Many people who come into therapy report that they are disconnected from their feelings. A notable symptom of many psychological conditions including depression and anxiety is disconnection with one’s own feelings. It makes sense that people who are experiencing emotional pain and trauma often suppress their emotions. This coping strategy is often very effective in reducing distress in the short-term but the long-term ramifications can be painful and far-reaching. One negative effect of pushing down negative emotions is that positive emotions are also muted. Another consequence of emotional repression is that after a period of many years people sometimes cannot identify what they are feeling. Others may be able to identify their feelings but cannot express them. Many people find themselves feeling chronically depleted and unfulfilled.
What exactly are feelings? Feelings are a total body response that involves the limbic system and autonomic nervous system. When you feel emotionally excited you may notice increased heart rate, increased respiration, sweating and even trembling or shaking. Extreme feeling states such as those experienced during panic attacks are characterized by our bodies’ fight of flight response, which mobilizes our ability to respond in the face of danger or threat.
Feelings do not just occur out of nowhere but are influenced by your thoughts and perceptions. The way we view the external world as well as internal events such as self-talk, imagery or memories affects the feelings we experience in response to stimuli. For example, shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat can be attributed to fear when in the presence of something we perceive as dangerous such as a growling dog. The same physiological sensations could also be interpreted as excitement if we’ve just seen our favorite sports team score a point.
Feelings exist in two groups- basic and complex. Basic emotions include anger, grief, sadness, fear, love, excitement and joy. Complex feelings may be a combination of more basic emotions and are often mediated by our thoughts. Examples include eagerness, relief, disappointment and impatience. Often, we find the complex feelings last a longer time and are more tied in with thinking, while basic feelings are better characterized by their short duration and the prominence of physiological symptoms. Many times, we experience a mixture of many feelings. When having interpersonal difficulties with a loved one, we can experience a multitude of emotions including anger, sadness, guilt and love.
Feelings give you energy and getting in touch with and expressing your feelings can make you feel energetic and vibrant. People who are out of touch with their feelings often report being lethargic, numb or depressed. Furthermore, blocked or withheld feelings often result in stress and anxiety.
Feelings are not right or wrong – they simply exist. Experiencing fear, joy, guilt, sadness or anger is not wrong or invalid. Typically, recognizing and expressing your feelings in appropriate ways is more healthy than denying them. It is important not to judge yourself or anyone else for the feelings they have.
We often suppress our feelings by actively controlling them or holding them in. This may occur because the context is not appropriate for expressing our feelings. For example, when you are at work and feel annoyed with your supervisor’s request. In this scenario, immediately expressing your feelings would not be effective. Other times, we may experience unpleasant feelings and immediately busy ourselves by trying to ignore our feelings. This unconscious avoidance or evasion of feelings is what is referred to as repression. When we get in the habit of suppressing feelings, we often find that we have a hard time expressing feelings appropriately or even accurately identifying them. This can lead to chronic feelings of emptiness or numbness and a lack of contact with your core sense of self.
When feelings are suppressed over a long period of time, individuals may sense that they have surrendered or can experience a partial loss of control when experiencing emotions. Chronically suppressed feelings become large and overwhelming and people sometimes feel that they are going to lose control or go crazy if they give full voice to long-suppressed emotions. However, by accepting and experiencing your feelings fully, they become less scary and help us develop greater awareness of ourselves and our relations to others.
In my next post about feelings, I will be exploring ways to identify, express and communicate feelings in healthy ways.