Our feelings alert us that we are alive, but we shouldn’t allow them to dictate that life.
Life is wide open. It is full of possibility. It has always been so, and it will always be so. To allow the powerful energy of emotions free reign over our thoughts and behaviors is dangerous for our spirit, just as it is dangerous to attempt to ignore and squash those emotions. There is a delicate balance between giving respect to that energy, while giving equal respect to the reality of Life. Engaging in this healthy balance will allow us to remain open to the boundless possibilities of being fully alive.
Everything that surrounds us is made up of energy, from the ground we walk on, to the sofa we collapse on in the evening. Indeed, our body is energy. Physical, mental, sexual and spiritual energies all exist within us. Energy can’t be destroyed, but it can certainly be misused. As most of us are aware, energy can be explosive when misused.
Synapses fire in our brain and neural pathways come alive with the perpetual motion of a metropolis freeway. The energy is experienced in many ways, from the rumble of hunger in our belly, to the rumble of butterflies in that same belly when encountering someone we find attractive. From the quick and sharp sting of a paper cut, to the rush of endorphin-induced euphoria that comes from a massage or an orgasm. Likewise, these neural pathways trigger the human mind to think and to feel emotion. We think about our emotions, and we feel emotions about our thoughts, like a tape-loop. If we’re not careful, we can get stuck in that loop for a very long time, and inside that loop we lose sight of everything taking place around us.
How do we begin to respect this energy?
I’ve read a great deal of articles and books that talk in a general way about dealing with our emotions in a healthy manner that will keep us out of that dreaded tape-loop of emotion and thought, but in my reading, I’ve found very few resources that give specific steps for doing so. I want to share a few of the methods I’ve discovered that have helped me to cope with the negative energies that build up inside me.
I’ll cry if I want to.
This seems like a no-brainer, but it surprises me to see how many people resist the primal urge of crying. In particular, many men in our culture are conditioned to believe that crying is a sign of weakness, but I see it differently. In fact, I think it shows strength, courage and confidence for a person to break down in a visceral fit of sobs when life seems too difficult to bear. Not only is crying a very natural human reaction to pain, but it serves a biological purpose as well.
When our bodies are under great stress due to emotional and physical factors, we release stress hormones. These hormones have been shown to negatively affect every system in the body, and are especially damaging to brain cells. Stress hormones target specific parts of the brain such as the hypothalamus, hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex, all of which are sites active in perpetuating mood disorders. Researchers such as William Frey, who have extensively studied the purpose of crying, have found that tears include high levels of these stress hormones, which are expelled from the body when we weep. Crying is our body’s defense mechanism against further damage.
When people told me that I needed to “feel my emotions,” I didn’t quite know what they meant. How could I not feel them? I feel them every second of every day. Then I began to realize how often I tried to avoid these feelings when I perceived them as negative, whether I was drowning my sorrows in a bottle of wine or working on an intense project that diverted my focus. I didn’t like to cry. I didn’t like to sit with sadness. After all, who does? So now I do something different; I put on my headphones, crank some music that touches my heart in some way, and just let it all out. Tears, snot, heaving sobs and all. It doesn’t feel good while it’s happening, but the satisfaction and release of tension that follows is undeniable and invaluable.
I started meditating over four years ago, after a friend suggested it might help me to deal with a difficult breakup I was going through. I was skeptical, but at that point I would try just about anything to break out of the depression I was entering. Much to my surprise, after a few weeks, I did feel better. More importantly, I began to accept the reality of the situation that I had previously attempted to deny.
In a study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies and Emory University, and published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , researchers found that meditation changes the way the amygdala brain region responds to emotional stimuli, and further, that this effect takes place even when test subjects were not meditating.
Other studies have shown that meditation physically changes our brains in other ways as well. Researchers from the University of Oregon found that study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation for two weeks had an increase in brain signaling connections, as well as an increase in myelin, a protective tissue. Still more studies have indicated that meditation is consistently linked with changes in the memory, empathy, stress and sense-of-self regions of the brain.
Since becoming a regular practitioner of meditation, I have become more self-aware. Meditation doesn’t manifest happiness, but for me it has provided a solid ground to stand on when faced with realities that don’t match up with my ideals and expectations. It helps me to see when it’s only my perception of a situation that feels bad, rather than the situation being bad itself. It allows me to slow down, to breathe and to stop attempting to force both the external and internal world to match up to my own self-motivated desires. It’s this slowing down that enables the natural energies to flow through me without restriction. This releases both mental tension as well as the physical tension we employ to stop the flow of negative emotions.
Spend time on creative endeavors.
One of my favorite ways to deal with emotional energy run rampant is to pick up my guitar and strum or turn on my drum machine and make some beats. I become immersed in the wonder of creating music. Not only that, but I find it can be beneficial to channel those difficult emotions into a song. Some of my favorite music to listen to deals with grief, uncertainty, fear, or feeling like an outcast. My mother always found it strange that I preferred such “depressing” music when I was a teenager still living at home with her, but for me it offered a direct connection to humanity. Those artists spoke of feelings that overwhelmed me, feelings I had not yet developed a language to express freely on my own, nor did I have the comfort level with friends and loved ones to express them when I did have the words. Through music, I found comfort and warmth, and that continues well into my adult life.
Being creative is another method that has been proven to reduce stress, enhance moods and calm neural activity in the brain, leading to reductions in anxiety and restoring effective functioning to the immune system. In addition, as is stated in the article “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health,” published in the American Journal of Public Health, there is also evidence of the effectiveness of auditory stimulation, together with a strong suggestion that such stimulation reduces pain, as a strategy for achieving control over pain.
Art is a valuable form of self-expression that gives us an opportunity to use our feelings to form connections with others. We can write, paint, photograph, perform, cook, build and more. In the end, we have the satisfaction of appreciating our finished work, and we can often see the effects our work has on others. This is a major boost to self-esteem, which in turn helps to tame our painful emotions and make them more bearable.
Discovering the balance.
Our emotions exist for a reason. Our body alerts us to dangers, it guides us in the direction of love, and it lets us know when we are undernourished physically, mentally, and spiritually. That energy shouldn’t be ignored any more than we would ignore the searing pain of touching a hot stove. Just as the nerves send an instant message to our brain, demanding our muscles to jerk our hand from the flame, and the ensuing pain from the burn directs us to the cool waters for relief, our emotional pain serves a similar purpose. It directs us away from the immediate cause of injury to our heart, and in turn we seek the cool waters of spiritual and mental healing. If we learn to respond to our emotional discomfort in the same beneficial way we respond to physical discomfort, we will find that we are more at peace, and more prepared to deal with future difficulties that we will surely encounter.