Like most of us, I wasn’t taught how to process emotions as a child. Little Eva became quite the expert at suppressing her emotions in order to survive a turbulent home life, but this tendency came back to bite me time and time again as I grew into a young adult.
And so, emotional processing has become a bit of an obsession for me. You can jump to the end of this post for the quick nutshell version of how to process emotions, but if like me you’re fascinated with why we act the way we do, I invite you to dive into the juicy article below.
By intentionally processing our emotions we free ourselves from old emotional baggage and prevent the accumulation of new baggage. Our emotions have less control over us. And, oddly enough, we become more even-tempered and decisive people.
Why are we so bad at processing our emotions?
Our culture conditions us to believe, from a very young age, that expressing our feelings is not acceptable or safe. Instead of being taught how to process emotions our teachers tell us to sit down, raise our hands, and only speak if we’re called on. Parents tell us to be quiet and go to our rooms. Society tells us to not get carried away with our emotions.
Many of us have been raised in a culture that doesn’t value emotions and that has failed to equip us with the knowledge and tools we need to deal with our feelings in a healthy way. As a species, we’ve lost our emotional intelligence.
Personally, as I grew up I continued to deny my feelings in order to fit into our patriarchal society. In my former life as an architect, I found myself striving to conform even more to the corporate world’s cookie-cutter expectations in order to find success. As a woman, I needed to appear strong but not intimidating, assertive but not bossy, and absolutely not emotional!
It’s no wonder that by my early twenties I, like most people, was completely out of touch with my actual emotions and desires. This left me feeling empty, confused, and with a myriad of related health problems.
According to the wisdom of Ayurveda, if we allow our emotions to go unprocessed they are capable of poisoning the body.
Why is it important to learn how to process emotions?
More and more scientific studies are showing a relationship between repressed emotions and health conditions such as digestive problems, heart disease, lower immunity, chronic pain, high blood pressure, depression, and low energy.
In his Textbook of Ayurveda, Dr. Vasant Lad writes,
“…every sensation, thought, feeling and emotion must be digested, absorbed and assimilated in order to yield right understanding, which is intelligence.”
Dr. Vasant Lad
Stuck emotions lead to incorrect understanding. All those bottled-up feelings create emotional baggage which we carry around with us from relationship to relationship, job to job, place to place. The weight of this baggage makes us feel even more overwhelmed, hopeless and confused. They cloud our perspective and explode in the most inconvenient moments, causing us to under or overreact.
Feeling your feelings is one of the bravest things that you can do and a key to our mental well-being and physical health. I’m not exaggerating when I say that learning how to process emotions is the path to freedom. It leads to clarity, understanding, and intelligence. So, read on if you’re ready to drop the emotional baggage and instead live a more intentional life.
But first, it’s important to know what emotions actually are before we can truly understand how to process them.
What is an emotion?
Most of us are taught that emotions are a single state or event that we can pinpoint. Incorrect. They are actually a process. According to Ayurveda, emotions are a reaction and food for the mind.
Modern biologists are still trying to define what emotions are. However, we do know that emotion is a positive or negative experience that corresponds with the activation of the brain and nervous system. For example, stress (an emotion) is a biological reaction to a stressor (the stimulus).
Emotions are completely natural. We all experience fear, anger, jealousy, envy, shame, joy, sadness, grief, and many other emotions in varying degrees. As we’ll see below, emotions are innate, automatic, and incredibly important for our survival. So I invite you to drop any judgment you may have around your emotions right here. And if need help silencing your inner critic check out this blog post.
You’re not wrong for feeling, or for having big feelings. Our culture is wrong for telling you that it’s not okay to feel.
I think the best way to understand emotions is through our personal experiences, so indulge me for a moment.
A few years ago I was hiking with some friends and two guides in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. All of a sudden the guide leading us turned around with a wide-eyed panic on his face and whispered “shhhhhhhhhh…” pointing ahead of us along the trail.
