Can Your Body Express Multiple Emotions Simultaneously?

Are you aware that all your emotions start out as physical sensations?

Posted Jun 20, 2014

emo3, Jay Cross/Flickr
Source: emo3, Jay Cross/Flickr

All feelings–vs. thoughts–have a certain physiology to them. You cannot experience an emotion without at the same time experiencing a corresponding bodily sensation (or sensations). And each of your emotions reside in a particular place(s) in your body–their “native home,” as it were. Unless, that is, you feel an emotion so intense and overpowering that it’s all over your body–perhaps like a heavy, almost suffocating, wool blanket, or an electrical surge, or a violent internal earthquake.

In my previous post, “Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once?”, I discussed how you can have opposing feelings simultaneously, which in turn can prompt a frustrating confusion, indecisiveness, ambivalence, or procrastination. Here I’ll focus on what I think is incontrovertible physical evidence (supplied to me in part by scores of therapy clients) that contrasting feelings originate in different parts of your anatomy. You can actually tell that you’re experiencing two discrepant emotions at once when you experience more than a single physical sensation in your body and can recognize each sensation as connected to, or aligned with, a different feeling.

To provide an example from my psychology practice, I’ve worked with many clients neurobiologically, to help them resolve past emotional disturbances through revisiting them. In doing so, some have experienced anger in their body (the actual expression of which they believed had to be suppressed) as a pressure, tension, or constriction in their throat, lungs, chest, or shoulders. Beyond their body’s “covertly displaying” their efforts to contain their anger, and perhaps providing the best physical explanation of why they felt such an emotion had to be held in, they reported a queasy, quivering sensation, or falling/sinking feeling, in their gut, typically the place where old-brain, fear-based survival programs reside.

Understood cognitively, their natural impulse to let out their anger was counterbalanced–or overridden–by more intense feelings of anxiety, specifically linked to the perceived dangers of giving voice to their upset. For what they’d learned about outwardly communicating their annoyance, or even outrage, was that such expression could be hazardous to them. In fact, physically considered (and all emotions start out as bodily sensations), their gut was “commanding” them to block their immediate urge to confront their perceived antagonist.

Cognitive therapy is essentially based on the concept that our present-day, self-defeating feelings come from out-of-date, irrational beliefs. But employing more of a mind/body approach, it could also be said that our feelings represent the emotional “by-product” of what we first experience physically. So, to continue with the example above, if in your past you experienced disturbing, or traumatic, consequences as a result of your anger’s impelling you to act aggressively toward whoever provoked you, you would have learned–especially if the person you confronted had direct authority over you, such as a parent–that not reigning in your immediate impulse to act out your anger could lead to a far worse feeling. That is, it could eventuate in feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, panic, or despair–related to being reprimanded, severely punished, given the silent treatment–or anything that might have made you feel rejected or abandoned.

So, consider a present-day circumstance. Say you become irate with your boss (who also has authority over you) because he agreed to give you a raise if you achieved certain goals and then, subsequently, reneged on his promise. Your first reaction might be one of outrage (as in, “How dare he, that lying SOB!!!”). But then the erupting volcano in your chest, accelerated heart rate, and rapidly rising blood pressure might quickly “mutate” into–or be “muzzled” by–a milder physical reaction that feels significantly less threatening, or scary, to you. For the initially overwhelming physical tension energetically “moving” you to verbally attack your unjust superior has now been constrained by the more strongly felt, anxiety-driven necessity of preventing an explosion that, literally, could get you fired when, frankly, you’ve nowhere else to go.

Such a fear underlying the risk of letting loose your anger might be expressed–or “embodied”– through a lump in your throat; a fluttering in your heart; a tightening in your shoulders, throat, or jaw; a trembling in your gut; and so on. As in dreams, where a person or object might represent different things for different people, there’s no simple, one-size-fits-all formula for where and how a particular bodily sensation might “announce” itself to you. But in almost all cases, with some introspection you can probably identify which feeling state accompanies which physical reaction(s). And since, finally, it’s your emotions that govern your behavior, whichever bodily sensation is dominant will more or less dictate your decision as to what action (or maybe inaction) to take.

So, for instance, if the inflammatory sensation in your chest relating to your boss’ exasperating fickleness is much stronger than any survival-related feelings in your gut, you’re likely to take the risk of confronting him about his betrayal. And this is one reason why powerful feelings of anger can have such damaging consequences. It’s hard to be circumspect in situations where your impulse to strike out is so dominant that you’re cognitively unable to assess the possibly grave dangers in doing so. On the other hand, your fears and anxieties can frequently be overblown because they’re triggered by past experiences having little or nothing to do with your present-day circumstances. Nonetheless, many fears are quite rational inasmuch as they’re based on a rational assessment of the perils associated with your, well, “speaking truth to power.” In such instances, you may need your fear–which, as a warning sign, you’re likely to instantaneously experience in your body–to inhibit you from acting in ways that could seriously threaten your welfare.

To offer a far simpler instance of a situation that typically generates–and simultaneously–two seemingly discordant emotions, consider taking a ride on a lightening-fast roller coaster, expertly designed in its extreme dips and curves to create the illusion of imminent danger. Your fun-loving self might greet such a hair-raising venture with exuberance, excitement, and delight. Yet, however conscious you may be of it, these feelings would probably be countered with strong, primal feelings of distress, fear–or even terror. And once “captive” to this whirling, swerving, heart-in-your-mouth joyride, moment to moment all your feelings would manifest in “incompatible” bodily sensations. Moreover, in addition to whatever might be going on in your throat, heart, limbs, gut, etc., you might also be screaming aloud–even as, ironically, you're exhibiting the broadest ear-to-ear smile.

And with this dramatic example–which no doubt you’ve experienced first-hand (unless your trepidation totally overwhelmed any willingness to indulge in such a thrill)–I’ll rest my case.

NOTE: If you found this post interesting or useful, I hope you’ll share its link with others. And if you’d like to explore other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today–on a broad variety of topics–click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---I invite readers to join me on Facebook, as well as to follow my various psychological and philosophical musings on Twitter.