When we feel anxious, overwhelmed, or highly stressed, we tend to do anything to avoid feeling those difficult emotions: we might drink, go for a run, paint the kitchen, or scroll Facebook. But here’s the thing: anxiety is like an emotional toddler who needs some comfort from mom. The more you ignore the screaming toddler, the louder they will yell, eventually throwing themselves on the ground in a fit of rage.
All emotions are felt both in the mind as thoughts (example: “I’m so scared”) and in the body as sensation (example: clenched stomach, fast heartbeat, etc). The only way to heal the difficult emotions that are felt in the body is to allow them to be felt. The more we ignore those emotions, the more they will cry for our attention.
So when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed by anxiety/anger/stress/sadness, try this Compassionate Awareness Exercise:
- Sit or lie down comfortably.
- Relax your shoulders and jaw. Breathe more fully into your belly and low back. Ground yourself by literally feeling where your body touches the ground/floor/chair.
- Invite in a sense of compassion for yourself, as if you were the most loving, patient, empathetic mother. You can try picturing holding a small animal or child who isn’t feeling well, pouring your love and attention on that little creature.
- Begin to mentally scan your body, simply noticing sensation without telling yourself a story about it. How do your hands feel? Do your legs feel heavy or light? How does your face feel? (tight? relaxed?)
- Keeping that sense of compassion for yourself and this pain you’re currently in, bring your attention to the part of your body that is feeling discomfort from this difficult emotion. Does your stomach feel tight? Is your heart racing? Does your face feel hot? Try to simply feel that discomfort, without telling a story about it (such as: “I’m feeling this way because…” or “my breathing is so uneven”. Instead, let your body speak by just feeling, not thinking.). If it becomes a bit overwhelming, feel the ground beneath you again and notice your surroundings (what can you see in front of you right now?)
- With infinite patience and compassion, see if you can simply sit with that discomfort. What happens to the difficult sensation? Does it pulse or move in waves or come and go? Be a curious, open-minded observer.
This practice takes a huge amount of courage to be willing to try, but I believe that feeling your feelings is the only way to truly process and heal them.
The amazing thing is that when you simply turn toward your fear instead of running away from it, the fear tends to dissipate and you return to a sense of ease. When you continue to practice this, over time the trauma/stress that your body is holding can eventually slowly release and heal. As a result, you begin to develop a strong sense of strength and trust in yourself.
If you’re curious about how trauma and emotion is stored in the body, check out the work of Hala Khouri and Jeff Brown, as well as Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote the amazing book, The Body Keeps the Score.