Up ahead, maybe 50 feet, were the backsides of two wild elephants. The previous day we’d been told that wild elephants are extremely dangerous and that they kill a few unlucky people who get in their way each year.
As our guides discussed what to do in whispered tones my friends and I passed around the binoculars. I was fumbling around with the focus dials to get a clear view of the biggest elephant’s head when suddenly I saw a flutter of ears and then two big black eyes looking straight at me. The elephant let out earth rattling trumpet blast and the entire jungle erupted. Our guides screamed, “run!” and we all sprinted back up the trail.
Hearts pounding we ran and ran. I remember the birds and two wild boars, also startled by the elephant, overtook us on the trail. Other than that it’s a blur. Finally, our guides slowed to a stop and signaled that we were in the clear. Gasping for air, we started laughing, patting each other on the back, and talking about a mile a minute. “Can you believe what just happened?”
So, what exactly was going on inside our bodies as we experienced this fear?
When a stimulus that makes us feel stressed (like a massive angry elephant yelling at you) is identified, cortisol and adrenaline instantly and automatically flood the body to prepare to fight or, in my case, flight. This activation happens in an instant and without much, if any, conscious thought. As we move – run or fight – our bodies burn through the stress hormones, and as we slow down and realize we’ve escaped the threat our bodies shift back into a sense of safety.
Of course, not all emotions are as acute as this, but they follow the same pattern. Our brains, nervous systems, and movement patterns react to an experience and we feel an emotion.
This is a completely natural process that is key to our survival. However, problems occur when we’re not able to complete the full process for one reason or another. The emotion gets stuck.
Often getting stuck isn’t actually our fault. In many situations expressing our emotions isn’t culturally acceptable or safe. For example, your boss calls you into her office and starts to tear apart a project that you’ve worked really hard on. You feel the anger boiling up inside of you, but punching her in the face or turning around and sprinting down the hall would be frowned upon.
Instead, you swallow your feelings. Your body isn’t able to process the anger and complete the emotional arc.
The Key to Emotional Processing
So, the place in the emotional processing cycle where we often get stuck is right before the fight or flight. We’re missing the movement. And the movement is what gets us over the hump and allows the emotion to be released.
The word itself also points to this missing piece of the puzzle. The English word “emotion” comes from the Latin word “emovere,” which means “to be moved.”
Emotions are meant to literally move us. Each feeling is a cry for attention and a call to action.
Sadness, fear, anger, jealousy, overwhelm. Each of these emotions is pointing to something in our lives that needs our attention. So in addition to processing the emotion, we can also address the situation that has caused it.
Luckily, in the same way that our bodies digest an apple without us even thinking about it, the process of emotional digestion is also automatic.
Again the problem occurs when we interrupt this natural process by either suppressing our feelings or overreacting. The energy of the emotion becomes stuck.
According to Ayurveda, we carry these unresolved, crystalized emotions in our tissues. And certain types of emotions are stored in certain tissues of the body. Not only that, but the quality of our tissues also influences the emotions that we experience. For example, weak muscle tissue contributes to a feeling of the weight of the world on your shoulders. Strong muscle tissue creates more confidence.
So, when considering how to process emotions we need to consider both the mental-emotional level and our physiology. But how do we complete the emotional arc in a world where expressing our feelings is often unacceptable?
How to process emotions
First, let’s look to nature for the answer.
Remember back to my example of being almost killed by a wild elephant? In response, I sprinted to safety. In the example of the woman being criticized by her boss, she felt unable to move, and therefore she wasn’t able to express her anger physically. So in order to complete the emotional arc, we need to (a) move, and (b) give our brains and bodies signals that we’ve reached safety.
Missing Piece A: Movement
We can also look to the Ayurvedic tradition as well as many other indigenous cultures to learn how to process emotions. Around the world, people have been practicing emotional processing techniques for thousands of years.
These practices take a person completely through the emotional ark – from a resting, safe state to an aroused state, and back to rest. I’ll be writing more about these practices and rituals soon.
