How to work with strong emotions
Emotions and Health
Whether it’s Chinese Medicinal Theory, the work of Louse Hay or the latest research in mind-body relationship, our emotions and mindset are an internal cause of disease (as opposed to external causes such as pathogens). We still don’t fully understand how and why our emotions affect our physical health and modern medicinal theory is still catching up on this point, but the reality is that if we want to look after our physical health then we also need to look after our emotional wellbeing.
Now, I’ll be quite honest with you here. I’ve not always held this view. In fact, for 10 years I was rigid in my ‘scientific’ view that our physical health was not related at all to how we felt. It was only after many years of meditation and personal exploration on the subject did I begin to see at first hand that actually these were very closely linked.
To understand how from a modern Western medicine view, we need to start with the brain. This is top of the mind-body pyramid. Our emotions affect our limbic system (in the brain), which in turn triggers two responses in the body. The first (and faster) is our nerve impulses which send signal via our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to our internal organs. These are things such as our fight or flight response. On a slower timescale, it also affects our balance of hormones. And out of balance hormones, if not resolved, can lead to many long term health conditions.
Working with strong emotions
Working with our emotions can be our greatest source of wisdom but doing this in a skilful way is not something we are typically taught how to do. Rather than learning how to listen to the wisdom of our emotions, we may tell ourselves that there is something wrong with us or that we shouldn’t feel this way.
Strong emotions can be challenging to face, especially when they come from old wounds that have lingered for many years or a significant trauma. If do you have old wounds then it might be worth considering seeking professional support if you haven't already.
Even if we don't have old trauma to face, for most of us it can still be challenging so it's important that we don't slowly and be very gentle with ourselves.
The Four Step Practice
Within contemplative psychology, we learn a “Four Step Practice” as a way of transmuting the irritating energy of emotions into wisdom. This practice is very simple but can be difficult to do as we aim to lean into our emotions, rather than avoid them. Nevertheless, as I can testify to personally, it is a very powerful practice and can turn the most difficult of emotions into something quite wonderful.
Step 1 – Embody. When an emotion arises, rather than expressing it, repressing it or thinking about, come into the present moment by checking in with your body. See if you can really feel the sensations of the body, where does the emotion sit? It may be a tightness in the chest or an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach. It may be somewhere else entirely or in multiple places. Notice the quality of the physical feeling of the emotion.
Step 2 – Acceptance. Often when we feel something uncomfortable we try to push it away because it’s uncomfortable. Instead of thinking that you like or dislike this, see if you can refrain from making a judgement and just allow it to be there. Become curious about the qualities of it – what is the texture, shape, pattern of these sensations? Do they feel hot or cold?
Step 3 – Caring. If we saw a close friend or loved one upset we would feel a tenderness towards them, and perhaps show it with a hug. See if you can bring this quality of tenderness to how you are feeling in this moment. Sometimes placing a hand on the heart can remind us to connect with the tender nature of our hearts.
Step 4 – Let it be. When we are able to bring acceptance and caring to our emotions in this way we may notice that they aren’t static but rather the quality of them (and perhaps even the location of the physical feeling) shifts and moves. They may even dissolve completely….. and naturally without us forcing it. Just noticing these changes allows us not identify with the emotion but change of its own accord.
If you find after repeating these steps the emotions are still quite heavily charged, it’s ok to repeat then until you feel comfortable.
Working with emotions is a skill we can learn but like any new skill, it’s one that takes practice. Practicing mindfulness exercises such as The Four Step Practice regularly, on emotions that are not so intense, allows to develop our emotional resilience muscles so that when intense emotions arise we have the skills to work with them.
If you want support in learning this technique or want to share how you find, do get in touch by emailing me at email@example.com. I would love to hear how you find it.