Emotions can be confusing, hard to identify, or overwhelming. Many people tell me they don’t know what they feel when I’m inquiring. It can be frustrating. You may know you’re feeling something, but can’t figure out what it is, or you can feel overwhelmed and feel shut off from your emotions.
Emotions are complex and involve both mental processing and physical components. Most people understand that when fear is experienced, the heartbeat increases and breathing may become shallow and rapid. What is less recognized is that the body responds during all emotion.
When you experience an event, a conversation, or threatening situation, you take in the sensory data of this event through your five basic senses of hearing, seeing, touch, taste, and smell, as well the sense of movement in what is called your vestibular system. Your brain takes in this information and applies meaning to what is being experienced.
As the brain is processing the sensory data and giving meaning to it, it activates your limbic system and brain stem which connect to organs throughout your body and control areas like the heart, breathing, and digestion. In the micro-nanoseconds that this occurs you experience various sensations in your body such as muscles tightening, pressure on your chest, tingling in your hands or arms, or warmth throughout your torso, etc.
In an interesting study conducted by a team of scientists in Finland led by Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University, 700 respondents were prompted to experience different emotions, and then asked to indicate where in their bodies they felt sensations when experiencing the emotions.
The responses were consistent across cultures and revealed that people identified similar regions for the same emotion. Those describing happiness indicated sensation all over their body, while others describing fear revealed feelings in the chest area. This graphic from an article in the health news section of the NPR web site displays the results. (Image credit – Doucleff, M. (2013, Dec. 30). Mapping emotions on the body: Love makes us warm all over. Shots: Health News from NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/12/30/258313116/mapping-emotions-on-the-body-love-makes-us-warm-all-over)
It is not just a figure of speech when we use phrases such as “butterflies in the stomach” to describe being nervous, or “my heart was warmed” to refer to feeling love or happiness. These physical responses are actually occurring.
Being in touch with feelings is an important part of the process of having good mental health, healing from wounds of the past, and being able to connect in relationships. If you aren’t aware of your feelings, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It just means they are pushed down out of your awareness and they get locked in your body and mind or they get acted out unconsciously in your relationships.
Many physiological problems such as ulcers, fibromyalgia, IBS, heart disease, headaches and obesity can be interrelated to emotional issues that are held within, causing stress on the body and impacting the physiological systems. Being present with your emotions allows you to connect to what is happening in your life, process and metabolize the energy and/or discomfort, and ultimately release these emotions toward freedom and peace of mind.
If you are frustrated with not being able to get in touch with your feelings, start with your body. Tune into yourself and become aware of where you sense muscle tension, stomach sensations, head or eye discomfort, or a feeling of pressure. As you become more aware of your body, you will be able to start to make connections to what you are feeling.
Written by Cheryl Schenck LPC, CSAT