“She died of a broken heart.”
“He’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
“Butterflies danced in her stomach.”
Phrases like these make a connection between physical pain and emotional pain and are used frequently in literature, film, and television to convey just how deeply emotions are felt.
A growing body of scientific research, however, is teaching medical doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists that such talk is much more than just figurative speech used for effect. In truth, there is a literal connection between emotions and physical health. And when negative emotions are not processed or released, they can become trapped in our bodies, causing physical pain.
Dr. Candace Pert (1946–2013), an internationally recognized neuroscientist and former chief for brain chemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health, was a pioneer in neurochemistry who made some of the earliest discoveries in the field of mind-body medicine and is credited with discovering the receptor in the brain that makes the body responsive to opiate pain killers.
Her discovery led to numerous studies about other possible cell receptors and the corresponding chemicals that trigger each receptor.
Pert determined that “When emotions are expressed . . . all systems are united and made whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good, unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior” (Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, 273).
Trapped emotions can cause literal pain—in the back or shoulders, in the neck or head, in the stomach or intestines.
Susan Babbel (MFT, PhD), author of Heal the Body, Heal the Mind, writes that “Chronic pain is defined as prolonged physical pain that lasts for longer than the natural healing process should allow. This pain might stem from injuries, inflammation, or neuralgias and neuropathies (disorders of the nerves), but some people suffer in the absence of any of these conditions. . . .
"Often, physical pain functions to warn a person that there is still emotional work to be done, and it can also be a sign of unresolved trauma in the nervous system. Even if one has grieved and processed the emotional impact of a trauma, the nervous system might still unwittingly be in survival mode.”
Recently on the Emotions Mentor podcast, I spoke with emotional coding expert Tracy Lyman about the phenomena of trapped emotions and the work it takes to recognize and release these unlikely pain-inflictors. Tracy personally recommends using The Emotion Code, a process developed by Dr. Bradley Nelson (DC) that employs muscle testing, or applied kinesiology, to find areas in the body that are holding blocked emotions and causing chronic pain.
There are a number of other methods and practices that also work well to identify and release trapped emotions.
1. Defining the emotions.
Putting a name to something can be powerful. Take some time to determine what you might be feeling. In the process of doing so, don’t talk yourself out of the emotions by saying things like “this isn’t important” or “this isn’t how you’re supposed to feel.”
If you’re having a hard time pinpointing what emotions you’re feeling, ask yourself if it could be one of these seven commonly trapped emotions: anxiety, disgust, grief, negativity (often expressed through self-criticism), loneliness (sometimes expressed by feeling unsupported), helplessness, or worthlessness.
2. Journaling, talking with a friend, or seeking therapy.
Expressing your feelings in words, whether on paper or out loud with another person, allows you to look at those feelings from a different angle. A friend or therapist can guide you through why you might feel the way you do and help you work through those things.
3. Letting yourself feel the emotion.
Instead of burying what you feel, try letting it out in a safe place. Have a good, long, loud cry to let out grief, sorrow, or disappointment. Find a pillow or other soft, inanimate object to punch, hit, or throw to let out anger and frustration. Scream your thoughts out loud to a mirror or a picture or even just the wall to release feelings of betrayal or fear.
4. Practicing mindfulness.
Being mindful is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, boost working memory, and help individuals focus better. Mindful practices can include meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other simple techniques paired with positive affirmations.
5. Focusing on the body.
Moving the body can work wonders. Add twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise to your day. If that seems too hard, start simple by just stretching your muscles at the beginning and the end of the day. A report from Harvard Medical School explains that “low-intensity exercise sustained over time . . . spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better.” Other body work, such as massages, acupuncture, and even tapping can release pain that may be caused by trapped emotions.
Essential Oil Tips
As you look to release trapped emotions, consider using an essential oil to help imprint the process in your mind. Here are a few to try:
Bergamot. A 2015 study found that inhaling bergamot through a diffuser can reduce cortisol levels, anxiety, fatigue, and depression. Bergamot is a great oil to diffuse during yoga or meditation. It can also be inhaled straight from the bottle and paired with a positive affirmation, such as “I release things that no longer serve me.”
Sandalwood. This oil can be very grounding and thus help you feel rooted while doing difficult things like identifying negative motions. It can also promote sound sleep. Try diffusing 2 drops lavender with 2 drops sandalwood before bed.
Frankincense. When working to heal grief, frankincense can be particularly helpful. During emotionally stressful times, use frankincense with wild orange several times a day by massaging 2 drops of each into your temples and the back of your neck.
PS. Check out our Month for the Mind to learn how you can overcome mental blocks!
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