming or unacceptable, and we learn that it is best to disconnect from our emotional experience when they occur.
What happens when we block emotions?
When we’re out of touch with our emotions, there’s a good chance we feel out of touch with our true selves. Engaging in behaviors that work to block emotions in the short term—like excessive substance use, eating disordered behavior or even tuning out on social media —often start generating long-term consequences. We feel lost in our lives and unable to fully connect in our relationships. We spend a lot of time in our heads thinking about the past and future, but not a lot of time in our bodies in the present.
While we might not always want to act on our emotions in the moment, we need to be able to process them through to completion in order to feel fully connected to ourselves. Operating day-to-day at a disconnect from our emotions is like heading out on a hike without any trail markings. We might be walking along a beautiful trail, but we are not able to feel a sense of ease or joy in our surroundings because we are so anxious as to whether we are moving in the right direction.
Therapy can help you reconnect to your emotions.
If you relate to the above, you’re not alone. We live in a society that sends the message that emotions are weak, immature or illegitimate. As a result, many of us learn from a young age to suppress emotions like sadness, anger, fear and even joy. Doing so comes at great cost to our wellbeing and our relationships. When we continually push our emotions down, our nervous systems suffer. In addition, suppressing emotions inhibits our ability to be present and connect with others. Overtime, this can lead to feelings of depression or anxiety that won’t go away, and a sense of disconnection from our truest self.
With the help of therapy, you can strengthen your relationship to your emotional experience. We’ll work together to see what you’ve learned about emotions, what behaviors you’ve been engaging in to block overwhelming emotions, and focus on helping you get in touch with these emotions in the present. Overtime, making space for our emotions and their accompanying physical sensations in the present creates new neural networks in the brain that decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression and trauma. These new neural networks help us get a felt sense in our bodies of what it means to trust our own internal experiences as a helpful tool for valued living. From there, we can use them as a guide to make choices in our lives that align with who we are and what we truly want.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What emotions are you more comfortable experiencing than others?
- What behaviors do you use to avoid feeling emotions?
- Are these behaviors in conflict with your values?
- Could you use help learning how to more easily access and process your emotions?
*It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel