Learning to process emotion can lead to better health.
The act builds resilience and protects mental and physical health — but it’s not an ability that everyone has learned. Research indicates that that physical pain, malaise and chronic weariness can be linked to unexpressed emotion. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who suffer from Somatic Symptom Disorder may have “decreased awareness of or problems processing emotion, causing physical symptoms to become the focus, rather than the emotional issues.” Unspecified pain can lead to costly, time-consuming tests and procedures and repeated doctor’s visits with poor results.
So how do we do it? Here are five steps for processing emotion:
Feel Your Feeling
Feeling is a challenge for many people. I once had a patient say very emphatically, “I just want to feel my feelings!” Unconsciously speaking, there are many reasons not to. We fight it. If you find out that you are disappointed, excited, stimulated, conflicted, irritated, happy, in love with someone else or bit by the new career bug, it could turn your world upside down. But take a breath. Take stock. At least find out what the feeling is. Just because you feel does not mean you have to act. Then again, an inconvenient truth may lead you to change in positive ways.
Reflect Upon Your Feeling
Where is the feeling coming from and why is it cropping up now? What might it be trying to tell you? Reflect upon this even if you think the feeling is “wrong.” Be curious. Judging can lead to both psychological and physical symptoms. Move between your experiencing ego, the part of you that feels and does things, and your observing ego, the part of you that thinks about what you’re feeling and doing. Try to understand, identify, connect dots, see. If you find something that surprises, troubles, clarifies or delights you — or that does all of these at once — so be it. As one client would say, “I got a hit!”
Accept Your Feeling
Accepting change, loss, evolution and unchosen circumstances that have been cast upon you can be a challenge. Maybe a betrayal, accident, illness, aging or job loss has created sadness or ambivalence. We fight back with denial, substance use, escape, manic activity, distraction and over-stimulation and fix it quick with pills and procedures. In truth, suppression, chardonnay, movies, packed schedules or prescriptions can be just the right medicine. But not always. If something is festering that needs figuring out, doing so can make a huge difference for health. The serenity prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr, often used by Alcoholics Anonymous, summarizes the matter: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Allow Your Feeling to Enliven You
Emotional and intellectual self-awareness foster insight, which can make decisions far easier in work, relationships and even leisure. When there is a direct link between inner experience and lived experience, health and happiness are more likely. This is what “true self” and “authenticity” are all about. It may seem simple or clichéd, but many people have trouble being themselves. We are often handed a narrative that does not suit, yet feels so familiar that we do not want to exit the story. Or we care too much what others think. When we start writing our own story by following inner feelings, we enliven.
Sharing Your Feeling is an Option
Processing emotion creates an opportunity for you to connect with other people. You can choose the sharing option when you are in a state of chaos or confusion or after you have come to a conclusion. This is meaningful for both parties. A conversation with someone who listens and cares can conjure relief, insight and a lift. As a result, you might move from thinking, “I feel helpless,” to “Maybe I can find a way,” or “I am lost,” to “Now I see,” or “Now I’m found,” as in the hymn “Amazing Grace.” A deeper discussion with a doctor, friend, colleague or family member can clear up symptoms of pain and angst. It can instill motivation, hope and resilience. As the French philosopher Simone Weill said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Connection to Dell Med
“A vital, inclusive health ecosystem” for all — and for all emotions. At Dell Medical School, I’m working with David Ring, MD, PhD, Associate Dean of Comprehensive Care, to create empathic conversations in clinical settings that enhance outcomes. My colleague Mbemba Jabbi, PhD, a brain researcher, is also studying emotional processing. He addresses perception, recognition and expression. As he tells me, inadequate perception can lead to communication and social connection issues, inadequate recognition can lead to social attachment and connection issues and inadequate expression or regulation can lead to social isolation. People tend to avoid those who are difficult to read or too volatile.
Insight frees! I might have said that before …