Your emotional backlog is like your email inbox.
It might be a simple analogy, but it’s an effective one. When you experience emotions, it’s as though you’re getting little messages from your body, stacking up one at a time. If you don’t ever open them, you end up 1,000+ notifications deep, totally overlooking crucial information and important insights that you need to move your life forward. At the same time, you can’t sit around all day and respond to every single message just as it comes up, you’d never get anything done.
It is a mistake to assume that emotions are optional experiences. They are not. But we are masters of avoiding our feelings, and we do it in so many ways. Often, we rely on substances that physically numb us, projections and judgments that place the attention on someone else’s faults as opposed to our own, all kinds of other worldly pursuits, and on the most basic level, tensing our bodies up so efficiently that we are rendered incapable of feeling.
Psychologically, you probably know that this doesn’t work for long. The backlog starts to jam, eventually. You are forced to sit and be still and sleep and cry and feel it all.
I wish there were some poetic, mystical truth to share here, but there isn’t. There is only your anatomy, the physiology of what’s happening inside you when you feel.
Emotions are physical experiences. We flush our bodies of everything, and regularly so. We defecate, we sweat, we cry, we literally shed our entire skin once a month. Feelings are no different, they are experiences that must likewise be released.
Emotions, when not felt, become embodied. They become literally stuck in your body. This is because they have something called a motor component, which means that the minute they begin — before you can suppress or ignore them—they create a micro-muscular activation. Our bodies respond instantaneously.
We often store pain and tension in the area of the body where an expression began, but was never fully materialized.
This is because, neurologically speaking, the part of your brain that regulates emotions, the anterior cingulate, is next to the premotor area, which means that when a feeling is processed, it immediately begins to generate a physical, bodied response. The premotor area connects to the motor cortex, and then spans back into the specific muscles that are going to express the emotion.
What muscles express what emotion? Well, it depends.
We have a lot of language that clues us into where we have physical reactions to emotions. We often feel fear in our stomachs (think of a nervous stomach, or a “gut instinct”) and heartache in our chests (that’s where the whole “broken heart” thing comes from) stress and anxiety in our shoulders (think of the “weight of the world on your shoulders”) and relationship problems in the neck (think “they are a pain in the neck”).
But it actually goes even deeper than this. Let’s say that someone did something to you that crossed a boundary, and your instinct was to yell at them. However, because you understood it was not effective to literally scream, you held back. Though this may have been the right thing to do in the moment, your body may be storing residual tension in the neck or throat area. In other cases, people can experience psychosomatic effects of their emotions that are a bit more abstract, such as pain in their knees or feet when they are traumatized by “moving forward” in their lives, and so on.
The truth is that our bodies are speaking to us in voiceless symbols. If we can learn to interpret what they are saying, we can heal ourselves in an entirely new way.
So you know that emotions sometimes get stored in your body when they are not fully expressed. Be this as it is, how do we begin to flush ourselves from them?
There are a number of strategies that you can use to do this, and what matter is that it’s effective for you. There is no one-size-fits-all, but there are a few options that tend to work well for most people, particularly when they are used in tandem.
Stop meditating to feel calm, start meditating to feel rage.
I know that this goes against everything you’ve ever heard about meditation. But it is actually the point of meditation. If you sit down for a 10 minute session and try to force yourself to be relaxed and light, you are effectively doing the exact same type of suppression that likely gave you the need to meditate in the first place.
Instead, the point of meditation is to sit idly as you experience all of those feelings come up, the rage, the fear, the sadness, the overwhelming mind chatter… and in spite of how alluring or triggering it may be, you learn to stay still, and not respond to it. You learn to allow these thoughts and feelings to come up, and then pass, by virtue of you not reacting to them.
This takes practice.
Use breath scans to find residual tension in the body.
It usually doesn’t take too much extra effort to figure out where in your body you are storing pain. You feel it. It’s in your chest, your stomach, your shoulders, whatever is bothering you.
However, if you aren’t sure, or if you want to zero in specifically on where that pain is, do something called a breath scan. In this, you will breathe in and out slowly, and without taking a break between breaths. When you do this, you will begin to notice that you might hit a “snag” or hiccup somewhere, that in the process of taking your breath, you will start to feel precisely where in your body you are storing tension.
Once you know, you can start to go into that feeling more, visualizing what it is, where it came from, and what it needs you to know. Often in this scenarios, we are brought back to specific memories, or past version of ourselves that need assistance or guidance. Use a journal to write down what you experience and see, and remember that the body often speaks in metaphors, so don’t necessarily take everything literally.
Sweat, move, cry.
The last, the hardest and the most important part of releasing your emotions is really the only thing you have to do… you have to feel them.
Sometimes, this means allowing yourself to feel like total and complete shit. Sometimes, this means pushing yourself through a workout, or yoga, or stretching, or walking, or confronting triggering thoughts and letting yourself cry out what’s bothering you.
Remember that emotional health is not the experience of being perpetually calm and happy all of the time. It is the experience of allowing a range of emotions, both good and bad, and not getting too stuck on either one. Similarly, mental health and self-mastery is the ability to see and feel and experience a thought without responding to it. The response, or lack-thereof, is where we regain our power and reclaim our lives.
You were not born to be perfect.
You were not born to be happy all of the time.
But if you can commit each day to doing the work of being fully human, feeling even when you are afraid, you can transcend in a way that is truly beautiful.