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Emotions as Messengers

Many people enter therapy with a request to manage their emotions.  They might not like or understand what is coming up for them, and earnestly seek ways to tame their emotions or to make some of them go away entirely.  There are a wide range of psychological modalities aimed at helping individuals to emotionally regulate, and there is a crucial foundation amongst them – we need to first look at what is here and enter into our own experience.  This can understandably sound overwhelming when our goal is to avoid.  But what if we shifted our perception of emotions from untenable and dangerous and considered them instead as important messengers?

The word emotion derives from the Latin emotere which means “energy in motion.”  The motion part is key: emotions are fluid and temporary.  They are designed to move through us and to be expressed.  In humanity’s earlier existence, our emotional brains developed the capacity to protect us – for instance, they sent messages to signal impending danger.  This prepared our bodies to escape quickly and was necessary for our survival.  Thus, these emotions created energy and movement.  They were expressed.

Our limbic system remains to this day our most immediate response system.  Before our prefrontal cortex even has a chance to get online to interpret a situation, our limbic system has already reacted and, since it is connected to all areas of the brain, the message spreads.  When our analytic brain soon enters in to interpret the situation, we create meaning of our emotions and begin to judge them – liking some, not liking others, inviting some to stay for the long haul, and trying to bar entry to others.  When we see something we don’t like, we may try numb or suppress it, often with alcohol, drugs, food or other distracting (and often self-harming) behaviors.  Our culture encourages this behavior by suggesting that we avoid “negative” emotions at all costs.  We might even have memories as a child of having our emotions shut down – being told not to cry or to feel a certain way.

Our analytical brain’s assessment of what we should not feel generally results in our emotion not being seen or expressed.  It is our thought about the emotion that make the emotion itself seem too overwhelming.  Moreover, our emotional memory might link the seemingly innocuous situation in front of us with reminders of previous scenarios that elicit more intense memories, flooding us with storylines and implications of what it thinks is happening.  It makes sense then that we feel like we are protecting ourselves if we could just escape.  However, those of us who have gone down this path would agree that it doesn’t work – maybe momentarily in the short-term but certainly not in the long run.   

So, what do we do when we notice uncomfortable emotions welling up?  It is helpful to shift our approach to one of curiosity and self-compassion.  We can ground ourselves in noticing physical sensations, where our emotions are being held in our body.  You might scan your body (or download a body scan recording) and sense areas of tightness and tension.  Body scan meditation is a good way to release tension you might not even realize you’re experiencing. Body scanning involves paying attention to parts of the body and bodily sensations in a gradual sequence from feet to head.

When you reach such an area, you can ask yourself “what message does this have for me?”  The meditation teacher Tara Brach offers the inquiry, “what does this part of me most need?”  See if you can bring a kind and gentle attention to this practice.  Often, just giving attention to the sensations in this way loosens them and allows space for movement.  It can also lead to a greater insight and information for ourselves about the nature of the emotion or circumstance we may find ourselves in.

A couple of caveats: when scanning your body, see if you can distinguish between the thoughts about the emotion (maybe by simply labeling them ‘thinking’) with the sensations and emotions themselves.  It is easy to get the two of them mixed up, creating the aforementioned layers of distress about the emotion.  Separately, if you have a history of trauma, proceed with caution here.  The number one priority with trauma history is safety, and it is crucial to feel safe and grounded before being able to more deeply explore emotions.

Our emotions exist on a spectrum and if we try to shut off one end of it (i.e. the “bad emotions”) then we shut off the entire spectrum (i.e. the “good emotions” too).  We unwittingly close ourselves of to the richness, diversity and fullness of our lives.  It is natural and necessary that we experience this range of emotions.  After all, if we have never felt sadness how can we fully appreciate our joy?

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