DR KAREN GRAHAM is an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist in Australia. She has a medical degree (MBBS), is a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (FRANZCP), and member of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (FCAP). Her latest book Accept How You feel is practical self-help book for managing hard thoughts and feeling, or reducing stress. Read on for an extract.
- why feelings get big, stressful and blocked
- emotional awareness and understanding
- how to manage even the hardest feelings
- how you can stop feeling the same way
- how you can let feelings go – for good
What Good are They?
Emotional feelings have a close relationship with the body.
They provide personal feedback about whatever is happening.
The information contained in feelings can help guide you.
Life is meaningful through having emotional experiences.
Emotions involve brain activity and include physical responses such as facial expressions and posture. There are several universal emotions like anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, love and joy, each of which has distinct physical sensations and signals. For example, sadness involves a particular facial expression and posture, often with shoulders hunched forward and head and eyes looking down at the ground. An intense emotional state is clearly reflected in the physical state, so you have an emotional body.
Your Emotional Body
You can experience emotions differently according to their intensity, frequency and duration. However, you have the potential to experience much more because of your feelings. Emotions are like primary colours compared to the full spectrum of colours that are associated with emotional feelings, which involve quite specific individual reactions and sensory perceptions. This is why you can feel differently about a particular issue compared to someone else.
Every emotion or feeling is accompanied by physical sensations. Your mind perceives and registers a feeling when it arises; however, you do not think a feeling. You experience it deeply within your body as a change in sensation and on the surface of your body. Physical sensations can also be subtle or more obvious, depending on the strength and type of an emotional feeling. Positive feelings are naturally associated with pleasant physical sensations. Uncomfortable feelings involve unpleasant sensations such as tightness or restriction or having unease somewhere in your body.
It requires good body awareness to truly appreciate your feelings. If you have ever felt ‘out of your body’ after a traumatic or painful event, although you may have been aware of having some physical sensations, you struggle to precisely identify how you emotionally felt. Being detached from your body makes any experience seem less real. It’s like fiction rather than the real thing. Feelings also have a lot to do with memory. Unless your attention includes having good awareness of your emotional body, an experience will be vaguer and your ability to recall it later is less accurate.
Imagine you are watching the most magnificent sunset but are not aware of your body. Instead, your attention is elsewhere and you cannot appreciate your emotional body’s response as you view the spectacle. Being distracted and out of your body robs you of fully sensing the sheer magic of the sunset. That awesome experience feels less awesome, and you won’t remember it as clearly.
Your capacity to experience and to enjoy each moment depends on having awareness of your body. Emotional feelings and physical sensations are being continually updated, depending on what is happening. Having a strong emotional-physical connection aligns you with what is going on for you, right now. Everything around you is constantly moving and changing, and your emotional body reflects this. You are using the most important tool you were born with to fully appreciate experiences.
There is a significant relationship between your feelings and how your body is functioning. When I’m feeling good my body feels really light, and when I’m feeling bad my body feels really heavy. Sometimes there are obvious physical signs of emotional and physical interaction, such as having wobbly legs or butterflies in your stomach when you feel nervous. Or you notice that the muscles in your face automatically tense when you feel angry. Heartache is often described as a sensation of pressure in the chest. Sometimes the emotional effects in your body are harder to detect.
Emotional and physical states are deeply connected. Feelings can involve different systems in the body as well as areas in the brain. At a biochemical level, the compounds and receptors in the brain involved with emotions are found throughout the body. For example, serotonin receptors in the brain are also found in the intestines, confirming the relationship between emotional feelings and the gut. And it is not unusual for chronic stress to be associated with nausea, bowel disturbance, gut inflammation and ulcers. So there are important cellular effects involved with your emotional feelings, even if you do not detect any change in physical sensations.
Furthermore, feelings are transient by nature. However, if the feelings are blocked instead of released, at a biochemical level there will also be blockage. Unresolved emotional issues are not limited to the brain or nervous system. Information about a blocked feeling can remain connected to a particular physical sensation or part anywhere in the body, including in the skin and internal organs. People who have suffered early trauma may already know this. My painful memories are still in my body. Later they can re-experience ‘body memories’ that involve specific sensations reminding them of emotional feelings that occurred during the trauma.
An extremely complex emotional-physical relationship exists. How you feel affects your body, and the way your body functions also affects how you feel. The health and wellbeing of one depends on the other. And when you inhabit your body fully, not only do you have good physical awareness, you have good emotional awareness, too.
Your Finely Tuned Feedback
It might seem like feelings can be caused externally, by outside circumstances and the way you are treated by others, but they are actually created by your own intricate mind-body processes. Feelings arise after an internal or external stimulus triggers in you a response that involves mental evaluation. This can occur so quickly, and so deeply, that you are not consciously aware of it. In addition, how you value and assess what happens, relates to your highly sensitive beliefs and opinions about yourself and the world.
