Emotions themselves are generally neither healthy nor unhealthy (One exception being guilt, which is entirely negative/unhealthy. Unhealthy guilt and shame can be converted to the positive remorse, for improving overall health.)
It is when the processing of emotions is incomplete that we run into trouble. If you think about it, it is no different than any other aspect of the body. What determines digestive health, for example, is not just about the food, but more about what your body can digest and its ability to absorb the nutrients, and to get rid of what is unhealthy or unnecessary. The same holds true for any other system that is responsible for processing what we take in.
The handling of emotions starts with an event - something happens, or something that we anticipated happening doesn't happen. How we process this occurrence determines the impact of the event. There are as many ways to interpret an event as there are people, each one unique, and each one being triggered slightly differently. People can get stuck in one part of the process because of their belief system, their unique constitution, their psychological resiliency, or their unwillingness or inability to complete the process.
Although there are different terms and models that are used to explore the handling of emotions, all models recognize that emotions have a psychological, cognitive, subjective and behavioral component and that humans have the ability to think about their emotions, regulate their response, and adapt to social norms.
This is about being able to recognize that you are emotionally triggered by something that did or didn't happen. It relates to a person's overall sense of freedom to both feel and be aware of emotions. Simply taking the time to be aware can cause emotions to shift, and starts the processing of the emotion. Awareness of being emotionally triggered often occurs because of the onset of a physical symptom - all of a sudden we get a tightness in our abdomen, our breathing changes, or there is a change in energy. Being aware of the link between physical symptoms and the events that happen in our life is an important aspect of emotional awareness.
2. Reaction (Expression)
Reaction is the actual way we express our emotions. It is important to truly feel your emotions and to know how to express them. This is not about getting stuck on a feeling, but to feel your emotions in a way that is healthy and productive.
How we react to emotions depends on our expectations, our anticipation (or not) of the event, our surrounding, how others around us react to the same event, our life experiences, our psychological resiliency, and our current state of health. Every society has judgement around expressing emotions: Is expressing anger, non-violently, helpful or not? Is fear to be dealt with or avoided? Is the ultimate goal love and understanding?
It is important to recognize the difference between the necessity to feel your emotions and how that is done. Not all emotions need to be expressed at the moment they arise. Part of psychological resiliency is about determining the most appropriate place and time and way to express how we feel. Just as there is etiquette for eliminating the toxins associated with digestion or urination, there is emotion etiquette.
People have a tendency toward certain emotions. Some people are naturally angry, irritable, anxious and pessimistic, or happy and positive. The more you understand your natural tendencies, what triggers you, and whether your reaction to emotions is healthy or unhealthy, the better you can control your life (versus your emotions controlling you).
3. Understanding (why)
Understanding why things happened or didn't happen is not about fault or blame, but about recognizing that there is a link between your physical and emotional health and your life.
Many people spend an exorbitant amount of time and money looking for ways to address their physical symptoms without even linking them to what has happened in their lives and how they feel about that. Other people intellectualize their emotions (always so in the narcissist) to such a degree that they never move to the next step in the process. It is helpful to understand why things happen and how they are mirrored in the body; however, understanding is part of the process, not the end-goal.
Our understanding of our emotions and how we think about them greatly influences the impact that they have on us. People have a tendency to trust their emotions in such a way that they base their reactions on their interpretation of their emotions. They tell themselves a story often to justify how they feel. Many people become attached to their emotions, and these emotions start influencing how they interact with their lives.
It is important to know the difference between how you feel and who you are. A parent, teacher, boss, spouse, sibling, or even a friend can often influence how you feel about yourself. Not everybody knows how to filter what they hear or see. We fill in the blanks when we are hurt or triggered. Every person has certain triggers, emotions that they have a tendency to feel, in situations that can easily trigger them. Understanding emotions starts with understanding yourself. It is about recognizing your resiliency, your ability to filter, and your triggers and susceptibilities. It involves becoming aware of how you feel your emotions and the degree to which you downplay stressful events, or you take a small situation and blow it out of proportion to the event.
4. Processing (of emotions)
The actual processing of emotions is about moving through the emotions and releasing what is not needed or unhealthy. Processing of emotions is important, as research does link certain emotions with specific health outcomes. For example, hopelessness is one of the strongest emotions associated with cancer. How a person perceives pain directly influences the amount of pain they feel. And anger, along with how they express it, impacts cardiovascular risk factors and GI symptoms a lot.
My experience suggests there are five common ways of processing emotions: distraction, dissipating, decision-making, suppression, and reflection.
Distraction involves diverting your attention to something else, often something that is more pleasant. Many people view distraction as a positive response to an emotion situation, and it can be when used appropriately. Yet, it is important to recognize that when distraction serves to delay the processing of emotions, it is not, in and of itself, a way of processing. Common forms of distraction involve watching television, surfing the web, exercising, reading a book, listening to music, or focusing on work or another task.