But any heart-beating movement can work – dancing, shaking, sobbing, kickboxing, running, swimming – whatever form of movement that you most enjoy.
If these forms of movement are not available to you, research has shown that there is another effective way to process current and old emotions. Laying down, or in another position of your choice, scan through your body from the head to the toe. As your awareness moves through each body part tense your muscles. Tense for a few seconds, as hard as you can without pain, and then release. Go through each part of your body that you have access to – tensing and releasing – until you’ve scanned your entire body.
Unexplainable emotions may arise as you go through this process. These are old emotional arcs re-surfacing. Observe them and let them pass.
In the words of my mentor Katie Silcox,
“If we simply observe and feel the emotion, it will rise, fall, and come to a natural state of completion. We can let go of what isn’t needed (elimination) and keep what is useful (nutritional wisdom).”
Now you might be wondering how long we need to move. Ayurvedic wisdom says to stick with the emotion and movement until your body gives you a signal of release. Typically it takes just one to three minutes for an emotion to swell, fall, and come to completion. But if you’re new to this type of work it may take a bit longer before you feel a shift.
Common signs from your body that you have completed the arc are:
- A deep exhale
- Eyes watering
- A shiver or tremor
- A shift in mood
- A feeling of emptiness
I typically feel a big yawn come over me and a sense of emptiness. Take note of your body’s unique signals. How does your body tell you this movement is working?
Missing Piece B: Felt Safety
And then, and this is crucial, we need to signal to our bodies that we are safe. Just telling ourselves, “I am safe.” doesn’t really work. We have to really feel it. To believe it and know it. One of my mentors, Chris Muse, calls this embodied sense of calm “felt safety.”
We can do this by simply giving our brain and body information about our surroundings. If you are in a safe space, then do a quick five senses meditation by turning into each of your five senses in turn.
Or, you can signal to your brain that you are safe by tapping into social connections. After the elephant experience, my friends and I patted each other on the back and started talking excitedly. Make small talk with a coworker, give a friend a call, or, even better, a hug.
And what about that old, crystalized, emotional baggage? Or even emotions that you felt earlier today but were not able to instantly break into a heart beating sprint to process? How do we complete those emotional arcs?
Releasing and Processing Old Emotional Baggage
Luckily, scientific research has shown us that by visualizing the past situation and letting ourselves really feel it we can reactivate the emotional arc and finish moving through it. So for example, in the case of sadness or grief, you might put on a sad song, bring to mind the situation that caused the sadness and grief, and allow yourself to dance and shake through it until your body signals that you’ve completed the emotional arc.
As the old adage states, where attention goes energy flows.
And it gets even better. The research also shows that we don’t actually need to know where our stuck emotions originated from in order to process them.
Maybe you have noticed this spontaneous emotional release in your life. Sometimes when I’m doing yoga or meditation emotions or other unexplainable sensations arise as if from nowhere and all of a sudden I’m in tears or I can’t stop smiling.
By bringing our attention to different parts of the body, the tissues that I mentioned before, we can activate those crystalized emotions and allow our bodies to express and release them.
How to process emotions in a nutshell
So to review, by allowing ourselves to complete past and present emotional cycles we free ourselves from our emotional baggage. We become less controlled by our emotions. And, oddly enough, we appear to be more even-tempered and less emotional people.
How to process emotions in a nutshell:
- Observe and feel the emotion as it rises.
- Allow your body to respond through movement.
- Observe and feel the emotion as it falls.
- Note any shifts in your physical state.
- Cultivate a sense of felt safety.
Awareness + Movement + Felt Safety = A Complete Emotional Arc
If you’re as curious about this stuff as I am then be sure to check out my life coaching program – Becoming the Change. We’ll be tapping into the emotional arc, the stress cycle, and the other regenerative cycles of nature in order to fuel our personal growth.
Eva Peterson | Ayurvedic Life Coach