In my recent blogs I have discussed how our emotions and thoughts mutually affect each other, why it is important to become aware of them and how this can be achieved. Among other strategies, one of the ways for noticing our emotions is by paying attention to how they are reflected in our body (for example, we might get “butterflies in the stomach” when we are anxious). Today I want to explore the connection between our physical and emotional states in some more detail.
Probably every language has metaphors that describe emotional phenomena through a physical action or sensation. We are all familiar with such phrases as “to carry a burden on one’s shoulders,” “to hold one’s breath,” or “to suffer from a broken heart.” We use them all the time without pausing to ponder their meaning. But are they really only metaphors? As it turns out, many of these phrases quite literary reflect the response of the body to an emotional strain. Thus people who for a long time had to cope with a burden or grief, heavy responsibility or worry often have tense aching shoulders and stiff neck. A friend of mine who was nursing her husband dying of cancer while having to be strong and supportive to her young children has developed what is called a “frozen shoulder” that took over two years to heal.
When something frightens us, very often the automatic physical response is to hold our breath, which we let out when the danger (either perceived or real) has passed. However, as many of us may experience ongoing stress in our daily lives, we might not notice that we are not breathing properly. Our breath becomes shallow; we neither inhale nor exhale fully and thus it deprives our brain and our body of the oxygen they need to function optimally. A very simple way for releasing stress is to stop from time to time and take several deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through the mouth. A couple of minutes of deep breathing can also help ward off a panic attack, and in such cases it is recommended to move your eyes upwards on the inhale and downwards on the exhale.
Anger, anxiety and other strong or persistent emotions have a tendency to get “stored” in the body. Interestingly, different people experience different parts of the body as containers of suppressed emotion. For some it will be the stomach, for others the heart, chest, head, shoulders, skin or joints. There are also body parts that may be affected by a particular type of emotion. Thus both Chinese and Western medicine traditionally linked the liver and gallbladder with anger. This perception is still reflected in the phrase “it galls me.” Speaking about myself, I know that I respond to aggravated stress with migraines and an ache under my shoulder blades. Emotional energy gets “converted” into a physical energy. It affects in a complex way the balance of hormones and other chemicals, which, if not taken care of, may lead to a serious illness.
The physical and the emotional parts of our being are not the isolated systems. One affects the other, and vice versa. Therefore, for our wellbeing it is important to take care of both. Tapping is very effective for releasing stress and negative emotions. Meditation is good for relaxation. Having regular talking therapy is also an excellent way for restoring and maintaining emotional balance. But apart from any techniques, we can achieve a lot by simply taking time to get in touch with our feelings. By tuning in and listening to our body and emotions in a non-judgmental way and offering love and acceptance to those parts of us that are aching to be heard, acknowledged and forgiven.