(an abridged excerpt from the book)
In psychology the term Emotional Processing refers to people working through very difficult emotions, but in this section I am referring to anyone’s ability to feel an emotion, accept it, allow it to be there, listen to what it has to say and to let it change or leave as it wants to. It means letting an emotion complete itself and move through us.
This is a brilliant life skill, which can help us live a colourful, balanced and authentic life, in harmony with our feelings. On the other hand, repressed emotions can play havoc with our emotional, mental and physical health.
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
– Sigmund Freud
Of course, emotion is not the only cause of tension or ill-health in people, but it is a whopper. There is significant evidence which shows that not expressing emotion in a healthy way can lead to higher levels of inflammation in the body (Honkalampi, 2011) as well as higher cancer mortality (Chapman et al., 2013). This is obviously a highly controversial area, but if true it does not mean that people with cancer are to blame. However, it does mean that expressing our emotions should be high up on our priority list.
Not processing and expressing emotions has also been shown to damage our relationships; Goleman (1988) says that people who habitually repress difficult emotions have a much harder time with intimate relationships because they find it harder to engage emotionally.
All of these effects show that processing emotions is not indulgent or a luxury, but essential to our health and wellbeing.
How Emotions Resolve Themselves
When I say resolve, I do not mean that emotions are problems, just that we are allowing them to move through us in a natural way. A major part of this is the ability to recognise what the emotion is, accept it, allow it to be present and maybe listen to it (although some are just fleeting and do not have a lot to say).
Most emotions left to their own devices resolve themselves naturally, all we have to do is:
- Let ourselves be with the feeling.
- Recognise what we are feeling
- Give the emotion permission to be
- Let it tell us anything it needs to
- Take action if needed and
- Continuing to breathe freely and naturally.
A child can feel, breathe and express like a master, but it takes the sophistication and education of an adult’s brain to understand the finer points of what an emotion is trying to tell us and the discipline of an adult to take responsibility for clean emotional expression. So we can learn from each other!
Processing Our Emotions
The next small sections look at ways we can help our emotions along on their journey. If you feel overwhelmed at any point, stop, and if you feel that you need to seek help please do so. Let’s start with an exercise for getting in touch with our feelings through our physical sensations.
Exercise: Processing our Feelings Through Physical Sensation and a Chat
Try to stay open-minded during this exercise, as the goal is to let the feeling speak for itself, not let our mind tell us.
a) Sitting somewhere quiet and comfortable, just breathe and relax your body.
b) Let the tension drop away with every out breath
c) Now notice if there are any sensations in your body that are more in the foreground, more obvious.
d) What is that feeling like, is it; warm, cool, light, heavy, a ball, spread out, tense, relaxed, for example?
e) Keep noticing the feeling in your body and with an open mind notice whether it has a shape, or a colour?
f) Now that you are feeling it quite clearly, say “hello” to it in your mind, and ask it if it wants to say anything. Wait with an open mind for its answer.
g) If it does say something, you can have a conversation with it, find out a little more information.
h) You can also ask if it needs anything, wait with an open mind for the answer.
g) If it does, you can converse with it a little, to find out more, or find out how you can satisfy those needs, some may even be able to be taken care of with visualization, such as imagining giving that part of you a hug, attention, or letting it run around pretending to be an aeroplane – anything it is asking for.
There are no wrong answers – feelings do not always make sense. Also our feelings may not be able to be resolved completely in one sitting, especially if we have been carrying them for a long time, it is fine to revisit the exercise later, once or several times.
Accepting Our Feelings
“When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
How often do we actually let our emotions be as they are, without trying to frame them or alter them in some way? This open acknowledgment of our feelings is essential to being able to process them.
Exercise: Accepting our Feelings
There is no single way to accept all feelings, because our barrier to acceptance can be different for different emotions.
For this simple exercise, I would like you just to recall an emotion that you had recently that you found difficult to accept. Write down what the emotion was and the circumstances, and then write how you felt.
Use as much detail as you like and write until you feel you have completely acknowledged the feeling. How do you feel now that you have done that? Do not worry if you feel worse, because it is better to be conscious of how you feel. If you like, you can use the exercise above to help process it more. Or continue onto the next section.
The next time you notice yourself pushing a feeling away, try thinking to yourself “it is OK, I accept feeling this” and notice how it feels.
