Updated: April 7, 2022
Discover key neuroscience discoveries that offer new insights into the truth about emotions and how to effectively express them.
What are emotions?
Let’s start by exploring a basic understanding of emotions that will likely be dramatically different than what you have believed up to this point. What we think of as emotion is the experience of energy moving through the body. This is generally felt as sensations of contraction such as tension or expansion such as calm. The Latin derivative for the word emotion, ‘emotere’, literally means energy in motion.
Researcher Barbara Frederickson furthered this understanding by describing the upward and downward spiral effect of emotion. An upward spiral correlates with expansion and feelings such as joy and happiness. A downward spiral correlates with contraction and feelings such as resentment and fear.¹
In itself, emotional energy is neutral. It is the feeling sensation and physiological reaction that makes a specific emotion positive or negative. Feeling is what you label as anger, sadness, joy or fear. It is then your interpretations or thoughts about emotional energy that give it meaning. Emotion serves as the carrier waves for the entire spectrum of feelings. Understanding that emotions are energy implies that they are fluid, moving resources meant to be felt and released vs. suppressed and ignored. The latter is the true culprit of low emotional intelligence and stress burnout.
Neuroscience of Emotion
Several key discoveries have significantly changed our understanding of the relationship between the emotional brain and the analytical brain.
- Based on neural circuitry, our emotional brain responds faster to incoming information or stimuli than our analytical brain does.²
- The emotional brain has more neural circuits connecting to the analytical brain than the analytical brain has connecting to the emotional brain.³
- The emotional brain is connected to every area of the brain, whereas the analytical brain is not.4
- On the basis of survival, the experience of stress and feelings of worry, fear, or anger take priority over feelings of happiness and peace of mind.5
As a result of these findings, the emotional brain is considered to have executive power in the brain. It influences all decision making, thought processes, memories, and present experiences. Your ability to understand, deal with, and effectively use your emotional energy is vital to your happiness levels.
The sensations you feel in your body hold the key to unlocking limiting patterns, transforming stress, and generating lasting happiness. Your body gives a constant stream of reliable information about your experience in the form of sensation. It’s a library of who you are at the deepest level, including all that has happened to you and all that you dream about. Understanding your body sensations will transform your life.6
For many people, looking to their body sensations to transform challenging emotions and increase emotional intelligence is the most important piece of the puzzle that leads to happiness. This is especially true when you understand that sensory and emotional information is recorded into memory first; thoughts and perceptions, second. This distinction provides clues for increasing emotional intelligence while pointing out the limitations of purely thought-based approaches.
The nature of chronic stress often results in a buildup of energy that gets suppressed in the body. This is experienced as sensations of contraction. This unfolds organically once your internal resources are engaged in a safe and supportive manner. It’s the resulting feelings of expansion and renewed life force that make lasting happiness possible. From this secure, open, and present place, you rewire your brain and solidify neural pathways of happiness.
The process of reconnecting with body sensations and emotions takes time and trust. This is especially true given that ongoing stress disconnects you from your internal experience as a way of protecting you from overwhelming sensations and emotions. Unwinding works best when you allow yourself to be guided gently and slowly by your body’s natural rhythm for healing. It’s not helpful to rush or force the healing process. It’s equally important that you feel present and safe. Your innate drive for homeostasis is always present and heeds the call for healing when you listen to your body’s messages.
Driven to Move E-Motion
The drive to move your emotional energy is present every moment because your nervous system is in constant pursuit of homeostasis. It’s on a mission 24/7 regulating the balance of your bodymind connection. This often includes your instinctual drive to be happy by releasing any pent-up stress. You have an opportunity to move your emotional energy each time you experience contraction, tension, or any other body sensations. They are the internal messages of your bodymind wisdom that draw you toward balance and happiness.
Given the understanding that emotion is actually energy in motion it is important to distinguish what it looks and feels like to increase your emotional awareness. Most people believe this looks like using their thinking mind to analyze, think about and talk about how they feel. Although this approach can bring initial awareness it is not effective in the long run. It is common from this approach to hinder the process of expressing and managing emotions. In doing so, it keeps the process of expression at the level of thought vs. actual feeling or energy movement. In order to successfully express emotion you have to move your emotional energy by identifying the sensations and releasing states of contraction.
