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Attaining emotional health is not a one-time event. Rather, emotional well-being is an ongoing, dynamic, proactive process, just like any other healthy lifestyle behavior. Emotions are a physiological experience, meaning they happen in the body. When we experience an emotion, our biology changes: heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, blood pressure, and even temperature can all shift when an emotion fires. To prevent the effects of emotional buildup (e.g., overwhelm, sleeplessness, fatigue, anxiety, depression) bodies must metabolize each emotion that occurs, and we do this by paying attention to the emotional sensations in our bodies. When we are not aware and do not know what we are feeling or where we are feeling it, emotions get stuck. We become emotionally clogged, and buildup happens. Read (or listen) on to learn how to sidestep “box thinking” and invalidation, both recipes for emotional buildup and the antidote to freedom and empowerment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF DAILY EMOTIONAL HYGIENE
With other health behaviors, such as eating, we understand the need to attend to this habit daily if we want results. For example, if after years of eating nothing but unhealthy processed junk we changed to a healthy eating lifestyle, we wouldn’t tell ourselves that after a week or even a month of healthy eating, that we are healed. Even more so, we wouldn’t go back to a diet of processed foods, head for that fast-food drive-thru, and expect to have stellar health and maintain our nutritional gains. We would understand that to continue to reap the health benefits (e.g., stabilized weight, even energy, balanced mood, trouble-free digestion), we must continue our regular practice of feeding ourselves nutritious foods.
Most of us are not taught to take time out of our day for emotional processing. Much like brushing our teeth or other personal hygiene habits, emotional health requires daily attention.
What prevents daily emotional hygiene? Box thinking and Invalidation:
“I’ve already dealt with that.”
Instead of viewing emotional health and processing as a daily practice, people sometimes are under the false assumption that they have “dealt with” whatever emotional experience they have endured; meaning that they have talked about it, experienced emotions, and can now put it away, never to be felt again. I have heard people use the phrase, “I’ve already dealt with that,” to describe their emotional processing of the death of a close loved one or past abuses or trauma. Other phrases under the “I’ve dealt with it” umbrella include “I’ve already talked about that in therapy,” or, “I’ve cried about that; I have no more tears to shed.” It is as though the emotional experience is a box to be opened and examined, and then taped shut and put up in the rafters, never to be seen again.
What’s the problem with box thinking?
The problem with “box thinking” is that…
Box Thinking = Emotional Buildup
I once heard a friend use the phrase, “I’ve already dealt with that,” regarding her father’s death, meaning that she was not supposed to have further emotions about it because she felt what was there and then neatly put it away. Taking my friend as an example, can you imagine her not feeling anything when her father was not able to be at her wedding, the birth of her children, holidays, other important markers in her life? Of course not! Emotions are NOT dealt with and then put away in a box and tied up with a bow.
Remember, emotions are a dynamic, flowing, ever-changing process. Emotions are not a one-time event that happens and then goes away forever, especially when the event prompting the emotion is significant to us. When we view emotions this way, we tend to deny ourselves the opportunity to feel them. For instance, if we decide that we are no longer allowed to mourn a loss in our lives (e.g., breakup, divorce, job loss, death), we learn to quickly shut it down when the feelings of sadness or grief start to appear. We lock it into that box and distract ourselves, rationalize that we don’t really feel that way, and inadvertently, create a layer of emotional buildup.
“There’s nothing wrong. Why am I crying?”
This statement often precedes a judgment such as, “This is so stupid,” or, “There is no reason to cry,” or, “I don’t understand what my problem is.” People even apologize while wiping away their tears. When we can slow things down and approach the tears or sadness or pain from a curious and nonjudgmental space, we can always validate the emotional experience.
Emotions are sufficiently explained by science. They are a physiological experience and fire when something prompts them. Feelings do not randomly fall out of the sky. If we are experiencing an emotion, by definition, that emotion makes sense. Even if you cannot see the cause in the moment, the mere fact that you are experiencing an emotion means that something prompted that emotion to fire.
When we can get curious instead of judgmental about our feelings, we can better understand where they are coming from and what we need. I have never once walked away from a therapy session or a conversation with somebody where I’m thinking “yeah, I don’t know why you’re crying either.” There is always a reason, and if we are curious and interested, we can understand.
I may ask a patient of mine a few questions about what’s been going on, or what was happening right before the person cried, and it is almost always something clearly upsetting. I might hear about a conversation where a person was informed that they did a horrible job, or they just had an experience that made them think of how much they miss their mother. Typically, something happened that understandably led to sadness, but instead, they judged themselves for feeling, and this clouded their ability to comprehend.
