Experiencing emotions has been a significant part of human evolution and our survival as a species. When felt fully, emotions can help us live a more connected and full life.
Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to believe that emotions are unproductive and that they need to be pushed down, numbed, or controlled. We receive unspoken messages that it can be ‘weak’ to express emotion, and therefore, we should hide them in order to be ‘strong.’
In many cases, children showing emotion is discouraged by parents and caregivers. As a result, many people struggle with acknowledging, understanding, and expressing their emotions later in life. We have even gone as far as negatively labelling individuals as ‘emotional,’ rather than embracing and appreciating this incredible ability and gauge that lives within all of us.
Research shows that unexpressed emotions have a negative physiological and psychological effect on the human body. In other words, avoiding our emotions can fuel symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), and eating disorders. Additionally, research shows that suppressing emotions can make people more aggressive and easily agitated. For example, if you were to push down feelings of anger towards your teacher or employer during the day, you would more likely pick a fight or argue with your loved ones at home in the evening.
Emotions need to be felt, and when you interrupt or ignore them, you are likely to feel the effects unexpectedly later on. This can leave you feeling out of control. Furthermore, other studies show that avoiding your emotions can lead to problems with physical health, such as higher rates of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), heart disease, and lower immunity.
Emotions developed historically among our ancestors as an innate biological response to survive within the environment. Emotions are essential for us as humans, as they help us navigate through life. There are three critically important roles that emotions play:
1. First, they provide us with information and point to important things in our lives to be aware of. Therefore, if we are not in touch with our emotions, we are losing out on valuable information about ourselves and our life. Lacking emotional awareness disconnects us from our situation, which can inhibit our ability to cope properly.
2. Second, emotions give us a sense of continuity or direction in life. The quality of the emotions that we experience provides us with a perception of who we are. In other words, it gives us a sense of wholeness.
3. Third, emotions help move us to action. If we are conscious of what we feel, then we can understand what we need or want, and can therefore figure out how to access those needs and wants. Lacking emotional awareness can leave us feeling aimless in life.
One might think of emotions as waves of energy that flow through our bodies and communicate to us. They can be short-lived, such as a flash of annoyance at a friend or co-worker, or long-lasting, such as sadness over the loss of a loved one. Our emotions also provide bodily sensations and can give us clues as to what we are feeling. For example, anxiety can feel like a tightening in the throat, and sadness can feel like a sense of heaviness in the chest.
All of our emotions indicate a need, and when we meet that need through some sort of action tendency, it can help reduce the intensity of the emotion. We can’t behave well if we don’t feel well. Therefore, when we meet our needs or have someone help with our emotional needs, it can provide a sense of relief, allowing us to better navigate various circumstances.
Here are some ways to connect with and understand your emotions:
1. Pause and observe: One of the simplest ways to start recognising and labelling your feelings is to take time throughout the day to check in with yourself, physically and mentally. How are you feeling? Is there any tension in your body? If so, where? It’s important to take a curious stance when you are checking, where you are nonjudgmental towards yourself, and just interested in finding out more.
2. Breathe through it: Once you begin to identify your feelings and the bodily sensations that accompany them, take some deep breaths, ensuring that exhales are twice as long as inhales. For example, inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for eight. This type of deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which helps to regulate emotions and the nervous system.
3. Be self-compassionate: Self-compassion is the act of acknowledging your emotions, reminding yourself that you are human, and allowing the feeling of emotions as a part of the human experience. Practising self-compassion can be beneficial as it releases oxytocin (the ‘cuddle hormone’) in our bodies that can help soothe us.
At first, it can feel scary and uncomfortable to fully feel your emotions. This is normal. It is important to know that emotions are short-lived and need to be felt in order to release them. Feelings do not last forever. The more comfortable you become in experiencing your emotions, the easier it becomes to sit with them and help yourself through it. As Dr Les Greenberg states, “we need to live in mindful harmony with our feelings, not attempt to control them.”
Sarvenaz Riahi is a registered social worker and psychotherapist practicing virtually in Manitoba and Ontario.