By Deborah J. Neisen, L.C.S.W.
When you go for a medical check-up, the doctor listens to your heart with a stethoscope. Emotional health and physical health go hand in hand. (In Chinese medicine, the heart is known as “shen,” which rules mental and creative functions.)
We sometimes try to ignore emotional pain and distress. Pain can be a teacher to tell us what part of our life is out of balance and needs attention. In other words, “We cannot heal what we do not feel,” or, “What we resist persists.” Emotions are signals and guides that can lead us to healing and change when we listen.
My hope in these paragraphs is to increase your emotional awareness, provide new ways of thinking about emotions, introduce strategies for emotional health, and provide guidelines for seeking help.
Emotions are chemical signals in the body that alert us to what is happening. The signals travel to the brain in the area called the limbic system. People at times are unaware of what they are feeling. Some people describe being “numb,” lacking joy or energy. Others describe being overwhelmed with emotional reaction such as anger, panic, and depression. In grief, we may experience “normal feelings,” such as shock, sadness, or anger, yet also be overwhelmed.
Identifying our feelings is important as it helps us be more effective in our self-understanding. It improves our ability to cope and make decisions and communicate in a non-reactive stance.
Babies and children accept feelings without judgment. Babies coo and cry. They do not evaluate emotions as good or bad, positive or negative. We begin learning in our families of origin which feelings are allowed or taboo, which feelings are safe or unsafe. We need to evaluate how these messages impact us as adults in the here and now.
Both dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness practice teach the concepts of non-judgment and radical acceptance. Each of these concepts is worthy of its own discussion. Often, we seek to control our emotions or block them. Radical acceptance is recognizing what we do and do not have control over, tolerating something without trying to judge or change it. Acceptance is saying “it is what it is.” Acceptance does not mean we like what is. It is not resignation or giving up on a situation that happens to us.
Learning new coping thought can be beneficial. Our thoughts influence our feelings. Judgmental and critical feelings about our selves and others can trigger overwhelming emotions. If we are in distress and think “I can’t stand this, I may as well give up,” we will likely feel helpless. An alternative coping thought might be, “My anxiety/fear/sadness is uncomfortable and I can still deal with the situation.” We can also choose not to deal with the situation or take a break as needed to calm ourselves.
One of the things I like about practicing psychotherapy at Whole Health Center is that the other practices and techniques I recommend to clients for maintaining good emotional health are available in the same setting, i.e., acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, and movement therapies. Seeking help can be beneficial when we experience an ongoing pattern of overwhelming emotions, or a lack of joy or emotions. Additionally, if our emotions are impacting our work, health, relations, or life goals, we may need some help. We may benefit from support while facing life changes, grief, or relationship problems. Cognitive behavioral therapy has long been recognized as an effective treatment for mood disorders. Dialectical behavior therapy and mindfulness strategies are newer successful evidence-based treatments, as well.
Healthy emotions, like water, can replenish and nourish as they flow. Overwhelming emotions can flood us, and blocked emotions can leave us feeling frozen. A therapist can provide an assessment of these situations and make recommendations for treatment and paths to change.