Reaction: Emotional Sunburn
What Are Emotions?
I have found emotions to be among the most misunderstood human experiences. Some of us have been told that emotions are something to be avoided – a sign of weakness. Others have heard that emotions are a way “to get in touch with ourselves,” that somehow they define who we are. Some of us have been told to control our emotions, others to express them fully. A person who is “emotional” is often thought of as being unstable. Yet an “emotional experience” can imply something deep and meaningful. One who is “in touch” with his or her emotions is described as being more “real” and “down to earth.” Yet if we make decisions based on emotions, we are thought to be irrational and irresponsible. We describe emotions as “feelings,” yet they are thought to be mental experiences – we seek “mental health” services to get help in dealing with emotional problems.
My training and experience have led me to understand emotions as our body’s response to our perceptions of the moment. There are three characteristics of emotion that are important to remember:
- Emotions are primarily physical events – they take place in the body.
- Emotions are a response to perceptions – what we focus on and how we view it will determine our emotional response.
- Emotions are temporary, momentary experiences.
When we experience an emotion, there is movement in our muscles. It is literally a “moving” experience. With training, it is possible to observe this movement. It is also possible to measure it with the appropriate equipment. We literally “feel” our emotions in our bodies. This relationship links emotions to the stress response. Since emotions affect our muscles, and the stress response activates the musculature, stress will have a tendency to amplify our emotional experiences. Experiencing an emotion when we are in balance may be pleasant or unpleasant, but it is not necessarily stressful. However, if we are under stress, the build-up of tension gives more power to the emotion than our perception of the situation would normally arouse. I call this the “sunburn response.” Increased tension can also block the experience of emotion leading to a feeling of being numb or empty. We either become more emotionally reactive or numb under stress.
Emotions always have a context. There is something that we are perceiving or thinking about that stimulates an emotion. Emotions quickly change when our perceptions and thoughts change.
The observation that emotions are momentary requires some explanation. You can say that it can take us months or years to “recover” from the loss of a loved one. Isn’t this an ongoing emotional experience? Yes, but it is not one single emotion. This experience consists of hundreds or thousands of thoughts, memories, and experiences that stimulate similar emotions. I experienced deep sadness when my parents died. There were a lot of experiences that brought this loss to mind shortly after their death. Contact with friends and family, planning and participating in the funeral services, going to their house when they were no longer there. These and other experiences stimulated my sadness.
Shortly after each of them died there were hundreds of reminders that they were gone. They had been a regular part of my life and then suddenly were no longer there. As time went on, there were fewer reminders and therefore less sadness. Now when I think of them, it’s usually a happy memory and it brings a smile to my face.
Emotions move (e – motion). Experiencing emotions is a normal part of daily life. If we acknowledge the emotion and allow ourselves to fully experience it, it passes. Thinking about the situation that stimulated the emotion will precipitate a new emotion. The stressful pattern of recycling our thoughts described in Chapter Eight can create a series of emotional responses that keeps us in turmoil.
We create emotional tension when we don’t acknowledge and experience an emotion. We often try to stop feeling something because it is too unpleasant or because we have heard from someone that we’re “not supposed to feel that way.” Seeing emotions as a weakness creates the same problem. It has to do with how we try to stop feeling. Since emotions involve movements in the musculature, we can stop this movement by tensing our muscles. Think of a young child who has been told to “stop crying.” She will tense her chest and neck, hold her breath, and shut her jaw. She stops crying – it works. The problem is that it also builds tension. If we do not release this tension it simply adds to the stress response as well as increasing numbness and/or reactivity.
Crying is simply a mechanism that helps the body release emotional tension. Trying to stop crying builds tension. I have often seen clients who cry even though they are trying to hold it back. This is like pouring water in a glass while you are emptying it. There can be a net gain of tension through this process. If we simply accept and experience emotions, they pass and are gone. To the extent that we hold them in, they create more tension, which intensifies both the stress response and our emotional reactivity.
There was a common belief in the 1960’s and early 70’s that we needed to express all of our emotions. This depends on the situation. There are many situations where expressing our emotions could interfere with our effectiveness in dealing with the problems at hand and others where it might be inappropriate and lead to increased stress. Chapter Fourteen will focus on how to deal with emotions in a healthy way. For now, I will simply say that we can experience an emotion without expressing it outwardly. How and if we choose express that emotion is an entirely different question that depends on the situation and those involved.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.