Updated: May 31, 2021
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
I received a thought-provoking response to last week’s blog post, My Shameless Love Affair, that has since had my mind thinking about the complex role of emotions in our experience. As you may recall, in the post I talked about shame as a spotlight in detecting something toxic. In her response, the reader differentiates between shame resulting from external triggers and internal shame that result from letting ourselves down, and asks whether you can have shame without pride. This brings to mind the duality of emotions. Just as pride and shame are two sides of the same coin, no emotion stands alone and is instead defined relative to another. Happiness is meaningless without sadness. While many of us are accustomed to categorizing emotions into good and bad, delve deeper and we discover that, much like many other things, it’s far more complicated than that.
What is an emotion? At its most basic, it’s a system of chemical reactions. On the surface, this seems to diminish the complexity of human experience, until you sit and think about just how amazing that is. Our bodies and brains are able to synthesize, circulate, measure, and respond to many chemicals. That right, I said measure. Different levels of neurotransmitters can have different effects. Despite the common vernacular about oxytocin being the “love hormone” or dopamine being the “pleasure chemical,” the truth is more complex than that. These chemicals have multiple roles, and interact with other chemicals to boot. So far, science has identified over 60 different neurotransmitters in the human brain. Tag on the fact that there are over 50 different human hormones, and we start to get the idea that we are complicated machines. In fact, there is a whole branch of research that combines psychology and neuroscience to explain the neural mechanisms of emotion, aptly named affective neuroscience.
In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle gives the reader four keys she used to free herself from her cage. The first key is Feel It All. We’re going to explore this advice a little further on this week of Down The Rabbit Hole.
The word feel in the English language has a pretty broad meaning. It both means experiencing an emotion and experiencing a physical sensation. Sadness and cold are both feelings. I feel happy. I feel itchy. It’s terribly non-specific for such an important part of our existence, and perhaps has a hand in both poor emotional intelligence and physical awareness. Ironically, despite language lumping these together, it is uncommon for people to consider emotions and sensations as two sides of the same coin. Yet, more and more evidence reveals just how interwoven these two things are.
A couple weeks ago, in the post An Irredeemable Monster and the Power of Dirt I talked about humans underestimating the nuanced complexity of nature. The fact is, humans are part of nature. And now science is catching up and demonstrating our nuanced complexity when it comes to emotions. In North America, we value the ability to control one’s emotions, and most people suppress their feelings regularly. This is partially to blame for the stigma associated with mental illnesses. To add insult to injury, emotional suppression also increases the risk of physical illness, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. The mechanisms aren’t all understood yet, though weakening of the immune system due to stress is a contributing factor. The fact is, emotions are important indicators of physical condition in both health and illness.
At this point I’d also like to point out, that emotional suppression has it’s uses. Obviously, there are times in our lives where we must wait to express our emotions. Think of all the people in service professions dealing with unreasonable customers. It would be career limiting to express frustration or anger in the heat of the moment. Instead, waiting until a socially appropriate moment to let the feeling out makes sense. It’s called venting for a reason. The problem becomes when it’s left alone to stew and the pressure is never released.
By suppressing or numbing emotions we miss out on benefitting from what they indicate. For example, as part of the immune system response , the body coordinates a physiological response including depression, anxiety, malaise, and increase sensitivity to pain. In this case, emotions are telling the human to get some rest, for goodness sake, so the immune system can get to work. If instead, that person drank a strong coffee, numbed their feelings with a bottle of wine, and popped a couple pain killers, they may feel better in the short term, but they’re not doing themselves any favours. Even more surprising, is that this relationship between feelings and the immune system may be a two-way street. All the more reason to express rather than suppress emotions.
Ok, sure, if you’re sick, you’re sad. That makes sense. I hate being sick, too. What about the other survival basics? Are they intertwined with feelings?
Food? Turns out the gut houses 90% of our serotonin receptors, so keeping those little gut bugs happy is important to our happiness. Processed food is bad for the microbiome, so whole foods it is.
Sleep? The amygdala and prefrontal cortex brain regions critical to emotional regulation. In his book Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker reveals a 60% more reactive amygdala in sleep deprived patients. This leads to poor emotional regulation, mood swings, and an increase in negative emotions. Anyone who’s had to wake up early after a late night would not find this surprising. In this case, emotions are telling us what we should logically know, we need more sleep. And since sleep is critical to health, this makes sense.
Water? Looks like, yes, dehydration negatively affects your mood.
Exercise? This one hardly requires mentioning. Exercise’s effects on mood are considered both common sense and intuitive. I have one word for you: endorphins.
Nature connection? We’ve already covered that one.
Social connection and safety? In his book The Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges asserts that through evolution, mammals developed a social engagement system associated with the autonomic nervous system. When working well, it supports health, growth, and restoration, and a predictable fight or flight response to threat. These are adaptive behaviours, allowing a person to thrive as a social animal, or react to danger. Porges also coins the phrase neuroception that describes a process in which threat or safety are evaluated automatically, at which point the nervous system reacts physiologically, affecting things as broad ranging as heart rate, digestion, facial and inner ear muscles, voice tone, emotions, and other sensations. The kicker is, since neuroception is automatic, the physiological changes occur without cognitive awareness.
Great. What’s the point if it’s undetectable?
This is where feeling all the feelings comes in, so put down that glass of wine. Porges has essentially mapped out body area that respond to the states of social engagement, fight/flight, and immobilization (a primitive survival response in the face of extreme threat, where fight/flight is not possible). The physical sensations and changes inform the perception of safety. Realizing your body detects a threat, even if you are not cognizant of it, can validate and help identify the emotion. In this way, becoming aware of our bodily sensations is one step to achieving emotional intelligence.
So far, we’ve decoded a few messages that our emotions can send us. We’re sick. We’re poorly nourished. We’re thirsty. We’re sleep deprived. We’re fit. We’re safe. We’re in danger. That’s pretty valuable, I’d say. I think it’s fair to assume emotions hold an important biological purpose.
At this point, you may be detecting a pattern in these articles. We’ll talk more about that next week.
What now? The good news is, it’s easy to get started listening to your body. It’s literally as simple as describing the sensations and emotions you feel. You may be surprised at how the uniqueness of each emotional experience manifests in your body, illustrated beautifully here in these bodily emotion maps. Feel your feelings. All of them. The more you do this, the easier it gets to link sensations with emotions. Eventually, you may find yourself lumping them together, like the word feelings itself, and the English language won’t seem so lacking.
When Doyle told us feel it all, some of us might think she merely meant the emotional side of things. That is, until she talked about the pain that came with it. She had spent over a decade numbing her feelings, and suddenly she was feeling them all. It’s typical of western culture to separate out emotions from physiology. Lucky for us, we now know that emotions are not imaginary. They exist in the physical, even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms. Saying feel all your feelings is like saying keep all your organs. They’re there for a reason, even if they’re not fully understood. In this light, feelings are neither “bad” nor “good.” We do find some more pleasant than others, but if we listen closely, the unpleasant ones can inform our decisions. A more accurate categorization might be that some feelings serve us, while other do not. This raises questions about the effects of trauma, othering, mental health conditions, and systemic racism on perceived safety or threat, and subsequent adaptive or maladaptive responses. Each of these are complex topics in of themselves, and ones that warrant a dedicated discussion.
This week, I’m going to offer up two challenges. First, endeavor to experience a feeling completely, both in mind and body. It needn’t be upsetting—choose a pleasant one if you like. Reflect on how the experience differed from the last time you experienced that same emotion. Second, try to predict a mood change before it happens based solely on physical sensations or changes. This one is a little harder, and going to require that you’re paying attention to your body sensations.