It is common for athletes or professional performers to feel nervous before a big event. They might have a surge of energy that includes shaking, heart racing, pacing, vibrating sensations, and even nausea. These are all common experiences of body sensations correlating with emotion releasing.
The process of expressing your emotional energy involves tuning into your body sensations. It is powerful, dynamic and enlivening. If you sink your awareness into your sensations, they will begin to reveal what is going on beneath the surface. These sensations may include tense, tingly, light, heavy, soft, smooth, hot, cold, rumbling, or pressure just to name a few. They will intelligently and organically guide you into releasing any unresolved stress and bring you into greater homeostasis. As you move from contraction to expansion you will typically feel lighter, calmer or relieved while opening the door to lasting happiness. When you allow yourself to ride the emotional wave of these sensations you will regain homeostasis and gain benefits found in the rest of your mind and body.
How it Works
Let’s take an inside look at body-mind emotional release to better understand the strategy for expressing your emotions and becoming happier. When you get out of your analytical brain’s reasons, rationalizations, and detailed story of what has happened, you now have access to finding relief from your emotional world. Not until you stop perseverating on the details of what happened and your feelings of righteous protection about it can you grow past your current state of healing and access greater happiness. Sharing your story has power but only to a certain point. Once you allow yourself to feel your emotions and feelings without talking about or justifying why you feel the way you feel, you move to the next level.
When you bring mindful focus to the sensations of contraction with an open mind and air of curiosity, you invite them to release. It’s powerful, dynamic, and enlivening. You allow your body to feel the feelings it didn’t have the opportunity to release at the time of any event that may have been challenging. It’s like an internal sigh of relief that comes over your entire body and mind. Now from this place of internal trust and relief, you can use your analytical brain’s good positive thinking to assist you in changing your belief system. This state of mind and body makes lasting happiness a reality.
At first, listening to and decoding the body’s messages may seem challenging. The messages can be subtle, and you might doubt or question what you’re feeling. Do your best to clear away any judgments and maintain an air of open curiosity. Then trust what comes to your mind. The body offers very insightful, accurate, and practical guidance when you get out of the way and just listen to it. Over time, you reinforce the clarity of the messages and release any static that inhibits you from listening on a deeper level. Regular practice further allows you to witness patterns in your body’s messages and their relationship to aspects of your health and your life. This process always works best when you allow your body to lead you instead of trying to force or hurry it along. This takes a degree of patience and trust. We are here to say that the time spent doing this, however long, is generally far more rewarding than the time spent at the effect of emotional suppression. The results are also far more lasting and powerful.
What to Expect: The Body Sensations Cycle
An important objective of moving and expressing your emotion is to meet your body with compassion. Do your best not to analyze or evaluate the sensations you’re noticing, but simply tune in, notice, and observe them. Through your presence and open-mindedness, you will notice the sensations shift. As best as possible, allow the shifts to occur while being present and observing them. The unwinding process includes a range of body sensations that will change, intensify, and lessen. As previously noted, these sensations might involve trembling, shaking, twitching, tension, nausea, and heaviness, and the urge to stomp your feet, move your legs, pound your fists, or even yell. These are common experiences that mirror your natural resources to fight or flee using your hands, feet, or voice. Over time, seconds to several minutes, these sensations often shift throughout your body. For example, they might move from your stomach to your throat and into your hands. Then they will begin to morph even further, lessening in intensity and transforming into tingly, light, open, smooth, calm, relaxed, or a range of soothing sensations.
Sensation Versus Thought
During this process, if a particular issue comes to mind, do your best to remain with the sensation and stay out of your thoughts about the issue. Try not to analyze or evaluate why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. At times, the messages you hear—such as tension or discomfort—might lead you to take action to release or heal the issue. At other times, the messages might serve as reminders or lead you to become aware of patterns you want to strengthen or transform. Still other messages might not seem to make sense in the moment but might lead, over time, to understanding an area of your life. The important thing to remember is not to judge, but to listen. If it feels organic to express an emotion or verbalize something, then do so. Part of the unraveling process involves reclaiming what was lost not only in your body but also in your mind. You can reclaim your power by giving voice to what needs to be said or done.
