Working With Emotional Pain
“Naming & claiming our emotional pain”
How To Work With Emotional Pain
The body scan can help you get in touch with difficult, daunting, and even overwhelming emotions. The first step is to learn to identify these feelings more readily so that you can work with them more creatively.
Take anxiety, for example. If you’re unaware of anxiety in the moment, it could be influencing your behavior in ways that actually increase anxiety instead of relieving it. The body scan can also help you tune in to physical sensations that can serve as a signpost as to whether certain emotions are present. With anxiety, you may notice tightness in the chest, tension in the shoulders or back, or cramping in the stomach. You can use awareness of these sensations to alert you that you might be anxious, allowing you to work with that emotion before it snowballs.
Barriers To Awareness Of Emotions
There are a number of barriers to awareness of emotions, with four being especially noteworthy.
The first barrier to awareness of emotions is that sometimes emotions are invalidated or otherwise discounted. If this happened while you were growing up, and you were told there was no reason to be anxious, fearful, sad, or angry when that’s how you felt, it may have taught you not only to think that you aren’t the best judge of your own emotions, but also that you should repress them. Emotions are meant to come and go like everything else. When they’re constrained or repressed, it creates stress in the mind and body.
The second barrier to being aware of emotions is the common error of confusing thoughts with emotions. Whenever you say, “I feel that…,” you’re probably actually about to describe a thought or judgment, rather than an emotion. For example, a client named Julie used to say, “I feel that my life is out of control.” As she learned to make a distinction between thoughts and feelings, she became aware that “out of control” is a thought, not a feeling. She began to notice that emotions of anxiety and confusion were connected to the thought “out of control,” and that they also manifested in her body, as tension in her chest and shoulders. She used this as a signal of her emotional state and a reminder to turn her awareness to differentiating between thoughts and emotions. When Julie felt anxious and then actually looked at the evidence for her life being out of control, she realized that she was actually in control of many aspects of her life.
To further clarify this point, consider statements like “I feel stupid,” “I feel worthless,” or “I feel helpless.” Again, the thought may be I’m stupid (or worthless or helpless), but the emotion would be something like shame, sadness, or fear. When thoughts are confused with emotions, it’s often because the emotions are masked behind thoughts in an unconscious attempt to protect yourself from awareness of the emotion. A big advantage to developing the capacity to see the difference between the thought and the feeling behind it is that it allows you to look at the credibility of the thought that’s hijacking you by coloring the way you see the world and digging you deeper into stress, anxiety, and possibly depression.
A third barrier to awareness of emotions is that they’re intangible and therefore challenging to define. You learned that a flower is a flower because at some point someone pointed it out to you and told you the name. You could feel it, see it, and touch it. But no one can definitively point to a feeling of fear, sadness, or guilt, so as you were growing up, you had to experience and decipher these on your own.
The fourth barrier to being aware of emotion is that most of us simply don’t have an adequate vocabulary in regard to emotions. Many of us grew up in a culture where experiencing and discussing emotions wasn’t encouraged and therefore we didn’t learn to describe feelings. The next exercise will help you develop a richer emotional vocabulary and greater awareness of how specific emotions manifest in your body.
Identifying Emotions In The Body
It’s sometimes said that there are just a handful of basic emotions, with all other emotions being variations on these basic themes. While this doesn’t adequately address the complexity of the situation, it does provide some structure for becoming more familiar with the diversity of emotions. In this exercise, we’ve grouped both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions into categories to provide a springboard for developing a broader emotional vocabulary and bringing more awareness to your emotions.
As you read through the lists below, circle the emotions that seem more familiar to you. Then write about:
- Where in your body you feel these emotions?
- How they feel as they manifest in your body?
- What images come as you read these emotion word?
- What thoughts come as you read these emotion word?
It may take some time to develop sensitivity to emotions and how they manifest in your body.
If you aren’t able to connect a specific emotion with bodily sensations or you can’t think of anything to write about it, know that you can always come back and do this later.
Fear: apprehension, anxiety, distress, edginess, jumpiness, nervousness, panic, tenseness, uneasiness, worry, fright, feeling overwhelmed.
Confusion: bewildered, uncertain, puzzled, mystified, perplexed, chaotic, foggy, or unaware.
Anger: aggravation, agitation, annoyance, destructiveness, disgust, envy, frustration, irritation, grouchiness, grumpiness, rage.
Sadness: alienation, anguish, despair, disappointment, gloom, grief, hopelessness, insecurity, loneliness, misery, unhappiness, rejection.
Shame: guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, invalidation, regret, remorse, mortification.
Love: affection arousal, attraction, caring, compassion, desire, fondness, infatuation, kindness, liking, longing, warmth, sympathy, sentimentality.
Joy: amusement, bliss, contentment, eagerness, elation, enjoyment, enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, hope, optimism, pleasure, satisfaction.
Noticing where emotions reside in the body may not come naturally. Know that as you continue to practice the body scan, you’ll become more sensitive to physical sensations and how they relate to your emotions. From time to time, reread the lists in this exercise and watch for all of these different shades of emotion as you go about your daily life. When a strong emotion arises, try to take a moment to mindfully tune in to your body to discover any physical sensations associated with that emotion.
Take a moment to connect with your breath and mindfully reflect on what you just wrote.
Compassionately acknowledging, validating, and integrating what you learned from this exploration.
Source- A Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook, by Bob Stahl & Elisha Goldstein
Adapted by G Ross Clark