You know that your emotional health and wellbeing are important, but you may or may not realize exactly how our thoughts and experiences connect to our bodily wellbeing. Emotions that are seemingly ethereal and fleeting can get trapped in our body if we aren’t able to process or metabolize them well at the time they’re experienced.
First, a note on feelings versus emotions
Feelings are a conscious experience, while emotions can only ever be felt. However, emotions may manifest either consciously or subconsciously.
Emotions develop in the subcortical region of the brain and are based on a neurochemical reaction from a stimulus. So emotions can be unconscious and instinctive. Feelings arise in the neocortical region of the brain. Feelings, then, are a reaction to emotions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine illuminates the emotional - physical connection
In the holistic view of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), our wellness is governed by Qi -- the vital life force -- within us all. Optimal health results when the inner forces of yin and yang are balanced in the body.
TCM finds that specific organs have corresponding emotions:
- Anger - liver
- Fear - kidney
- Joy - heart
- Sadness - lung
- Worry - spleen
These basic emotions transcend culture and translate to a universal human experience that is constant over time.
Holding onto emotions can negatively impact our health
We often knowingly hold on to these emotions of anger, fear, joy, sadness and worry. However, a lot of these emotions have become stored in our memories from early in life when we were too young to self-soothe or process the emotions. Or when we simply become overwhelmed or chronically assaulted by specific emotions as adults.
- In TCM, it’s believed that holding onto unresolved anger, for example, can cause headaches and high blood pressure. Chronic anger stored in the liver may lead to other health problems, such as a stroke.
- Kidneys, which produce urine, correlate with fear. Under stress when the flight-flight-or-freeze response is triggered, the limbic system takes over and interferes with bladder control.
- Worry correlates with the spleen, and our digestive function. Consider whether you’ve ever felt stomach aches out of deep concern.
- If someone becomes stricken with grief, they may feel it is impossible to take a deep breath. That’s one example of sadness showing up in the lungs. Left untreated, this may lead to abdominal pain and swelling.
- In the heart we feel imbalances of joy -- so this can be excessive joy characterized by restlessness or, perhaps more often, a lack of joy leading to depression.
Interestingly, negatively charged emotions are not “unhealthy” in and of themselves. They are a natural part of life. Healthy anger arises to tell us our boundaries have been crossed, for example, and we need to listen to what that emotion is telling us. Ideally, an emotion comes up, tells us what we need to know, we feel it, and it fades away. Emotions become a health problem only when we are avoiding the sensation of feeling the emotion by suppressing, ignoring, or numbing.
There are seemingly endless ways we as humans seek to avoid genuinely feeling our feelings. And that is the real health challenge.
Modern trauma experts find physical manifestations of trapped emotions
Psychiatrist and trauma expert Bessel A van der Kolk writes specifically about this emotional health phenomena in his book, "The Body Keeps the Score." He details how posttraumatic stress (PTSD) is literally stored in somatic memory.
This work finds that exposure to negative experiences such as abuse and violence "fosters the development of a hyperactive alarm system and molds a body that gets stuck in fight, flight, and freeze." It suggests we must learn to "know what you know and feel what you feel."
We have to feel our emotions to let them move through us and heal. Given that this process is a nonverbal felt experience, it’s a tough thing, if not impossible, to convey through words.
What you can do to strengthen the connection between emotional health and wellbeing
To help yourself feel more integrated and whole -- to connect mind and body as one -- you may want to deeply breathe, stretch, hydrate, rest, and meditate. Engage your senses. Do things that help you truly "drop in" to your body -- dancing and swimming are good examples of this.
If you sense that taking time to reflect brings up strong memories or tough emotions for you -- it “kicks up the dust,” so to speak, you’ll want to seek expert guidance to work through it.
How to assess your state of emotional health
Are you skilled in noticing and truly feeling your feelings? Or do you tend to avoid them? It’s human nature to want to avoid negative vibes. How has your emotional health or your general sense of contentment been compared to your baseline of emotions? We all have different set points. It’s the variance that is telling.
Another way to assess your baseline mood is to examine whether your routines and habits are slipping. Eating well, finding enjoyable movement, and getting adequate amounts of rest and sleep all provide the foundation for emotional wellbeing. Conversely, are there any coping habits settling in -- use of drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping? How are your relationships going? Physical symptoms that indicate you could use an emotional health check-up include frequent headaches or things feeling “off” in your gut.
Self-observation can be a powerful tool for evaluating one’s own health, but sometimes (particularly in instances of trauma or depression), you may want to consider what feedback you are getting from others. Are friends, family, and coworkers reflecting to you that, “You seem down” or “You seem sad lately”? Are they asking, “Have you talked to anyone about your feelings? Have you considered seeing a therapist?” This could be a sign that you may want to get a professional consultation.
As always, consult your health care provider if you have any questions. We want you to stay healthy, and feel the best you can -- physically and emotionally!