You may have noticed that when you are stuck feeling bad, that you have been thinking on a negative track. This is evidence that your thoughts and feelings are profoundly connected. Emotional feelings involve what you consciously or subconsciously focus your attention on, think about and react to. Often, however, you might experience feelings that seem to appear out of nowhere. You can’t see any connection with your mind, so you can’t understand why you feel the way you do.
Feelings can also be a response to mental visualisation or imagination, with or without any conscious effort. The emotional impact your dreams can have are a reminder of this.
Feelings are significantly connected to the way your mind works. Some issues or events are more important to you than others, because you have individual preferences and opinions that determine the meaning and significance of anything; in other words, what really matters to you, and why. So your judgements and beliefs, as well as any fears or insecurities, are closely related to triggered feelings. Experiencing your feelings provides direct feedback about how your mind is reacting to interpret what is happening to you. They involve your deeply personal perspective.
People evaluate external situations and their own internal sensory feedback differently, leading to completely unique experiences. Nobody else has exactly the same emotional experiences as you because nobody else can feel the feelings that you do in the same way. Only you can see through your mind and feel through your body, to have a particular experience.
Imagine a party where a woman is holding a drink in her hand and walking towards a man she likes the look of. He watches as she stumbles, spilling the drink down her dress. One woman’s feeling about this event could be quite different to another’s. One woman could feel mortified and another could feel annoyed with herself. Yet another could find the situation hilarious. Different thinking would trigger different feelings, making the experience entirely different.Emotional awareness is important because it can tell you a lot about yourself and the way you think. Your embodied feelings are an individual truth involving your unique perception and understanding regarding any given moment; even if it is a truth you don’t completely understand, or may not want to believe, or is not shared by anyone else. This is why you could seem successful to others yet feel like a failure. Or you can feel unhappy at a celebration while everyone else is happy. Or you could be attractive on the outside but feel ugly on the inside. The truth of your experience is expressed in your feelings and easily trumps whatever you have, or have done, or think you should feel.
Colleen was feeling frustrated about a colleague at work. She said, ‘I can’t stand her. She thinks she’s better than everyone else’. When prompted to quietly bring her attention to this frustrated feeling to try to understand more about it, Colleen suddenly realized, ‘I’m jealous of her!’
How you feel also affects the way you think. The way you interpret something happening will often depend on how you feel at the time. If you feel sad, you will be more likely to think about what is happening in a negative way. Even how you recall a past event is affected by how you are feeling in the present moment. So a highly complex mental- emotional relationship exists. Conscious thoughts and your unconscious mind affect how you feel, and how you feel affects your thinking.
Your feelings are unique due to the specific relationship between your mind-body and environment. And over your life- time, emotional memories genuinely reflect the way your mind has worked. They are an important personal record containing the truth about your experiences. This record is not the objective truth regarding events; instead, it reflects your individual perspective and version of them.You have the capacity to both use your thinking or imagination to deliberately generate feelings, as well as to receive the finely tuned feedback of emotional information. Perhaps this is the most important communication within yourself, because how you feel is always a genuine inner expression of how you are responding to whatever is happening.
Your Inner Compass
Making the best decisions for yourself requires taking in more information than simply what you think. Just like you can’t only rely on what someone says. You need to pay close attention to their behaviour and eye contact, include your relationship history and the current circumstances. When you can’t see a solution to a problem, or you have a big decision to make, allowing your true feelings to come into your awareness will assist you. Feelings don’t always align with logic. Your mind can be telling you one thing but your gut feeling is telling you another. Decisions based solely on thinking could easily lead you in the wrong direction if old unhelpful judgements and stressful beliefs get in the way. Instead, when you are in touch with your feelings while also using your rational mind, you are more likely to make the best choices for yourself.
Consider a man who has to decide between two similar jobs in two different cities. One offers more money and higher status than the other. It seems logical for him to take the job with higher status and more money. However, awareness of his emotional feedback is enticing him to take the other job because ultimately, it will offer greater opportunity to fulfil his career dreams.
Feelings have purpose. Your true deeper feelings and intuition can guide you so that you know something is right or provide a gut feeling if something is wrong. When you have genuinely good feelings, you know to keep thinking and doing more of what you are doing. On the other hand, if you don’t like what you are feeling, your emotional feedback invites you to learn something about yourself from the experience. Perhaps it involves making a different choice.
When you are in touch with your emotional compass, it is easier to think and do at the time whatever coincides with what is most appropriate for you. Naturally, you will then have a greater chance of getting more of what you want out of life and to become genuinely happier, rather than automatically following a path that you think should make you happy.It seems that children often don’t listen to advice and will try something to discover consequences for themselves. In a similar way, throughout life you are meant to learn from your feelings, but it can be difficult to know how you really feel when you have to make a decision. Following is a way for you to learn how to experience what a positive or negative feedback response is like within your body.
Find out more about Dr Karen Graham here.