3 Ways your Body is Holding Emotion (and how to use them to your advantage)
In today's world, the awareness of mind/body/spirit connection is more widely recognized and accepted than ever before. We have access to an abundance of information making the longevity of a healthy human existence a real and desirable potential. We're gifted with the capacity to understand that our mental and emotional wellbeing plays an important role in this scenario. We know it's all connected. But we can feel lost when we're not well if we don't know how it works.
Emotions are created around experience. They are natural, energetic responses to stimuli. When flowing freely, we can move through events and stresses with more fluidity. We can actually use feelings as tools to grow and learn about the world around us. To combine knowledge with our experiences creates wisdom. But it's not always easy to ride the wave of human emotion. When we have a positive experience, we can feel elated and joyous and want to stay there forever. When we have a negative experience, we can feel unpleasant and want to rush through it to escape the discomfort. Both are normal and are meant to be an ongoing ebb and flow of energy within and around us.
Problems arise when this system is interrupted by the brain's danger response. It can flag certain emotional energy as a threat, the same way it might respond to a bear crossing your path, and intervene by blocking it. The brain can't tell the difference between your inner world and outer world. This involuntary response has usually been triggered by early life experiences or traumas. We may not subconsciously feel safe or able to take space in the midst of experience to allow coinciding emotions to move through us. Pressures to resist feeling emotion could come from a variety of angles. Family or societal teachings often push us to "toughen up and stop being so sensitive." When there is illness or death close by, we may feel a responsibility to "protect" our loved ones and neglect our own feelings of grief. In the midst of a trauma or abuse, we usually become defensive and can’t stay open to be vulnerable and feel the weight of what just happened in the moment. Even something as common as being scorned or bullied as a child can cause us to shut down out of shame or embarrassment.
Whatever the cause, when we don't feel, we suppress. So if emotion is energy, where does it go? Our physical body responds to this instinctual neglect by closing up around it like a fist holding tight. The contraction of tissues impedes healthy blood flow, nervous system messaging and limits posture and range of motion. Chronic holdings eventually lead to tangible and measurable pain, tension and other related imbalances. When we repeatedly bury emotion and ignore the signals our body is trying to send us, we run the risk of injury and become susceptible to more serious situations like illness and substance abuse.
Here are a few ways your body may be telling you it's growing tired of holding emotion.
1) Hips don't lie. The pelvis is the epicentre of the postural body. It houses primal nerve structures and is connected to fundamental chakra centres. When we feel threatened, especially in relationships or support systems, we seek security in these lower areas and subconsciously contract to protect our basic needs. This can also be a direct response to outward pelvic trauma which could include pregnancy & delivery, gynaecological intervention, sexual abuse or direct injury. Similarly, the same muscular recruitment can happen in the jaw, neck and low back. Long term contraction can lead to intermittent discomfort which is just subtle enough to trick us into thinking that this is our "normal". Think of this response system the next time you're carrying groceries into the house. Doesn't it feel lighter to set down your bags? The muscles in your body contracting around emotional stress need the same relief.
2) Take my breath away. Or at least, shorten it. When the body impedes the flow of emotion, it also tends to block the flow of healthy breathing. Take a minute to check in. How does it feel to follow your breath into your abdomen? Unnatural? Upper or shallow breathing is a sure warning sign of ignored experience. It can cause shoulder and chest tension and limit the supply of healthy oxygen to our tissues and organs.
3) Proud to be a multi-tasker? Being "too busy" can been seen as a badge of honour these days. But sometimes we create much of this as a distraction from our body's uncomfortable needs. By moving all of the time or keeping mentally stimulated with the noise of the surrounding world, we can't pick up on the signals our body might be sending to tell us it's imbalanced. Often, minor symptoms will grab your attention by way of headache, exhaustion or generalized anxiety. Do you stop and listen, or avoid through unnecessary movement?
All of these mechanisms are incredibly common. Beginning to address them simply by bringing awareness to this emotion/body connection can be all you need to start releasing trapped energies. Try this exercise to explore the feeling of emotion in your own body. Give it a quick read before you settle but try not to think too much about the directions before you begin. Allow this to be an intuitive practice:
In a quiet space alone, find a comfortable spot to sit without interruption for 5 or 10 minutes.
Close your eyes and take 5 easy breaths in through & out of your nose and bring your awareness to your abdomen rising and falling.
Bring about the image of the place you love most. Whatever comes to mind first. Maybe it's the landscape of a past vacation, or perhaps your childhood home. It could even be a photo of a place you've yet to visit. Now mentally invite a person whom you love deeply to be in that place with you. Who is there? Your partner, your pet, your child? Someone who is no longer living? After sitting with this for several breaths, shift your focus to what is happening in your body. Maybe you feel tingling across your chest, or your skin has gotten warm. Are there sensations in your lower abdomen or movement in your neck? Maybe old memories are beginning to arise and you're not sure why. Sit with this for a moment and simply observe.
Once you have rested in this scenario, shift your focus to a place you don't particularly enjoy. Somewhere you may resist going in your daily life. In the same way, bring forward someone with whom you struggle. A person who you feel has betrayed or hurt you or someone who you simply dislike. Perhaps you already know them or they are from the distant world around you. From your past or current life. How does your body feel in this setting? Is there pressure above your naval? Aching in your low back? Are there different sensations across your chest or has it become more difficult to swallow? What has happened to the quality of your breath? Do you feel tears welling?
Refocus on your abdomen, follow 5 more breaths in and out. Observe the shifts in your body and be curious about them knowing that you're in quiet, unthreatening space. Open your eyes and reflect.
Some of this may not feel too good. And that's ok. Some of this may feel expansive and wonderful. And that's just ok, too. The key is to not get hung up on any of it and to learn to witness with curiosity and let it move through. Depending on your particular imbalances, a support system of tools may be a beneficial collaboration. Yoga and massage therapy are by no means a replacement for a good mental health therapist or a spiritual guide, but they are certainly fantastic complimentary practices. Through bodywork, working with the right practitioner and the proper intention, awareness can be brought to the holding patterns in the body gently, at your own pace and in a safe setting. Depending on how chronic the guarding is, it may take some time to work through the layers. Often times, we may not know what is wrong, we just know that we're feeling unwell and there doesn't seem to be a clear cause. The 3 warning signs above can actually be used in our favour as tools to investigate and unwind these stresses. Working through the excess tone of the body through manual work or yin yoga poses, guiding the breath in focused methods, and slowing down through mindfulness to hear the body better are all an effective collaborative approach to help retrain the brain’s response system. Learning to release trapped emotion in a safe environment far away from the experience which originally caused the stress can be empowering. In this way, we can develop a relationship with our feelings and watch them pass as mere sensations.
Emotions are an unavoidable part of the human experience, which becomes much more pleasant when we learn to honour how we feel and not get caught in it. Trust your body, let it take you where it needs to go. Make wise choices for your pleasure & pain. Invest in learning and connect with a network of activities and people who can support you through and heighten your experience. We're all navigating this walk together. It's so much better when you're feeling your best!