BENEFITS OF DAILY EMOTIONAL HYGIENE
Wouldn’t it be liberating to allow ourselves to freely experience emotions as they ebb and flow; without trying to categorize them or saying when we should be feeling them? Imagine knowing that we can handle whatever emotion comes our way, that we know how to ride the waves, and we are valid in our experience(s). Envision being able to trust our bodies to the degree that when we feel something, regardless of its content, we immediately respond, “Oh, something is happening here. It must make sense, even if I don’t know why, because I am feeling it.” All of this can happen, and I have seen it happen with so many of my clients, with a daily emotional hygiene practice as their foundation.
Emotions happen daily, just like healthy or non-healthy eating occurs every day. If we want robust emotional health and the kind of clarity and empowerment that comes from processing our emotions, we must practice. Read (or listen) to the following Daily Emotional Hygiene practice to help clear the clouds of emotional buildup, gain regular access to your wisdom, the ability to see clearly, and learn to trust in your body and yourself.
DAILY EMOTIONAL HYGIENE PRACTICE
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Emotional health requires daily practice to clear emotional buildup. This practice will help you develop and sustain a relationship with your emotional self. The stronger that relationship is, the more internal power and wisdom you have access to. You can liken it to a relationship with another person; if it is somebody you never see, and you do not put effort into spending time with them or calling to connect, the relationship is going to dwindle: you need the quality time to bond. You certainly wouldn’t treat your children in this way saying, “Okay, I’ll talk to you in a few weeks, go to your room.” Instead, you want to be involved, and know what is going on, and the same is true for building a relationship with our emotional selves. Let’s practice.
Let’s use these next few moments as quality time to connect with your emotions and your body, and clear emotional buildup.
We’ll start with paying attention to 3 breaths. You do not have to change or alter your breath in any way, simply notice what your breath is doing in this moment, for 3 inhalations and 3 exhalations.
Now, ask yourself, “Hmm, where in my physical body is my attention drawn as I notice my breath?” Notice where in your body you pay attention as you feel your breath in this moment.
Throughout this practice, as you mind wanders, when you noticed it has wandered away, very gently, with no hint of harshness, guide your attention back to your breath, coming home to your body, each time you notice your mind has gone on a walk and wandered away.
Now, take a brief scan of your body from your feet up to your head. Make a note of any sensations that come into your awareness, no matter how big or small…Scanning your body and noticing any sensation.
Coming back now to anchor yourself in your breathing, I’m going to ask you a question. When I ask the question, you can simply focus on your breathing. There is no need to search for an answer or try to come up with anything; simply notice what information your body gives you, if anything at all. Noticing your breath flow in and out, now asking your body, “What emotion is present in this moment?” Just notice and breathe. Breathe and notice.
If you noticed an emotion name came up such as anger, sadness, joy, or even if you noticed not knowing what emotion is present, now, again, focusing on breathing in and out and ask your body, “How do you know? Where is this feeling (or lack of knowing) located in my body?” Breathe and notice what comes into your awareness.
Whether you have noticed emotional sensations or not at this point, pay attention to a few more breaths while simultaneously noticing any physical sensations that are present. It doesn’t matter if these feelings stay the same or shift and change. Your gentle task is to create a soft, welcoming environment for any sensation to arise. As you notice any sensation, take a few breaths as you pay attention to this feeling. Then, after a few breaths, ask yourself curiously, “Now, what do I notice in my body in this moment?” It doesn’t matter if you notice the same thing or something different. By paying attention to sensations in your body in this way, you are allowing emotional feelings to arise as they please, be noticed and felt, and waft away when they are ready. Anything you have felt thus far in your practice has been processed and metabolized, that layer of emotion digested and released.
If you would like, you can continue this practice of noticing sensations and breaths in your body for a little while longer, or you can conclude your practice for now. Think of this exercise like brushing your teeth, but for your emotions. If this is the first day in a long time you have brushed your teeth, you are going to have some buildup, and the first brushing may seem insignificant. However, if you keep at it, consistently, little-by-little and day-by-day, emotional buildup will release and you will be able to feel at peace and at home in your body.
Remember to pay attention to your breath and body every day, even if only for a few minutes. This is how you develop strong emotional hygiene and robust emotional health and healing. If any part of this meditation was difficult, I invite you to continue to gently practice, noticing if your experience shifts over time.