From an early age we’re taught to suppress our negative emotions—that they’re bad and something to get rid of as soon as possible. As adults we worry that feeling them will be more painful than pretending they don’t exist. We tell ourselves to “suck it up” and distract ourselves with screen time, busyness, alcohol, drug use, etc. But avoidance compounds the pain, because then we feel bad about feeling bad.
Our difficult emotions are trying to tell us something is wrong, and science tells us that relief can be found in simply acknowledging the message our body is communicating.
Emotions regulate the body for survival; feelings inform action
Emotions and feelings are tightly linked, but distinctly different. An emotion is an event-driven, physiological experience (felt in the body) that gives us information about the world, and a feeling is our conscious awareness of the emotion.
Our brain’s most important job is to keep our body alive. To accomplish this, it devotes 60-80% of its time to predicting what will happen next—based on past experience—so our body can be ready for any contingency.
The vagus nerve manages emotions. It sends signals to the heart, lungs and intestines in response to triggered emotions. These signals ready the body to take appropriate and immediate action for survival, preparing us to react before we are even aware that an emotion has been evoked.
A study conducted at the University of Turku in Finland mapped over 100 feelings to specific locations in the body. Hunger—not surprisingly—is felt in the stomach, thirst in the throat, reasoning in the head, and gratefulness and despair in the heart.
The sensations in our body get our attention and call for a response. For example, disgust compels us to avoid something that might make us sick; anger prepares us to fight; and fear prompts us to flee from dangerous situations.
When we ignore these sensations, our unfelt emotion can bounce around inside of us like a pinball causing us to react irrationally.
According to Jacobs Hendel, author of It’s Not Always Depression, “Symptoms like anxiety and depression can stem from the way we deal with underlying, triggered, survival emotions, which are biological forces that should not be ignored. When the mind blocks the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and has been linked to mental ills, heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.”
We must feel our emotions to relieve them.
“Affect labeling” alleviates stressful emotions
“You let feelings ‘go’ by feeling them fully,” says therapist and author Tina Gilbertson, LPC. “Once they’re felt, they can leave. Pain is nature’s way of warning us about things that are not good for us. Emotional pain is like physical pain: It warns us that something is wrong. But the pain itself is not wrong; it’s only the messenger. When we refuse to allow our emotional pain, we’re not avoiding trouble, we’re shooting the messenger who’s bringing news of trouble.”
A study published in Psychological Science suggests that labeling your difficult emotions at the moment you notice them can alleviate them.
This study asked 88 people with a fear of spiders to approach a large, live tarantula in an open container. They were divided into four groups and told to walk closer and closer to the spider and eventually touch it if they could.
The first group was asked to describe the emotions they were experiencing and to label their reactions to the tarantula — saying, for example, “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.” There was no attempt to change their experience, just to state what they were experiencing.
The second group was instructed to use neutralizing terms to make the experience less threatening, such as, “That little spider can’t hurt me; I’m not afraid of it.” This is the typical approach used for helping individuals confront fear. The third and fourth groups were told to either say something irrelevant to the situation or nothing at all.
All the participants were retested one week later and were again asked to get closer and closer to the tarantula and potentially touch it. The researchers found that the first group did far better than the other three; they were able to get much closer to the tarantula and were significantly less emotionally aroused.
The people in the first group performed what science calls affect labeling.
“When spider-phobics say, ‘I’m terrified of that nasty spider,’ they’re not learning something new; that’s exactly what they were feeling,” says study co-author Matthew Lieberman, a professor of biobehavioral sciences. “But now instead of just feeling it, they’re saying it. For some reason that we don’t fully understand, that transition is enough to make a difference.”
In other words, describing the tarantula as terrifying reduced the fear of it.
When we label our emotions, we lessen our pain and change the firing pattern of our vagus nerve, thus improving our brains’ future forecasts.
A healthy body helps our brain
When our body is healthy, our brain won’t have to work as hard to keep it in balance. When we eat foods that make our body feel good, drink lots of water, sleep enough to feel alert in the morning and move our body regularly, we will feel less negative and our brain will have fewer opportunities to create unpleasant emotions.
How to name our feelings and heal
When you feel discomfort, ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”
Stick to the feeling. Don’t get caught up in the narrative of judgment. Acknowledge what you feel and let go of the details.
This: “I feel disappointed and hurt by my divorce.”
Not this: “How could he do this to me? What’s wrong with me?”
This: “I’m afraid of making a change.”
Not this: “Why am I such a wimp. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Self-criticism sabotages our healing. It encourages us to hide the truth from ourselves and can lead to anxiety and depression. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Sit with the discomfort. Cry. Punch pillows. Talk to yourself like you would someone you love.
It’s going to hurt. But every moment you’re hurting, you’re doing the work of healing. Feeling is not a task to finish and move on from but to move through. It leads to a new way of being.
What we fear establishes the boundaries of our freedom
When we stop running from our discomfort—and instead, welcome it, feel it—we bust through our limitations and heal our emotional trigger spots.
Naming our emotions is not only worthwhile for wellbeing, but reduces or even eliminates the fear that holds us back from our best life.
A richer, more rewarding life awaits us on the other side of feeling.
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