Breathing into Our Feelings
Emotions and breath are very intertwined and have a huge impact on each other. Can you stay excited when you purposefully slow your breathing, or can you feel calm when intentionally hyperventilating? Your emotions change your breath and your breathing affects your emotions. One study even proved that breathing in a specific way could elicit a specific emotional state (Philippot, P. et al. 2002). In the exercise below we use that connection to help us relate to an emotion and help it to move and resolve itself.
Exercise: Breathing into the Feeling
For this freeform exercise, I would like you to keep an open mind. We are going to “breath into” the emotion, by which I mean be very aware of it, and then use breath to help process it. Don’t worry I will explain as we go!
a) Sitting somewhere quiet and comfortable, just breathe and relax into your body.
b) Let the tension go with every out breath and let yourself feel heavy and calm.
c) Notice any more obvious sensations in your body.
d) Now notice what it feels like, is it; warm, cool, light, heavy, a ball, spread out, tense, relaxed, for example?
e) Now, without preconceptions, I would like you to breathe in the way that makes you feel the same as that feeling, the way that makes you feel in tune, or in harmony with it. I know that is a bit abstract, follow your intuition. It is fine to try a couple of different ways, when you hit on the right one you may feel yourself merging with it.
f) The object is not to get worked up into a state, or overcome by any emotion, but to allow it to be there fully. With this intention know that you are solid, and calm, as well as experiencing this feeling. If you start feeling overwhelmed or lost in the emotion, feel the sensation of your feet on the ground and slow and deepen your breath.
g) As you continue to breathe “into” and with the emotion, notice how it changes, where it moves, how the emotion changes, if at all. And keep breathing with it.
h) If at any point you want to ask your feeling what it wants or needs, as before, you can. But the main focus is the breath
i) Now open your eyes and keep them open as you ask your feeling how it would like you to breathe in order to process it. It’s also fine to move your body, open your jaw wide or make noises if you need to.
j) Stop when you feel you have done enough and notice how you feel physically and emotionally. Do you find that you are breathing differently than before?
Moving to Express Emotion
Another great way to move our emotions and let them express themselves is movement, as we touched on above. Many emotions exist in a place inside us that can be hard to reach with words and is more easily expressed through non-verbal mediums. It is also a great opportunity to scare your neighbours, if you wanted one (or draw your curtains if not).
You can do this exercise with or without music. The benefit of music is that it makes it easier to dance, but if your feelings beyond the mood of the music I suggest you switch songs.
a) Stand in a private place with enough space to move.
b) If you want to play music, use your intuition to select the right type of music or even specific song.
c) Now as you are standing relaxed, tune into your physical sensations and your feelings. Without forcing anything, let them guide you in the movement.
d) As before there are no wrong movements, as long as they are safe and you are not controlling them all with your mind. As long as you are expressing your feelings it does not matter if you are doing a moon walk or hopping like a bunny, it is all good.
e) Continue until you feel that it is complete, or that you need a rest. You can always come back to it later.
You may be surprised by the force of your movements as stronger emotions see their chance to escape, again as long as it is not hurting you or unsafe it is fine. Or you may make incredibly beautiful or very silly movements, just go with whatever happens and see how your feelings emerge and express themselves.
How do you feel now? If you need a quick nap that is a good idea, even 5 minutes may help. I also recommend that you do not think too much right now, just stay with how you feel now and be present.
Well done for giving this a try! Do not worry if you found one or more of the exercises difficult, as I said before, you may need a little more practice, but stick with it. There is nothing quite like working through your feelings for clearing your mind and feeling grounded and integrated.
No amount of work can move us forward in our self development if we are not processing our feelings – they will always be in the background, affecting our minds and bodies. But by processing them fully we can create more of a clear slate to work with, living in the moment with light bodies and clear minds. Enjoy!
Chapman, B. P. et al. (2013) ‘Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up’, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 75(4), pp. 381–385 [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3939772/ (Accessed: 19th June 2018).
Gilbert, E. (2007) Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything, London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Goleman, D. (1988) Health; New Studies Report Health Dangers Of Repressing Emotional Turmoil, The New York Times, 3rdMarch. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1988/03/03/us/health-new-studies-report-health-dangers-of-repressing-emotional-turmoil.html (Accessed 19th June 2018).
Honkalampi, K. et al. (2011) ‘Alexithymia and Tissue Inflammation’, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 80, pp. 359–364 [Online]. Available at: https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/327583 (Accessed: 19th June 2018).
Philippot, P. et al. (2002) ‘Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion’, Cognition and Emotion, 16(5), pp. 605-627 [Online]. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232965660_Respiratory_feedback_in_the_generation_of_emotion(Accessed: 1st August 2018)