Distraction can be helpful when it is not appropriate to express openly when something happens. If you know that you are tired, overwhelmed, that your psychological resiliency is currently weakened, or you tend to overreact to emotional triggers, distraction can provide a time-out, giving you time and space to let the impact of the event lessen in intensity and to understand what happened and why.
Dissipating emotions is the one aspect of the process that I find is often missing. It relates to a person knowing how to release the intensity of an emotion. Emotions can be released using the mind or the body. Some forms of counseling and simply talking to the person involved, or a friend or family member, can assist in dissipating emotions. Other ways of dissipating emotions include:
- Short bursts of activity. In order for exercise to help dissipate emotions, versus simply being a distraction, it needs to be a short burst of activity where the focus is on pushing outward, i.e., releasing. Examples include hitting a tennis ball against a wall, kickboxing, hitting a punching bag, sprinting. When using exercise as a way of dissipating emotions, it is important to link the activity to the situation or emotion that you are releasing.
- Breathing. Slowing down your breathing can effectively dissipate the intensity of an emotion such as anger, anxiety, panic, and fear. Learning to connect with your breath helps you to manage your emotions more effectively.
- Yell at someone/something without them knowing. You don't always need to deal directly with the person you are upset with, or have a situation resolved, in order to process an emotion and release the intensity or hold that it has on you. Dissipating emotions is not dependent on another person listening or hearing what you have to say. It is dependent on you being able to express how you feel without worrying about how you say something and what someone else thinks. Therefore, when you are upset or triggered, it is helpful to have an honest conversation with that person without them being present. This is a great thing to do in the car, when home alone, or when out for a walk alone in nature.
- Free-form writing. Some people like to verbalize how they feel; others prefer to write. Both are effective means of dissipating emotions as long as the expression is not guarded and can flow freely. Writing can involve yelling at someone on paper for a few seconds or minutes, or it can involve writing for a couple of hours without stopping, as a form of dumping years of pent-up emotions onto the paper. Both are effective. The important thing is to write and then burn or shred it. It is not about writing someone a letter to read and to understand. It is a harmless dumping of emotions. it is one way of getting rid of the outer layer of whatever you are feeling so that you can work more effectively with an underlying concern or situation.
- Allow for time and perspective. Some emotions dissipate on their own. Any of us can overreact to a situation when we are overtired, stressed, unwell, or simply distracted by another life event. Some people know that they are being overly sensitive and easily triggered. Allowing some time to pass is sometimes all that is needed for an emotion to dissipate. If the emotion is still with you in a couple of days, then you probably need to look at it more closely and decide what other actions should be taken. Do you need to more actively dissipate the emotions, or do you need to make a decision that you don't want to make?
Processing emotions involves determining what needs to change. It is about making a decision about the event and your reaction to it. Do you feel that you overreacted to a normal life event? Is there someone in your life that brings out the worst in you? Do you need to reconsider whether your job is right for you? Do you need to stand up for yourself differently? Is your reaction normal based on the situation, and you just need to ride it out?
Think of your emotional response like your reaction to food. If you eat something that causes symptoms, you have to decide whether it is a one-time occurrence that will resolve on its own, whether you need to strengthen your digestive tract, avoid the food, take a supplement to help you digest more efficiently, or whether there is a deeper, underlying problem or imbalance.
Emotions are very, very similar. They are not necessarily good or bad; they are a message. Your job is to interpret the message and make a decision about what, if anything, needs to change so that you have more of the emotions you want and less of those that you don't!
A lot of people and books promote being positive, happy, and loving. That's good advice, as long as there aren't a lot of suppressed emotions and negative feelings underneath that you have not released.
There is a difference between choosing to be healthy and choosing to be happy. If you have a life that you don't like, projecting happiness is unhealthy. Emotional health is about honesty. If you are happy, great. If you are unhappy, it is important to figure out first what needs to change, not how to feel different in the same life. Emotions generally follow and mirror your life; they don't lead.
"Fake it till you make it" may be good advice. But, you need to know the difference between faking it and suppressing your emotions. On the surface they can look the same, but their impact on health is very different.
Suppression: Suppressing emotions is usually about avoidance, denial, and getting stuck in the process of distraction or intellectualizing your emotions, versus actually working through an emotional situation and processing the impact of emotions on your health.
Research recognizes the impact of suppression on health. For example, suppression of anger is clearly associated with increasing the sensation, perception, and intensity of pain.
Excerpted from "The Role of Emotions in Health" by Iva Lloyd, ND, RPP. Naturopathic Doctor News and Review. Vol. 12. Issue 4. April, 2016.