The strength of your bodymind listening skills directly influences how well you’re able to use this wisdom to create greater health and happiness. For example, many people are aware that a tension headache frequently starts with stress, yet they notice the headache only once it’s in physical form. Perceived stress leads to subtle signs of tension in the body, and over time this can lead to the actual manifestation of a tension headache. Wouldn’t it be nice to notice (hear) the messages being sent to adjust your posture, mood, or circumstances before the manifestation of a headache? You have this ability. It requires only that you develop your bodymind listening skills.
Mind Body Therapy
The awareness of emotion as energy has had a significant impact on approaches to healing emotional wounds, stuck patterns, emotional reactivity, depression, anxiety and trauma. Mind body approaches such as brainspotting, somatic therapy, EMDR, meditation and biofeedback have become central to treatment and therapy.
Brainspotting & EMDR
Brainspotting and EMDR are advanced therapies for overcoming negative emotions, healing traumatic experiences and rebalancing the nervous system. Brainspotting is based on the premise that ‘where you look affects how you feel’. As an individual maintains an eye position while focusing on a stressful experience, they connect to a spot in the brain (brainspot) that gives them access to releasing and processing the challenging experience. Dual Attunement is a primary tenant of Brainspotting in that the attunement of the therapist activates brain pathways associated with safety, support and connection. EMDR follows a very specific protocol in which the therapist guides the client through a series of repetitive steps. As part of this process, the client focuses on a stressful or traumatic issue while experiencing bilateral stimulation. The client is guided to repeatedly reexperience the issue while being guided through the steps in the process. While Brainspotting involves a focused eye position, EMDR involves rapid bilateral movement of the eyes, auditory or sensory system. To learn more about Brainspotting check out our Brainspotting FAQ.
One of the earliest healing approaches dedicated to releasing emotions at the level of the mind body connection is called somatic therapy. It is a powerful form of therapy and healing that allows the mind and body to work together to unwind pent up emotional stress, release trauma and reclaim the life force. Given that somatic approaches access the deeper parts of the mind that are sensed in the body (soma), it allows implicit memories that are waiting to be brought into conscious awareness to be processed and moved on to explicit memory. In doing so, the emotional and visceral trauma energy that is stored in these implicit memories is now freed up to regulate, balance and vitalize the entire mind body system. It is powerful and transformational healing at the deepest level. Elements of somatic therapy can be found in most mind body approaches. In our practice we work with a combination of somatic therapy and Brainspotting to support the movement of emotion and realignment of mind and body.
Meditation is a foundational tool for emotional balance, nervous system regulation and overall healing. Meditation allows you to access the emotional centers of the brain and rewire patterns of reactivity, trauma and stress. We developed the Emotions Are Energy guided meditation to help you move stuck emotional energy, release patterns of stress and trauma and strengthen your mind-body connection. This is our go to meditation for keeping our emotions and nervous system regulated. We have found when practiced regularly it leads to greater presence, inner calm and energy.
In addition to brainspotting, somatic therapy and meditation, we have found biofeedback to be a time-tested powerful tool for regulating the nervous system and creating emotional wellbeing. Biofeedback is a compelling tool that validates the power of the mind-body connection. In a matter of minutes, you can create significant changes using your mind to shift your body or vice versa.
Heart Rhythm Feedback
In our work, we use biofeedback to demonstrate the transition from the stress response to the relaxation response. We have conducted thousands of biofeedback assessments and training sessions, witnessing firsthand the significant and swift changes resulting from breathing. We measure heart rate variability (HRV) because it’s a central measure of both physical and psychological aspects of stress. HRV is defined as the beat-to-beat fluctuation in heart rate. The variation between beats is influenced by complex connections between the peripheral nervous systems, heart, brain, and multiple endocrine variables.
