Emotions are intricate complex processes that are much more than “just feelings.” When our emotions become activated or triggered by something in the internal or external environment, the whole body gets in on the action by responding in particular ways. A big part of learning how to gain a sense of knowledge and mastery over our emotional states is through becoming more aware of the physical sensations and urges associated with our emotions.
Have you ever felt the urge to speak up in class or in a meeting, only to have this urge immediately followed by a tightening in your throat or your heart beginning to pound? It is as if your body is preparing you for what you are about to do. Rather than fighting your physical reactions or urges associated with emotions, what would it be like to practice increasing mindful awareness of what is going on?
I find it helpful to recognize these bodily responses and urges associated with emotions as indicators of what emotion I am feeling, as well as indications of the significance of the emotion. The foundation of this practice involves consciously increasing awareness of the interactive effects between physical sensations, urges, and emotions.
According to the DBT workbook Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life (Spradlin, 2003), emotions are not actually actions, rather they are preparing us for actions. While it may seem that the emotional experience of anger or joy is so intensely experiential that the emotion itself is like an action, our emotions are really just getting us “ready” to take action. Try thinking of emotions as useful indicators that are trying to tell you something.
What is the emotional experience of anxiety when you are walking down a dark alley all alone trying to tell you? Could it be that the unpleasant emotional experience of anxiety is a useful tool that is reminding you to be alert to your surroundings and on guard? Emotions don’t have to be a dreaded enemy – they are on our side. Use them to your advantage.
Try identifying some urges and actions that you experience when you feel:
What comes up for you as you recall times in your life when you typically experience these emotions? What actions or urges do you find yourself having when you experience these emotions? Try noticing any patterns. A key component to developing self-awareness and ultimately beginning the process of healthy change involves noticing our own personal themes within our life narratives. How do you want to respond to these emotions differently in the future?
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Spradlin, S.E. (2003). Don’t let your emotions run your life: how dialectical behavior therapy can put you in control. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: brett dennen:don’t forget by visualpanic / CC BY 2.0