No one ever died from their feelings, but millions have died from abusing substances in the name of avoiding their feelings.
If you want to be happy and have healthy relationships you must be able to “feel” your feelings. This skill is difficult for many of us. Part of the problem is we can’t see our feelings -- we don’t know where they’re stored in our body, and they seemingly appear out of nowhere during times of stress.
1. Feelings involve a physical reaction. “I feel like I’m being attacked by my feelings.” Uncomfortable emotions can seem as if your body is being taken over by forces beyond your control. Anxious feelings cause an increase in heart rate, breathing, perspiration, and even shaking or trembling. It’s common to vividly remember the physical sensations of a panic attack, but recall very little of the thoughts and fears that precipitated it.
Helpful Tip: Get out of your head and into your body. Although you can’t see your brain’s limbic system or your autonomic nervous system (where feelings are stored), you can close your eyes and focus on regular, conscious breath until you feel more centered, calm, and relaxed.
2. Feelings don’t appear “out of the blue.” Feelings are a direct result of your thoughts and perceptions. As out of control, intense, and scary your emotions can be, it’s important to remember you created them. The good news is you're in control of your mind, and you can uncreate negative thoughts by replacing them with more realistic thoughts.
Helpful Tip: Keep a journal of your most prevalent thoughts throughout the week. Identifying thoughts and the corresponding feelings helps you recognize unhealthy patterns. Some thoughts are so automatic you don’t realize how prevalent they are until you see them on paper. Pay attention to thoughts which don’t correspond to reality. “I know I’m going to blow the presentation” is not aligned with the truth if you have a good track record with public speaking.
3. Feelings are simple or complex (or a mixture of both). Think of basic or simple emotions like anger, sadness, grief, fear, love, or excitement. Basic feelings tend to be short-lived, reactive, and tied to physical changes in the body. More complex feelings include disappointment, weariness, impatience, and ambivalence. Complex feelings are a combination of more than one simple emotion; they usually last longer, and are more involved in thought and rumination.
Helpful Tip: Distinguish basic from complex emotions to sort out what’s happening, and to reinforce the fact that feelings more commonly present as mixtures. For example, hiking in the woods and confronting a bear is a basic emotion (fear) with an identifiable trigger (the bear). This is a pure feeling. Free-floating or generalized anxiety (without an obvious object or trigger) is a complex emotion. Think of the mixture of anger, guilt, and love that you feel when arguing with your partner, child, or close friend. Resist the urge to ruminate about your unhappiness as this can increase the intensity of your emotions, prolong your worry, and keep you stuck in anxiety or depression.
4. Feelings produce energy. When you're clear about what’s going on inside, you’re more motivated to participate in life. We’re wired to connect, and these relationships serve as a buffer against a constricted and isolated existence. If you withhold or suppress your feelings, you end up feeling numb and empty.
Helpful Tip: When stuck or listless, ask yourself:
5. Feelings can be contagious. You’re likely to feel sad, weepy, and depressed when in the company of someone who’s crying. Conversely, if you surround yourself with happy, enthusiastic company, the positive vibes rub off.
Helpful Tip: The more you're “in touch” with your inner life, the less prone you are to “catch” the negative emotions of others. Observing the environment with an open heart and mind increases your psychological insight. Sometimes what others say and do is not about you, at all.
6. Feelings are not facts. Feelings exist as reactions. Think of how automatic your body responds to breathing or hunger pangs. There’s no escaping feelings, and there's no such thing as "right" or "wrong" feelings.
Helpful Tip: Remember that anger, jealousy, joy, fear, and guilt are not necessarily valid or invalid. However, your perception of the situation and the subsequent feelings which arise may be skewed, incorrect, or invalid. Your feelings are yours alone, and someone in the same situation may feel differently.
7. Unexpressed feelings can be as damaging as secrets. When you feel something, find your words and speak on it. You have a right to express yourself. The tendency may be to shut down to keep peace, but this backfires because suppressing your feelings means you're not acting authentically and honestly.
Helpful Tip: Write a letter communicating your feelings. This is useful if the recipient is not physically available. Think ex-spouse, partner, or a deceased parent. Express all feelings, positive and negative. Read the letter to a trusted friend, or keep it private. Sometimes reading aloud makes the sentiment more real. You decide whether to send the letter or not.
For more resources about getting in touch with your feelings, check out Anxiety to Zen: 30 Days to Calm, Confident and In Control.
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An edited version of this article appeared on TalkTherapyBiz.