Emotional Medicine Rx — Part 1 of 2
Cry When You’re Sad, Stop When You’re Done, Feel Good Fast
What you mean by emotional medicine?
Emotional Medicine is the name I’ve given to a discovery I made that changed my life forever: that a few minutes of brief, embodied emotional release followed by a few more minutes of focusing on the relief that automatically follows, brings profound well-being—including mental clarity—fast! I had this breakthrough when I was devastated by the end of my first marriage and facing single parenthood with a broken heart. Using my emotions as medicine helped me not only survive this divorce, but ultimately thrive and find my wonderful husband, Arturo Andrade.
If I could give the entire planet a Vulcan mind-meld (for those non-Star Trek readers this is the ability to transfer wisdom from one mind to another by pressing foreheads together) I would want everyone to know that no matter what horrible things happen, you are never more than a few minutes away from feeling good—or at least better—when you know how to focus your awareness on what your body is trying to do to restore you to well-being, and safely and responsibly cooperate with it.
Tell us more about “cry when you’re sad, stop when done, feel good fast.”
This is actually the entire emotional medicine prescription in a nutshell. When you can cry (shake a fist in anger, tremble with fear) when you are actually feeling sad, (mad or scared) when your body is done, stop, and focus on the relief coursing through you—you can feel good fast. The tricky part is that you need to know when you are done—sense when your body is done—and be able to feel and focus on the ensuing relief. You’d be amazed how hard feeling good is for some people. As a culture we are out of the habit of feeling good—just as we are out of the habit of actually experiencing our emotions.
You say emotions are not the problem, yet in our society it seems the idea is to get over it, get past our emotions and move on. Don’t dwell. That often means to ignore them or stuff them so we can start thinking straight. Why is it important to experience emotions?
Great Question. Don’t dwell is half way to the emotional medicine solution. The problem is timing. Before telling yourself “don’t dwell” you first need to feel what you’re feeling and allow it to move through your body in some way, even if only slightly. Once you’ve allowed an emotion to complete its brief cycle, then it’s time to stop dwelling and focus on the relief in your body.
It’s important to experience emotions because they are going to be affecting your body whether you choose to feel them or not. Emotions are body reactions with all the hormonal, nerve, intestinal, muscle involvement any body experience entails. If you don’t listen to what your body is trying to tell you it needs to restore well-being, it will be harder to access deep wisdom. The research is clear on this. Ignoring emotions is bad for health and happiness.
The good news is that emotions move very quickly through the body. I tell people to set the timer. Let your body lead. With any emotional upset, if you’re still experiencing sad, mad, scared feelings after 3 minutes, you’re probably in your head restimulating more emotional reaction by dwelling on the details.
Of course there are times when it’s not immediately appropriate to allow an emotion to move through your body even for a minute or two. You can still get some relief with micro movements until you are in a safe place to cooperate with what your body needs to do to restore vitality and well-being.
Explain how you let the body lead.
Here’s an example. In the early days after my marriage ended, I made plans to have some kind of therapeutic body session and supportive shoulder of a friend almost every day. I would sob, grieve and stomp—and feel better. One day I was up in our meditation room getting ready to do some yoga. I was feeling very peaceful. I’d done some deep grieving earlier in the day. Without warning worries appeared: how would my son and I live, how would we survive and furthermore, how could my ex do this to me! Because these thoughts were such a contrast to how I’d been feeling just moments before, I looked into my body to see if it was contracted in fear, or bristling in anger. While these troubling thoughts had triggered a bit of those responses, the predominant energy in my body was peaceful, calm, resourceful. I made a choice right then to let my body lead. I would follow the predominant energy in my body and focus my attention on those peaceful feelings.
Of course, there were other times when I dropped my awareness into my body and felt my jaw was tight, my stomach was tense and find my hands clenching into fists without my conscious choosing. I knew it was important to find a safe, private place to let my body have the brief discharge it needed. Then I would let loose, and continually check to see when my body was done.
Regarding letting things go and getting out of our head, sometimes that’s easier said than done. Events can replay over and over in our head. “I should have said this. I should have done that.” What do you say? Do you really find it easy to let go when you really, really feel grabbed?
Yes, I sometimes have a hard time letting go when I’m really, really grabbed—that’s why I wrote a book about it.
I have an axiom for these situations: “If you’re trapped in your head, emotion is trapped in your body.” However, there are two possibilities here. The first is that there’s emotion trapped in your body that you’re not aware of, but you can access by shifting awareness from your mental replay down to your body to see what you’re feeling.
It’s interesting that the number-one emotion trying to move when we’re grabbed like this is anger! Especially anger at someone where you don’t feel safe enough or secure enough to mention it. If this rings true, get out your journal, do some writing, role play, talk to a friend or counselor and express your anger in a safe place.
The second possibility is that there is emotional energy trapped in your body, but you’re not able to access it because when you drop awareness into your body you discover you are emotionally frozen, numb. This is a signal to proceed with caution. You may have some past trauma stuck in your body interfering with your ability to feel. You may need professional help to sort this out.
Of course, there are times when everyone experiences some temporary emotional numbness. It’s possible to move through that by dropping your awareness directly into the sensation of numbness in your body. Numbness is a body experience and like all body experiences it’s temporary (as long as it’s not the result of a medical condition) if you stay out of your head. I’ve recorded two processes from the book “Choosing Focus” and “De-numbing” which I offer as a download on my website www.emotionalmedicinerx.com
You say that it’s good to separate and focus on our real emotions rather our self-doubts or self-narrative. What is the difference?
