Surviving Strong Emotions

To be human is to be emotional. It’s what makes us unique and special.

First, is it possible for a person to experience physical distress as a result of emotional or psychological causes? And second, can emotions be released through the body? Again, when I pose these questions to laypeople and professionals, the overwhelming response is something like, “Why yes, of course. Who would think otherwise?”

A. Bourne, Jr., Ph.D. remarking upon the popular opinion that physical and emotional distress are intimately linked. [1]

The Value of Feelings

Emotions are our primary way to identify and express our needs and wants in life. They are hard-wired into our nervous system from infancy and form a primitive way of ensuring our life sustaining needs are met.

For example, a baby communicates by feeling distressed and crying when hungry, feels contentment and happiness when warm, comfortable and secure.

Darwin pointed out how an infant’s ability to express emotion has important survival value for the species. If an infant couldn’t express their feelings, it would die, because we wouldn’t know how to care for it. [2]

Higher order animals – such as dogs, cats and horses – also experience emotions which is what allows us to feel emotionally connected to them.

You can think of emotions as ‘energetic’ reflexes, similar to tensing up when frightened or salivating when hungry. They are absolutely ‘value free’, which means they are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in and of themselves. The emotions you feel in response to an event or circumstance cannot be wrong, as they are always your own unique interpretation of it.

It is deep in human nature to respond individually to any threat, including pain. [3]

A Healthy Response to Emotions

Let’s look to the animal kingdom to see the ideal, and natural response to emotions.

Photo by johnbrian

Imagine an antelope grazing peacefully out in the african plains. Unknown to the herd, there was a lion hiding in the long grass waiting patiently to pounce. The lion makes its move, and the startled antelopes begin to run…

Upon the unconscious perception of immediate threat (ie. being devoured for lunch), the antelope’s Central Nervous System takes over and ensures an appropriate survival response. Stress hormones are dumped en masse into its blood stream to initiate the “Fight-or-Flight” response and activate the the Sympathetic Nervous System. Blood is diverted to the heart, lungs and limbs to ensure maximum running capacity is available.

Once the lucky antelope has escaped danger, it still has a potent cocktail of stress hormones running around its system. These increased hormone levels are unhealthy in the long-term and need to be reduced. The way in which antelopes do this is to “shake off” them off, shaking violently until their hormonal system returns to normal functioning.

Unfortunately by living in a community and being a member of society, we are no longer freely able to respond like the antelope.

A Human Response to Emotions

In nature, ideally, we would just simply feel and express emotions as and when they come up in response to events and circumstances, discharging the emotional energy at the time and being able to move on with a free heart and mind. Unfortunately, we have many different influences which affect our actual behaviour, including our upbringing, culture and the media, social attitudes and expectations, ethnic groups, religion and gender.

As a consequence, most people develop some fear of feelings.

We learn to control and suppress the expression of emotions, developing ways to avoid feeling them. We use the psychological defences of avoidance, denial, isolation and repression to help keep feelings out of conscious awareness, ensuring we remain unaware that attention is needed to resolve the conflict within ourselves.

Consequences of Emotional Suppression

It can help to think of emotions like energy, being neither able to be destroyed or stopped. Instead, energy is transferred and stored somewhere out of the way for later expression. Often this storehouse is the body.

Trauma is the bodily memory and out-of-normal-conscious awareness of a life-threatening event where natural emotional expression would be disadvantageous to survival. In this case, disassociation and suppression takes over to limit emotional response and preserve life.

Chronic emotional tension disturbs physical and muscular health by decreasing an individual’s energy, restricting movement & motility, and limiting self-expression. It becomes necessary then to relieve emotional tension if the person is to regain his full aliveness and health.

Believing it is wrong to have feelings and by keeping emotions suppressed and out of awareness risks inappropriate outbursts and encourages erratic mood swings. Furthermore, it makes matters worse by further increasing their emotional intensity, which becomes more and more difficult to rise above from and ignore.

If you don’t experience emotion, then you are spending energy keeping them from conscious awareness. Fatigue, tiredness and lethargy are common symptoms. This energy could be better spent elsewhere.

Depression is an extreme result of avoiding feeling emotions. Instead of experiencing a normal daily range of emotions, the depressive person finds themselves stuck in a kind of “gray fog” like cloud which descends and prevents them from feeling anything much.

As we all know, mind and body can influence each other. What one thinks can affect how one feels. The converse is equally true.

Dr Alexander Lowen, M.D. [4]

Bodily Tissue Memory

The habits we develop to limit or control our feelings are actually self defeating, as they end up causing most of the problems. The best treatment is learning that emotions are not to be feared, and gradually facing and re-experiencing them safely. Working to improve, and remove yourself from toxic situations is a great help too.

Craniosacral Therapy works subtly with the bodily tissues where emotional memory and chronic tensions are stored. The therapist, through a gentle contact and an accepting and non-critical attitude is able to feel another person’s feelings, both physical and emotional. Under these conditions, quite often treatment allows movement and re-expression of original events. [5]

The moment you relax into the inherent stillness in your body, and let your feelings be, as they are, the magic begins: the inner war ceases, your body relaxes, and the potency trapped in the inertia is freed. The power hidden in stillness ignites the inertia, and transmutes it into healthy motion – all by itself, without your help. [6]

Treatment

Everyone experiences emotional stress at times, it’s normal. Talking to friends and family can help. Avoid “bottling things up” and uncontrollable outbursts. But if these feelings persist it is important to seek help.

Many people believe that painful feelings are a result of forgotten childhood experiences, and that relief is only through years of difficult personal psychotherapy and counselling. However as we’ve seen according to Dr Lowen M.D., working with the body influences the emotions as body and mind are related.

Craniosacral Therapy was popularised by John Upledger in the 1970s, but has been around since 1900s. The Upledger Institute alone has trained over 90,000 therapists world-wide, many who are primary healthcare providers. [7]

Stop running and face your emotions, they’ll usually turn out to be less fearful than you expect and you’ll feel better for it.

References

  1. John E Upledger, D.O., O.M.M, Your Inner Physician and You: Craniosacral Therapy and Somato Emotional Release, North Atlantic Books, 1997, pp. 198.
  2. Richard O’Conner, Ph.D., Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You, Little, Brown and Company, 1997, pp. 99.
  3. Patrick Wall, Pain: The Science of Suffering, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, pp. 96.
  4. Dr Alexander Lowen M.D., Way to Vibrant Health, the, Bioenergetics Press, 1977, pp. 1.
  5. Carol J. Manheim and Diane K. Lavett, The Self-Healing Body : Craniosacral Therapy and Somato-Emotional Release, SLACK Incorporated, 1989, pp. 4.
  6. Charles Ridley, Stillness: Biodynamic Cranial Practice and the Evolution of Consciousness, North Atlantic Books, 2006, pp. 23.
  7. The Upledger Institute. Retrieved 2010-06-28.

Frank Ray

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