Recognizing where you feel your emotions in your body

By Rina Goldstein, LMSW

 

Our bodies hold our emotions, desires, thoughts, and experiences, all quite literally. If you think about it, it is our body which encases our brains, our guts, and our hearts. When a story is “gut-wrenching,” “heart-breaking,” or “mind-boggling,” these are all just phrases that describe the way we feel; and yet, there seems to constantly be a disconnect. We use these body referrals as an adjective to describe a situation, not the way we feel in relation to that event. Some may call it deflective, rationalization, or misused jargon. I think of it as detachment.

We live in a society within which impossibly high standards for body image, and thereby, body dysmorphia, are all too common. Our bodies are often seen as the enemy: Stubborn weight that doesn’t want to come off. A chin that doesn’t suit my face. Arms that are too long for me not to feel awkward. The list goes on. The similarity between these sentiments is the vision that the body is the other, composed of multiple, separate parts, as opposed to the body being us. Further, these statements point out parts of our bodies we may feel dissatisfaction toward. They lack appreciation for the sustenance, survival, strength and beauty our bodies provide for us. Our lack of appreciation for our bodies’ functions and attraction may stem from popular body size and shape expectations. This includes proportions, features, height, weight, color, shade, and muscle tone. 

Let’s look at the aforementioned phrases of body sensations in light of us seeing our bodies as ourselves. Something being “gut-wrenching” means that I feel my gut churn when I listen to the account of it. That is me reacting. It is the way I feel about the situation. The same goes for one’s heart physically hurting or mind feeling heavy or out of control. We place our hands over our hearts when shocked and clench our skulls in our hands when overwhelmed. It may be conditioned outward displays of emotion; or it may just be because primitively, we are soothing what we feel where we physically feel it. Yet we often don’t even acknowledge the physical sensation, let alone acknowledge that it is there to signal something to us. 

I once attended a two-day seminar on compassion focused therapy (CFT) for mental health practitioners. Throughout the training we discussed how to provide compassionate care to ourselves and our clients. We constantly practiced the skills that we learned, among which were several mindfulness meditations and practices. As a meditation novice, I was struck by how many sensations were held in my body, most of which I only recognized when instructed to let go of them. For example, stress is often held in our jaws, temples, pelvic floors, and fists. When I am stressed, I tend to focus on slowing my thoughts and stemming the racing of my brain. What I discovered during this training was that part of letting go of the stress was literally letting go: unclenching my fists and leaving them open, allowing my jaw to open up and go slack, sitting more loosely in my seat and allowing my feet to rest lightly on the floor. Until then, I had thought of grounding oneself using the five senses as somehow tricking one’s body into believing that their heart rate was slower because they were less stressed. I now know that our bodies are even cooler than that; We physically hold stress, and we can literally let it go. Regulating physical sensations is not about tricking our bodies; it is about actually doing the work and calming ourselves physiologically. It isn’t just in our mind, which causes our hearts to race, respiration to increase, and sweat glands to activate. Those reactions are the stress. Our bodies are speaking to us, telling us exactly what they need to get rid of the stressful stimulus. Sweating? You need cool air to clear your head. Breathing rapidly? You need to slow down and take things more slowly. Mind racing? You need to compartmentalize or prioritize, allowing one thought through at a time. And the coolest part of this all is that our bodies are us. We’ve got these built-in manuals for dealing with ourselves, and we need to tune into them. It’s as simple- yet as difficult- as that. Yes, I know that sounds confusing:) Tuning in to our bodies can be difficult to become accustomed to, because we are so used to ignoring them, but when we do become used to tuning in, and it becomes second nature for us, listening to them and providing them with what they need is really simple. It is as simple as taking a gulp of water when thirsty or turning on the air when warm.

So now that we’ve discovered that our bodies are intrinsically part of who we are, not just some encasement, how do we actually listen to them? The long answer would involve discussing how the same way we each look different, our bodies all function uniquely. For brevity’s sake, I will provide several responses that I find useful in treatment.

  1. Treat your body with kindness. Your body works hard to sustain you. If you want it to communicate with you, befriending it is the best option. That means listening to it. If your body tells you it is hungry and craving protein, that is what it needs. If it is tired, or thirsty, dry, or sweaty, restless, or depleted of energy- Do for it what it asks of you. When we ignore our bodies’ regulation cues, pain, or fatigue, they cannot tell us other important reminders and preferences. It’s like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- If you don’t have food and shelter, how can you expect your body to tell you about the emotional needs that haven’t been met?
  2. Avoid the act of blocking sensations. A racing heart or sinking pit in your stomach is uncomfortable, to say the least. In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), we focus a lot on sitting with feelings and the utility of that skill. It is helpful particularly when it comes to sensations, because allowing for a sensation to be there builds tolerance, and when we can tolerate a feeling, we have room to acknowledge it, which helps us recognize what our bodies are telling us. For example, you enter a building and discover that your heart is racing. You may be tempted to look down at your phone and scroll through TikTok as a distraction. If it is a long visit, you may wish to drink or smoke or vape or eat; anything just to distract and soothe yourself. This is the easy way out, but from now on whenever you enter the building again you may find yourself distracted yet again, barely present. On the other hand, if you allow the feeling to be, you have room to address it. You notice that your heart is pounding in your ears. You recognize when it starts, when it stops. You feel when the intensity increases or decreases. What about this particular building gives you this feeling? Maybe there is an association to another place, and you can simply remind yourself you are not at that other place in the present moment. Maybe it is a more complicated reaction. Either way, you’ve allowed yourself the space to explore and plan and deal with the situation in a forward-thinking way.
  3. Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Meditation. PMR, or progressive muscle relaxation, and focusing on individual body parts and contact with your surroundings during meditation sound simple, but the more you practice, the more revealing these practices will be. They provide us with the ability to discover where in our bodies we hold emotions. They allow us to learn how connected we are to our bodies and the earth around us. Are your feet firmly planted on the ground and providing an energetic stability, or are you simply existing in place? Can you feel energy flow from your heart to your toes when you feel warmth toward another, or are there just thoughts of goodwill in your mind? Are there goosebumps on your arms when you are moved, or is there a rush that moves from your spine and down toward your fingertips, raising the hairs on your arm? Notice the difference in the extent of the feelings.

There is more to be said and the tip of the iceberg has yet to be fully explored. Chinese medicine, Health At Every Size, Intuitive Eating, other mindfulness-based practices, yoga: These are just some of the practices that focus on the mind-body oneness. I’m confident that as a society, we will continue to discover more about connection to our bodies and the therapeutic benefits. Our bodies will not allow for themselves to be ignored. Let’s practice embracing them, providing them with the love, sustenance, and support that we deserve just for being on this Earth, because our bodies are us.