I love learning about emotions. They are so central to who we are and how we experience life. And even though they are the medium through which we experience everyday life, they can still be confusing and feel unpredictable at times. The push and pull of emotions can be compared to a dance. And it’s a dance that we have to learn as we go. There will be times that we want to push emotions away when what we really need to do is to embrace them. The more we learn to connect with and understand our emotions the better off we are.
In the book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk, he addresses how important it is to connect with our emotions. And how through experiences, like trauma and other difficulties, the pain can cause us to disconnect from our emotions, as a way to cope. But understanding the idea of reconnecting with our emotions can be elusive. So what does it mean to connect with our emotions? And when we do distance ourselves from our emotional experience how do we start to reconnect with that part of ourselves again? Van der Kolk shares two approaches to do this that I want to highlight here.
Our emotions reside in our bodies. And much like physical pain they can be experienced as happening in specific parts of the body. For example, a common response to fear is the sensation of the chest getting tighter. In the experience of being very upset, people will often describe feeling sick to their stomach, even though they are not sick in the sense of having a stomach flu. These physical experiences of emotions happen constantly but we rarely tune into them and take time to make the connections of what different emotions feel like.
Van der Kolk explains how we can start to understand our emotions better by monitoring the physical expression of those emotions. To do this he recommends a top down approach to emotions. Including activities like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. In all of these activities participants turn their attention to the physical sensations that underlie their emotions. This top down approach requires that we slow down and take mental note of how we are feeling and how our body responds to our emotional state.
Tuning into our emotional and physical experience is not always pleasant. I remember one time at my early morning mediation group I was feeling particularly frustrated about something. And I was surprised when my physical response was that my throat felt tight and I cried through the meditation. I imagine that if I did not meditate I could have ignored my frustration by staying busy or being distracted, but because I took the time to sit with my emotion I was able to connect with it, feel it, and in a way honor it by acknowledging that it was there. Connecting with our emotions is best achieved with consistent practice over time.
When we start to understand our physical experience with emotions we can then practice managing it. Van der Kolk describes this as a bottom up approach, which entails resetting our emotional baseline. He explains that we can recalibrate our autonomic nervous system, our physical response to emotions, through breath, movement or touch. By doing this we can better manage emotions in the face of difficult experiences.
This approach is much different than ignoring emotions or distracting yourself from feeling them (which we all do regularly). It requires us to tune into the physical experience of the emotion and to connect with it. And then, after we’ve connected with the emotion and identified it, we can use a physical response to help us balance, or recalibrate our emotional state.
For me, deep breaths are one of the quickest and most effective ways to get back to my emotional baseline. When we experience intense emotions our natural breath is often replaced by shorter and more shallow breathing. By focusing on slowing down your breath and breathing deep into your diaphragm, you get more oxygen to your brain and you are able to think more clearly and respond to the situation more purposefully. If you have experienced trauma, or if you experience panic while practicing these techniques its best to talk to a psychologist about how to proceed.
Emotions are the bedrock of our experiences as humans. They assign value to life and are the foundation of reason and purpose. Learning to “dance” with our emotions will give us the strength we need to face life’s challenges.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps Score. New York, New York: Penguin Random House.