Most of us weren’t taught to pay attention to and track emotions. It’s also normal to shy away from what hurts and difficult emotions hurt. Most people don’t have issue with what we call positive emotions, joy, happiness, exhilaration, it’s the other ones, the darker emotions fear, grief, loneliness, that tend to make us squirm.
Why is it important to let emotions be?
Emotions provide information about self and life and they can teach us a lot about who we are, others, and what it means to be human. Experiencing emotions can help develop compassion for self and others. Often people think that feeling emotions is a sign of weakness or a sign of pathology. Here’s the kicker, to summarize therapist, writer, yoga teacher Stephen Cope, what we exile from our experience comes back as an unwanted guest. What we don’t allow ourselves to feel comes back in many forms, a lack of joy, muscle tension, irritability and impatience, lack of vitality, road rage and even depression and anxiety. Furthermore, shutting down to emotions is a way we disconnect with ourselves and others fueling alienation and loneliness.
Our culture tells us to get over pain and/or medicate it. We haven’t been taught that pain can be a powerful teacher that can point to what’s not working or aligned with what’s important to us or how we want to live.
How does one work with emotions?
When emotions arise recognize them and see if you can allow them to be, exactly, as they are. What is it like to be with your emotional experience? Drop your awareness into the body. Try not to argue with what is. As is often taught in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, befriend your experience. Play with that. We don’t reject our friends when they are in pain or tell them they shouldn’t feel the way they feel.
Emotions live in the body. If we can tend to the sensations in the body without trying to alter them or move away from them or get aggressive with them they tend to resolve. Tension eases, there’s greater vitality. Body-Centered Psychotherapy uses the body as an ally and resource to orient and move toward unconscious material and emotions held in the body. As the client tends to the direct experiences in the present with the aid of the therapist transformation occurs. Awareness of the body in the present is a powerful vehicle to hold, process and integrate experiences.
When someone has experienced adverse childhood experiences and trauma we use a similar approach. Stressful and traumatic charge gets locked in the body and nervous system. Long after the threats have disappeared they can remain reactive in the autonomic nervous system. In PTSD the ANS retains the charge in the form of body/mental tension, anxiety, rage, compulsions, depression and hopelessness, and dissociation. Research has shown that a trauma-informed approach with somatic psychotherapy is very effective in treating trauma.