How are you feeling? Really, how are you feeling? In this very moment, what are you feeling? Take a moment to answer this question before reading on.
What did you describe? A situation you are involved in or thinking about? Who said what to whom? What happened or is about to happen that resulted in feeling like you are now? If you are like most of us, you probably described thoughts about how you are feeling, and not the actual feeling itself. Well, guess what?
Emotions are a physiological experience.
This means that emotions happen in the body, not in the mind. We don’t think emotions, we feel emotions. That’s where the question, “How are you feeling?” comes from.
When an emotion fires, our physiology changes: our heart rate, temperature, breathing, and blood pressure (and possibly other functions like digestion) changes! We also experience physical sensations in our body resulting from this biological, emotional experience.
Have you ever become fearful and held your breath? Maybe you could feel your heart pounding fast in your chest. Think of a time you became angry and noticed short, rapid breathing and a strong energy surging through your body? Perhaps you felt heat in your face or the tips of your ears. What about a time you felt dread and couldn’t shake that feeling of a pit in your stomach or a nauseous sensation? These are examples of feeling an emotion physically in your body.
Emotions happen in the body.
Although this statement is true, most of the time, when I ask someone how they are feeling, they tell me what they are thinking. It goes something like this:
Me: How are you feeling?
Holly: Eh, I’m a little stressed. I was stuck in traffic longer than I expected and I have a lot to do.
Me: That does sound stressful.
Holly: Yes, and you know it doesn’t help that my boss just upped my deadline. Well, at least I have a job to complain about, right? How are you?
Do you notice what is missing? I know very little about what Holly is feeling emotionally, and more importantly, she probably doesn’t know either. You might be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute. She told you she was stressed. What more do you want?”
Being “stressed” is a thought. To have the thought, “I am stressed,” something had to happen to give me that information. Think about the last time you were “stressed.” How did you know? Your first inclination may be that you know you were stressed because there was a lot on your mind and you have a long to-do list. Those are thoughts. There may have been other times where the same factors were present (a lot on your mind and a long to-do list), and you didn’t feel stressed.
What really happened is that you sensed some sensation in your body (an emotion) and your brain interpreted this as “stressed.” You may have noticed tension in your shoulders, the feeling of your heart pounding in your chest, your stomach doing flips or tightening, or many other possible sensations. In my work, I have never met two people who experience emotional sensations in exactly the same way.
Emotions are like snowflakes. When you get specific and describe how you are experiencing a particular emotion in your body, you will discover that this is uniquely your experience.
I will expand on these concepts in a future newsletter, but for now, how about having some fun with a practice? After all, we don’t learn or change from thinking and reading about concepts, we learn, change, and grow by taking action!
Over the next week or two, practice this for about a minute or so. If you make the practice session short, you will be more likely to do it more often, and the more you will learn. (Consistency counts! The length of time doesn’t matter as much.)
- Briefly scan your body. See if you can put words on sensations you notice in your body. (E.g., I can feel sweaty palms; I’m noticing some energy or movement in my upper chest; My jaw is slightly clenched; I notice my feet moving and fidgeting around.)
What do you notice? If it helps you put words to your experience, jot it down.
NOTE: This step is hard and may require repeated practice over and over and over again. When most people try to start describing the sensations they notice in their body, they struggle. It can be like learning a foreign language. Keep practicing and trying your best. Even if you notice something like, “a sensation in my chest but I can’t really describe it any further,” that’s great! Keep noticing and practicing and you may be surprised at how this skill develops.
- Now, without searching, without looking for or actively trying to come up with an answer, notice what happens when you ask yourself the question: What emotion is present in this moment? See what comes up and if you sense a particular emotion. (E.g., dread, excitement, nervousness, sadness, joy)
In my last newsletter, I discussed affect labeling or putting a name to an emotion you’re experiencing (e.g., anger, love, happiness, fear, sadness) as a way of regulating them. In essence, if you name your emotion you will change your brain chemistry.
- Now, again without searching or forcing an answer, ask yourself: Where do I feel ________ (insert emotion from #2 here) in my body?
Keep practicing and see what you notice. If you have questions or want to share your experience, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. While I will not answer personally, I plan to expand on these concepts and practices in future posts and I may address your question(s) or comment(s). I would love to know what is clicking and what questions you have.
LIFE’S TOO SHORT JUST TO SURVIVE. THAT’S WHY I HELP PEOPLE THRIVE!