Emotional medicine only works with our primary emotions: sad, mad, scared, glad. These emotions are found in all human beings in every part of the globe. These primary emotions are temporary and they move quite quickly through embodied experience. Self doubts, insecurities, self-hatred, second guessing, lack of confidence, and even anxiety and depression are more like states of mind. They do not move. They hang like weather inversions. If you’re in one of those states, it’s always a good idea to check what emotion is underlying it.
In the case of anxiety and depression, recent studies indicate that chronically feeling frozen or as if you’re “paralyzed” may be a causal factor. Of course, there are those who are born with hereditary tendencies to introversion and extreme sensitivity to stimuli that grow up in families that teach them to manage sad, mad, scared emotions in ways more likely to lead to anxiety and depression. Science is now learning, however, that environmental factors can turn genetic dispositions off or on. I am the therapist people come to when they want to handle anxiety and depression without drugs. (And yes, I do sometimes refer people for meds when they do not have the resources available to manage the careful attention to nutrition, exercise and emotional medicine required—no blame, that’s only humane.)
You say there are no negative emotions.
Each sad, mad, scared, glad emotion has a purpose that propels us to life-enhancing action. Without grief we could not experience the yearning for intimate love and relationships. Without fear, we could not have a built in warning signal about whether we are safe or not. Without anger, we would not have the ability to set and defend ourselves from encroachment or intrusion. Without gladness we would not know the bliss of letting go into pleasure—we wouldn’t find the uncomplicated joy of life.
The fact that emotions are designed for action is one reason it’s so important to allow the energy of emotion to move through the body safely, responsibly and briefly, in some way. Resisting the natural flow of emotion is a prescription for mental and physical ill health, not to mention unfulfilling relationships. The key is to use awareness and let the body lead.
For those of us who try different methodologies and approaches to being more effective and happy in life, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between why it is we feel good or feel down. Maybe it’s exercise or herbs or the vitamins we are taking. I see you get into distinctions like that, and connect hunger or fatigue and sadness for instance. Can you expand on that?
I love that you asked this question. Good nutrition—appropriate protein, vegetables, antioxidant low carb fruit and good fats (like those in fish, nuts, avocados)—regular exercise, rest, sunlight, sleep, loving human connection and touch, all work together to provide a foundation for emotional medicine. Sometimes when I am having a hard time getting out of my head and my emotional medicine strategies aren’t working, I’ll check whether I’m hungry and need some food medicine—like a little smoked salmon. This happens to me especially if I indulge in some caffeine, which makes me temporarily feel like Queen of the world then leaves me a sitting duck for “getting grabbed” by a jitters-inspired narrative.
You distinguish between awareness and thinking, blaming, and judging. Tell us about that.
Awareness accepts all as-is. Awareness does not shame, blame, judge, or think about events in terms of right or wrong, good and bad. As a result, awareness offers us a taste of truly unconditional love. Awareness offers us a place to “rest” no matter what else is happening. Everyone knows there is no rest in thinking, blaming and judging.
Let’s be clear though. Developing awareness doesn’t mean that thinking, blaming and judging don’t ever arise. They do. Constantly! This is a given in the human design. The trick is to keep noticing when you are thinking, blaming or judging. The moment you become aware that these are just thoughts arising, you are no longer captive of them. You become big enough to include all aspects of your experience.
This is relevant to mirror neurons. If you are witnessing someone having an emotional experience and you are caught in your judgments, it will be harder to get the mirrored benefits of emotional medicine in your presence. To be an effective emotional medicine partner or “feel good fast friends” (FGFFs), you need to be able to watch your judgments go by like clouds, bring your attention back to your body and enjoy the ride.
Focusing attention on your body’s experience is a big help in moving away from thinking and judging—and back toward loving yourself or others. Your body is not neurotic. It does not blame or judge its experience. No matter what challenges you give your body— too much sugar, alcohol, drugs, work, or too little sleep, exercise, sun, play, etc.—it doesn’t say, “Well that’s it. I’m not going to try to regulate this person any more.” No, your organism just metaphorically rolls up its sleeves and says, “I’m here to do whatever I can to bring this body/mind back into some semblance of balance.” Tapping into your body’s 24/7 intention to do whatever is necessary to keep you alive and kicking is another way to experience unconditional love and a great way to break shame and blame thought cycles.
Can you expand on “You have within you everything you need to feel good fast?”
Because God/Spirit/Nature decided in her/his beneficent wisdom to make our emotions (which are always, at some level, getting triggered by life’s slings and arrows) delivery systems for relief and bliss, we can relax. It is liberating to realize that our raw, primary human emotional nature is designed to be the vehicle not only for feeling good and living happy lives, but for connection and experience with the divine.
Mark Epstein, the Buddhist psychiatrist/author describes the fear of being overwhelmed by feelings as fear of loss of self. Let me give you his exact quote, “The self that we are afraid of losing is a false self. If we can learn not to fear our feelings, we gain access to the real.”
Whenever you surrender to the brief flow of feeling within, you end up at the doorway to spiritual connection, to what’s real. This happens because letting go and cooperating with the movement of emotional energy through your body loosens the tight grip your ego typically maintains on your being. You let go of ego and stay connected to awareness.
Similarly, surrendering to the pleasure present at the end of every brief emotional experience also leaves you on the threshold of bliss and connection with something greater than yourself.
I’d like to mention the connection between emotional medicine and intention setting. Although I cover this more deeply in my book, I want to make it clear: whenever you take emotional medicine, you are strengthening your energy field, your ability to intend and manifest the life you want and deserve.
Emotional medicine gives you an opportunity to continue moving through inherited genetic and childhood wounds to bring yourself in line with your soul’s destiny. Emotional Medicine is a tool to add to your spiritual medicine bag, along with formal meditation practice, yoga, Feldenkrais, prayer, intention and surrender. Besides that, it’s good for your complexion, digestion, nervous system, and sex life!