HRV is also a dynamic measure used to show emotional changes via heart rhythm patterns. Happiness, joy, and peace create ordered heart rhythm patterns. Anger, resentment, stress, and fear cause disordered heart rhythm patterns. Tiller and colleagues studied the impact of emotional states on nervous system balance. Participants were divided into two groups and instructed to focus on either feelings of appreciation or feelings of stress. The researchers conducted the studies based on the understanding that the two branches of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, work together to maintain homeostasis by responding and adapting to changes, including emotional changes. The sympathetic nervous system plays a primary role in the stress response, stimulating various organ systems to deal with the present stressor. The parasympathetic nervous system has virtually an opposite effect on the body, demonstrating a state of relaxation and an attempt to reestablish homeostasis. The study found that feelings of stress were associated with sympathetic activity, as indicated by disordered heart rhythm patterns. Conversely, feelings of appreciation were associated with parasympathetic activity, as indicated by ordered heart rhythm patterns.
We have been using Heartmath biofeedback technology for the past 20 years. They are the leader in HRV biofeedback with over 250 peer reviewed studies published on their technology and methods. They offer an easy-to-use HRV biofeedback device called the Inner Balance Coherence Sensor that works with your smart phone or computer. You can monitor your heart rhythm patterns and witness how your emotions affect your nervous system. In a matter of minutes you can observe changes in your nervous system as you apply breathing exercises, meditation, somatic practices and other emotional regulation tools. It is invaluable to see firsthand what happens when you move from stressed to more emotionally and mentally balanced. We use the Inner Balance Coherence Sensor in our own meditations as well as recommend it to our clients.
Neurofeedback – Brain Wave Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback is the type of biofeedback that measures brain activity and specifically brain waves. Brain waves are measured in hertz cycles per second. Slower frequencies can demonstrate feeling more calm, relaxed and present as well as fatigued, distracted, inattentive, depressed or insomnia. Higher frequencies may represent feeling more alert and engaged in thought as well as anxious, hypervigilant or impulsive.
Four categories of brain waves are observed during neurofeedback;
- Beta (12-38 hertz) is associated with our more awake, focused and active brain state. It allows for problem solving, organization, engagement, decision making, attention, excitement, interest and complex thought processes. In excess it can represent anxiety, hypervigilance, tension, stress, difficulty relaxing, insomnia and mania.
- Alpha (8-12 hertz) is found in times of deep thought, meditation, presence, calmness, learning, alertness and flow.
- Theta (4-8 hertz) is involved with meditative, daydreaming and sleep states. When awake theta can represent issues with executive functioning tasks such as focus, attention, memory, and organization as found in ADD and ADHD.
- Delta (1-4 hertz) is found in the third and fourth cycle of REM sleep. When delta waves are present during wakefulness, they may indicate issues with focus such as found in ADD or ADHD. They may also represent brain injuries, sleep disturbances or other learning challenges.
There is something fascinating about seeing your brain waves light up on a monitor while observing changes that can occur with simple focus exercises. During a neurofeedback session brain waves are measured and through the process of brain training exercises, games and meditations the brain is trained into more optimal states of harmony, focus and balance. Neurofeedback has been shown to improve many areas of mental health including anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADD/ADHD and more.
When we were first trained in neurofeedback over 20 years ago the technology was highly involved and only available through a trained practitioner. It included placing electrodes with gel on various spots around the head. The electrodes had wires connecting them to the main measuring device. Let’s just say gel in the hair and feeling confined by all of wires were not the most enjoyable part of the process. The results however were often worth it. Advances in technology have made the process of neurofeedback much simpler, efficient and accessible to everyone.
We have been using Muse 2 Biofeedback for many years and find it to be easy to use, advanced technology and highly effective. It involves wearing a headband (no gel, no wires) that pairs with your smartphone or smart device. Muse has many options for brain training exercises, meditations and improving your brain wave balance. They also have a specific device called Muse S for sleep monitoring and sleep support including immersive sounds to help get to sleep or fall back asleep if you’ve woken. We use Muse 2 as part of our meditation toolbox. We also recommend it to our clients to help with meditation, focus, sleep, depression, and anxiety.
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Coaching and Counseling
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.
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