Renew & Restore Detox Kit
- Clear away brain fog
- Ignite your digestive fire
- Rev up your energy
Experiencing and expressing emotions are integral parts of life. Yet, for many people, emotions remain mysterious, confusing, and difficult to express . No one is given an emotional rule book, yet society, community, culture, and context all have unwritten rules about how and when you are allowed to feel your feelings. For example:
What if, instead of trying to feel what you are supposed to feel, you allowed whatever you are feeling to be felt? After all, emotions serve a purpose, don’t they?
Famous naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin was one of the first people to explore the topic of emotions. He noted that emotions of cultures around the world were expressed in similar ways. For example, the facial expression of anger in Austria, Australia, and Argentina looks just like anger in the United States. This finding suggested a heritable component.
Another theory comes from neuroscience, the basic emotions idea, and proposes specific circuits for different basic emotions. Emotions, like fear, that are part of the fight/flight/flee response are on one circuit. (This is the name commonly given to the cascade of hormones that are triggered by things your brain interprets as threatening). On a separate circuit, you would find love and physical attraction (these shared emotions bond people socially to those in their tribe and this significantly increases their chance of surviving threats like wars, famine, and rough weather). The basic emotions idea theory gives specific purposes to different emotions rather than painting them all with the same brush.1
Thinking of emotions in similar terms of the experience of physical hunger—your body’s way of signaling that it needs something—is often helpful. Feelings are like signs on the map of your internal guidance system that help you get to where you want to go. You may sometimes think that humans are the only animals that experience emotion; however; studies of rats have shown that a rat seeing another rat in pain causes more distress than if it experienced the pain itself. This study serves as a reminder of the biological nature of emotion: it’s not just a human experience! What seems to be unique in humans is our efforts to suppress emotional responses.
If emotions are natural responses, why do we suppress them? Or why do we judge some emotions as negative and others as positive? Thinking of the process from start to finish, it looks a bit like this:
Research has shown that sociocultural contexts affect emotion regulation according to a team of researchers from Berkeley and Stanford. Because cultural norms and practices are habits learned early in life, they have a powerful automatic component. Implicit norms about “the right or normal way to be” are transmitted to individuals by social models, religion, and by individuals’ engagement with cultural practices and polite behavior. You educate yourself out of your ability to feel a full range of feelings by continually pushing emotions down until you lose the ability to feel them at all.
The goal is to discover the sweet spot of feeling but without being overwhelmed or lost in rumination.
To begin finding this sweet spot, try the following:
If you feel that the sensations from your emotions have overpowered you, don’t despair! In fact, anxiety about emotional overwhelm can compound your emotional experience. However, there are ways to help you manage and navigate through it. Try these tips from a few pros:
Having a framework to understand the purpose of emotions can provide more insight into your personal experiences with them. Reflecting on whether you experience more or less emotion than others, whether you tend toward anger and fear or contentment and joy, or if you grew up with beliefs about certain emotions that may lead you to supress them are all ways to begin the process of understanding and managing your unique way of experiencing the world.
Always remember, your feelings are not wrong. Helen Keller may have said it best: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
1. Panksepp J. Hypothalamic integration of behavior: rewards, punishments, and related psychological processes. In: Morgane PJ, Panksepp J, editors. Handbook of the Hypothalamus. Vol. 3, Behavioral Studies of the Hypothalamus. New York: Marcel Dekker; 1980. pp. 289–431.
Learn how to use meditation to help heal mind, body, and spirit with Basics of Meditation, a self-paced online course guided by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.