The body expresses what the mind represses
Emotions literally store in our cellular memory through our lives. They can manifest as physical tension, causing all sorts of health problems including headaches, ulcers, IBS and more serious illnesses from cancer to cardiovascular disease. Extreme emotions affect your heart function, depress the immune system and inhibit digestion. Grief is another example. It depresses immunity and may be one explanation as to why many people who are unable to come to terms with the death of their partner, often die shortly after.1 Such emotions need to be fully expressed, for both our physical and psychological health, so that we can learn from our experiences and move forward.
We all experience many different emotions but the most common ones are shades of anger, fear or sadness. Sadness is usually associated with regrets, losses and loss of opportunities in the past. Anger is associated with not having your needs met, not being listened to, not being understood. Rage and violent reactions and extreme anger usually originate from a sense, whether real or just perceived, that our survival is literally under threat. Fear often comes from not being able to adapt to the circumstances we are in and is associated with the fear of loss of our sense of self, for example the fear of going mad or dying. As Franklin D Roosevelt said, during the 1933 recession in America, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
But what is it to have a healthy emotional response to life’s inevitable circumstances? “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy,” said Aristotle. How do you deal with a circumstance where someone accuses you of something you didn’t do? Or when your relationship breaks down and ends, or when a loved one dies? How about when you lose your home or run out of money?
Emotional health is just as important as physical health and, without it, causes us just as much – if not more – suffering. The World Health Organisation says mental health problems are the number one challenge for the 21st century. A small survey of the top 100 health scorers in the 100%health survey shows that healthy people both rate emotional health as very important and tend to be emotionally healthy (see below). Having a positive outlook on life makes a big difference. In one study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, which followed 100,000 women over eight years, optimists were 30% less likely to die from heart disease and 23% less likely to die from cancer than those women who had a general distrust of people.2 But where does distrust and unhappiness come from?
Emotional patterns of behaviour are learnt
When we react emotionally these reactions are automatic and physical, literally flooding your brain and body with neurotransmitters associated with the stress response. They take over the rational mind, stop you being able to listen and lead to irrational reactions and behaviour.
Your heart rate can jump from 70 beats a minute to over 100 in a single heart beat, muscles tense and your breathing changes. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, calls this ‘emotional hijacking’. These emotional reaction patterns that trigger emotional hijacking are learnt in early life and can be changed into more functional responses by coming to an understanding of how our past programmes us to respond automatically to current events. As an example, cast your mind back to your early childhood. How did you see anger expressed in your childhood? Did you ever see your mother or father shouting, or did they give you the silent treatment. What did you learn from this? If you had a raging, shouting parent, you’ve probably learnt to shut down as you had to do when you were a frightened and vulnerable child. Perhaps you said that you’d never be like that when you grew up, and swore that you would certainly never, ever treat your children in that way.
Yet, in a moment of weakness or frustration, you might have reacted in just the same way they did, and felt really guilty afterwards. It can take a lot of energy to be different to how we were brought up, for we had years of ‘emotional education’ – both positive and negative – from our parents as well as our school teachers. A softer emotion than anger is sadness. Think back to how your parents dealt with sadness or grief. For example, if there was a death in the family, how did your parents react? Sadness is an appropriate reaction, but left unexpressed, leads to depression. Depression can also arise from suppressed anger. “Don’t get sad, get mad” the saying goes.
If you are depressed, is there something you are angry about but have been unable to express or do something about? Do you think either of your parents were depressed and, if so, how has this affected you? Are you either always trying to be positive about everything or do you have an underlying sense of hopelessness, or perhaps you flip-flop between the two? Do you fear that any love relationships are doomed, a minefield that could explode at any time or are best avoided completely? What lessons did you learn about love and relationships when you were growing up? If you always fear being abandoned or not finding a loving relationship, that may very well stem from early memories of feeling abandoned or unwanted as a child. The kind of relationship your parents had with each other will also have had a massive impact on how you deal with relationships. Here’s an exercise ......
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