Why we push down emotions, and how to free yourself
Our fast paced lives are full of emotional challenges. Pressure to appear successful at work, in relationships, to achieve certain things by a particular age, to look a certain way, to keep up...all of this can cause an unsettling stirring of different emotions.
Emotions have energy that pushes up to be expressed, our minds and bodies use physical tactics to push them down—including muscular constriction, holding our breath and shallow breathing.
Our upbringing and culture can contribute to how we deal with those emotions. Expressions like "Pull yourself together", 'mind over matter' and 'suck it up, might seem helpful in the moment but when the mind pushes down the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts a great strain on the mind and the body.
We now understand that emotional stress, can not only be linked to anxiety, chronic stress, depression but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.
Emotions are biological forces which should not be ignored. Of course there is a time and space when it is appropriate and safe to deal with them.
There are many ways to avoid our emotions, our smart phones, alcohol and even exercise can be used as distraction tactics.
From a personal point of view when life felt overwhelming my first instinct used to be ... 'oh, I could really use a glass of wine" This is not terrible in and of itself, but when that distraction becomes habitual and you continue to choose not to sit with the feelings, the distraction becomes a coping mechanism.
Most of us are ruled by our emotions without any awareness that this is what is happening. But once we gain the understanding you have the choice to choose, simply acknowledging your own feelings hands the power back to you. The next time you feel overwhelmed, ashamed or angry, try noticing the felt sensation you are experiencing in your body.
Challenging emotions and conflicts can begin to have longer term impacts on our nervous system especially if we are not managing those emotions. This can appear as anxiety, difficulty in relationships and depression.
The vagus nerve plays a role in the experiences we feel in the body during times of overwhelm. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. It responds to emotions triggered in the mid-brain and like I described in the 'managing challenging emotions' blog, these signals prepare us to take immediate and appropriate action. Your body is ready to fight, flight or go into freeze or fawn mode. There are a number of practices in yoga that directly impact the vagus nerve and help to move us through those heightened states.
Many of us tend to avoid painful or challenging and conflicting emotions in our lives. Often times that is because it is what we were taught. But in order to heal the mind, and to remember a feeling of wholeness we need to experience our emotions that go along with our stories, those emotions are located in our body. When we learn about how emotions work and learn we to identify and work with the core emotions beneath our anxiety, we feel and function better.
Finding the “mechanism” that helps you understand why you feel the way you feel will make it easier to free yourself from the discomfort of these emotions.
Here is a simple beach ball exercise to practice shared to me by my teacher Dr.Arielle Schwartz
Imagine you are on your favourite beach and the weather is perfect, everything about the scene is perfect except you are not feeling well, you feel overwhelmed, anxious, disconnected and angry.
The metaphor for your emotions is the beach ball, all those strong feelings are contained within the beach ball.
Imagine you go into the ocean in order to push the beach ball down under the water. What is likely to happen is that the ball will keep pushing back up to the surface, it make smack you in the face, it may even splash the people closest to you.
Instead of trying to push down the beach ball, it may be more helpful to try to deflate it.
However you must first know where the valve is!
This is to say we must try to uncover what is the cause of our strong emotional responses.
We can not stop or push down our emotions, but over time we can learn how to not to let our emotions push us down or stop us from having a fulfilled and joyful life.
Talk therapies can help us uncover and psychologically process our thoughts, and body based practices can help us integrate our work into the body.
Acknowledging that you are having an emotional response.
Naming the felt sensations you are experiencing