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What Are Our Emotions Trying to Tell Us? (Part 1)

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Many of us go into therapy because we want to understand ourselves and our loved ones better. Most of us are struggling to comprehend why we feel a certain way, or we feel stuck and can't seem to figure out how to move forward. We end up in thought-loops, trying to rationalize why we shouldn't be feeling the way we're feeling. I, and many others within and outside of the mental health field, believe that the answers that we are seeking are already sitting in our own bodies. But, for a variety of reasons (beyond the scope of this piece), many of us have lost touch with the signals our bodies are sending us.

Let’s begin with some basic assumptions (borrowed from the work of Varvara Erochina):

  1. Our emotions are communication from our physiology to us - they are information about a) what we’re experiencing and b) how we’re experiencing what’s happening.

  2. Emotions are beyond the binary of good and bad - all emotions are necessary.

  3. Emotions are medicine. We might not like some of them, but in order to heal, learn, and grow we need to increase our capacity to experience all of them.

The above statements have been explored, tested, and proven scientifically as well as by thousands of years of contemplative and indigenous practices. So, if we choose to believe these assumptions, the question then becomes: how do we fully experience our emotions so that we can understand their messages and make choices accordingly?

As I see it, the answer is: 1) by better understanding how emotions work within our bodies, and 2) by being present enough with our bodies to distinguish the difference between the stories we tell ourselves and our emotions. When we are fully in contact with our emotions - present with our bodies and open to its messages - they last about 90 seconds. But many of our emotions stick with us for much longer - days, weeks, months, even years - because we are not allowing ourselves to truly sit with them. Like an infant, they continue calling for our attention until we give them what they need.

Let’s start with the first point: how do emotions work within our bodies? Based on our current understanding, we have found that our nervous system - and primarily our vagus nerve - plays a key role in creating, managing, and responding to our emotions. For many of us (arguably all of us, particularly as this is being written during a global pandemic), our nervous systems are on high alert far more often than we are able to reasonably manage. Our threat detectors are telling our nervous systems that they detect danger, and our nervous systems respond in exactly the way they are built to respond - with fight/flight or freeze.

So many of us are experiencing anxiety (fight/flight) and depression (freeze) because our bodies are working perfectly in a world that is constantly overwhelming to all of our internal systems.

These nervous system responses are not voluntary and we don’t always know what triggers them. We simply do not have control over our bodily functions on this level. It would be highly inefficient and probably impossible for our brains to notice, engage with, and choose a response to everything that happens around us, so our bodies, conveniently, do much of the work without our conscious awareness.

When our nervous systems are in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode, it is more difficult to access the compassionate, curious, and confident parts of ourselves. This is how we get trapped in patterns that we don’t understand and have such a tough time getting ourselves out - we can't think our way into a regulated nervous system. And this leads me to my the second point: being present.

Presence with our bodies requires attention and openness to our internal sensations. This can be a very scary experience for many of us - we are so used to directing our attention externally or towards our thoughts. Learning to be present should be a slow, titrated process - a gentle and methodical untangling of our stories, assumptions, responses, and sensations. Many of us have learned to distrust our body’s signals, putting us at odds with the part of us that knows the most about our selves - our bodies have retained memories that our minds have long forgotten. If we pay close attention and offer our bodies patience, curiosity, and grace, we can begin to discern the patterns that are no longer supportive. It’s up to us to ascribe new meaning to them, or even to allow them to simply be as they are without attaching any story at all.

It’s important to remember: we are not trying to be present with our bodies in order to fix or get rid of our emotions. We need our emotions, and we want to hear them out. Instead, we are trying to give our bodies the presence they need in order to process our more difficult emotions with safety and awareness. We should strive to foster a relationship of being with ourselves, our bodies, and our emotions, rather than a relationship where we exert power over particular parts of ourselves. With time and practice, we can develop a relationship with our bodies that feels egalitarian, which strengthens our ability to trust our own decisions, feelings, needs, and desires.

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