Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Emotional Body

Feelings come and go throughout the day. I may get angry at someone who cuts me off in traffic only to feel happy when I get to work and find cookies in the kitchen. Some feelings stay with us longer, though, especially if they're tied to negative events in our lives. The anger over a betrayal by a friend or loved one can stay lurking around for years. But where do our emotions lie? Are they simply our thoughts, in our heads? Or do they take root in the body? I know from yoga classes that certain poses can evoke an emotional response. Back bends create a happy, energetic feeling, while hip openers can trigger tears or anger. Where do these emotions come from when my mind is not thinking about anything in particular? Maybe my body knows something my mind hasn't figured out yet.

Maybe you've experienced sadness as a hollow pit in the stomach, or fear as a tension in the chest. We know emotions create a physical response. When we're afraid, stress hormones are released, our blood pressure and heart rate change and muscles tighten up. There are noticeable effects in the moment. But then a few minutes pass, and our breathing slows again, we release the tension and start to return to a more normal physical state. We have a mental memory of the fear, but can the body "remember" too? If you try to remember a time you felt fear, can you feel that same tension in the chest? Does your body still have a memory of that event? I never tried this until recently, and was amazed to discover the physical sensations that came with memories. The anger in my solar plexus, the sadness in my throat, how had I never noticed this before?

I have spent a lot of time hiding emotions. To open up to "negative" emotions like anger and sadness creates a vulnerability I couldn't handle so I would stuff the feelings and ignore them. Well, that energy had to go somewhere. I have read about sitting with emotions, breathing into the feelings and actually living in sadness, or anger, or whatever is coming up. Then the energy can naturally dissipate as it should, without coming back to haunt the body or mind years down the road. This can also be done with past events. I can look back on times of sadness and fear, I remember them in my head, but if I really pay attention, I can feel them in my body, too. Then I breathe into the sensation, I allow it all to happen without stuffing or running away. It is difficult, it leaves me raw and open. But the sense of lightness and peace afterwards is truly amazing.

This is challenging emotional work, and best done with the supervision of a trained therapist if you have a history of trauma or abuse. The power of the memory is obvious, but allowing and recognizing the physical sensations adds an intensity that can be disarming. In the long run, that is my goal, though. To disarm. I hope to lay down my defenses that no longer serve me and allow myself to open up to grace. Practicing feeling and acknowledging my emotions is a start. Sensing their place in my body acknowledges that I am a whole being, not just my thoughts or emotions. My body is not just a vehicle for my mind, after all, it is the container for the soul.

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