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As a natural life force, emotions are intended to flow freely through our bodymind, then dissipate once we have fully experienced them and assimilated their valuable message. As we were growing up, however, many of us learned that certain emotions – such as anger, sadness, or even joy – were unacceptable, and we subconsciously began to push them out of our awareness. Over time, we may have accumulated a large load of emotional toxicity that takes a toll on our mental and physical health.
There are two main antidotes to emotional repression: openness and acceptance. If you stay open to all of your feelings and not just the “nice” ones, you won’t have to repress anything. It helps immensely to remember that feelings are so named because we feel them in our bodies. Your mind may be an expert at hiding from itself and denying feelings, but the body can’t fool itself. It has no access to denial. When your body registers an emotion, there is an accompanying physical sensation.
Every feeling has an important message, and when we let ourselves feel them and flow through us rather than shoving them away, we can begin to experience greater emotional wellbeing.
Fear may express itself in your body as a tight stomach or chest, cramps, coldness, shaking, weakness, or dizziness.
Anxiety is chronic fear. You may not feel the acute signs of fear because you’ve grown use to them and your body has adapted. Since the body can’t completely adapt, the fear may manifest as numbness, tuning out, irritability, and sleeplessness. The body may also feel listless or restless.
Humiliation is similar to fear in that your body feels weak and sometimes shaky, but instead of feeling cold, you feel a wave of heat. You may blush and notice your skin growing warm. You might also notice yourself hunching over and drawing in, as though trying to disappear.
Anger is most often manifested in the body as warmth and flushed skin, tense muscles, a clenched jaw or fists, irregular or quick breathing, an accelerated heartbeat, and a feeling of pounding in the ears.
Hostility is like anger but requires no trigger to set it off. Instead, the body is constantly simmering, alert for the slightest excuse for full-blown rage. The body feels tight, tense, and ready for action.
Frustration is like anger but is more pent up. It may feel like your body wants to lash out but doesn’t know which way to turn. Your movements and posture may become rigid. Sometimes frustration is anger combined with denial. In this case, you will experience signs of denial, such as unusually rapid speech, shrugging, averted eyes, tightened jaw muscles, and shallow breathing.
Guilt is a restless feeling. You may feel confined or suffocated with an overwhelming desire to escape. It might feel difficult to breathe, and your chest may feel tight or pressured.
Shame is another heated feeling, accompanied by warm skin and flushed cheeks. However, there is also a sense of inner numbness that can paradoxically feel cold or empty. Like humiliation, shame can make you hunch and want to disappear.
Depression feels cold and heavy. The body is lethargic and lacking in energy. Depressed people may feel cold much of the time. The body may move slowly, rigidly, or hesitantly, reflecting the condition of depression.
Jealousy is a complex emotion that can contain elements of fear, humiliation, and anger. The experience of jealousy in the body will therefore vary a bit from individual to individual. You may feel the coldness, tight stomach, and pressure in your chest associated with fear . . . or you may feel the heated sensations that come with anger and humiliation. When you find yourself clearly envying someone’s life, accomplishments, relationships, or possessions, pay attention to how your body feels and you will have a baseline for what jealousy feels like when you have a more subtle experience of this emotion.
Keep in mind that each of us is unique, and your individual experience of an emotion may be a bit different from the descriptions above. The important thing is to notice when you feel the slightest bit of discomfort in your body, followed by the impulse to push away that feeling. As best you can, let yourself fully feel, perhaps taking a few deep breaths into the area of the body where you most feel the emotion. Resist the impulse to criticize your feelings or to try to change them. This only reinforces denial of your authentic inner life. Feelings have feelings, and they know when they are unwanted and will cooperate by going underground. Fear cooperates by trying to hide. Anger cooperates by pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to accept an unwanted feeling, and until you simply allow and acknowledge a feeling, it will persist.
Begin to cultivate sympathy for whatever emotion arises in your experience. Instead of heaping judgment on yourself for what you are feeling, see if you can offer yourself compassion. Let yourself experience the feeling and follow where it wants to go. Have the intention to be present, centered, and self-aware. As you take the judgment out of your emotions and give yourself permission to feel and open to new layers of love, acceptance, and compassion – for yourself and everyone around you.
“At every Healing the Heart workshop, I feel honored to guide and to be a witness to the deep healing that takes place when people are willing to identify and release old thought-patterns and buried pain – and open to their full potential for happiness and wellbeing.” – Dr. Tim Brieske
Tim Brieske, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, mind-body healing expert, and core member of the Chopra Center medical staff. With his characteristic compassion, wisdom, and lighthearted nature, he provides medical consultations for guests and patients and offers mind-body guidance at the Center’s events and programs. He also teaches the healing tools and techniques of Ayurveda and leads walking meditations in nature.