How to Move Past Emotions When You’re Stuck
Do you consider yourself an emotional person?
Some highly sensitive people may immediately shoot their hands up and say, “Yes, that’s me!” Other more stoic types might shake their heads no, possibly derisively. Here’s the thing: You can’t be a “person” and not be “emotional.” They go together. (It was a trick question, I know.) But whether you are aware of your feelings or not, emotions happen and they affect how you present yourself to others.
Most of the time, feelings are fleeting. Sometimes, though, emotions such as anger, fear, grief, helplessness, or even joy can hit you like a tidal wave, flooding you to the point that you can’t be present at all.
That’s because emotions are thoughts that you feel in your body. They show up physically. Or in other words, nonverbally. Anxious? You might experience a wobbly stomach or a pain in your head. Angry? Your face probably feels hot or you sense tightness in your chest. Do you tend to be obstinate or stubborn (i.e., inflexible)? You may be prone to stiffness in your neck or knees…
Emotions are completely normal and, in fact, good. They can alert you to danger, provide you with motivation, and propel connection. They make you real. You’re a human being, as opposed to a droid, because you think and feel.
However, what you think and how you feel are only part of the equation. There’s also the expression (or I might say communication) of the emotion. And we have all SORTS of cultural taboos about how one may or may not express an emotion, particularly along gender lines. When men get angry, for example, we assume they’re expressing righteous indignation over injustice, whereas angry women are perceived as irrational, untethered, and dangerous. Women, though, are generally allowed to express their sorrow and grief through tears, whereas men may not. This is ridiculous, of course. But the point is that we often shut down our emotional responses out of fear of repercussions. And if you do that, the emotion will just be stuck there with you.
Because emotions are physical, they require physical expression. To move past an emotional reaction, whether it’s anger or sadness or shame or fear or grief or greed or envy, you have to get it OUT of your body. It will be locked up in your head, your joints, your heart, your stomach, or your veins, causing you pain and decreasing your ability to be present and communicate presence until you deal with it.
I’ve written before about physical things you can do to avoid an emotional hijacking in the moment. Those are great when someone triggers you in a conversation. But what about when you’re facing an ongoing difficulty and you need to process it? Or you’re having a rough day and you need to clear the thoughts and feelings in order to be present with your staff or family? Here are seven things you can do to express (that is, expel) the emotion from your body safely and effectively in order to move on, show up, and increase your presence. Choose a few that appeal to you and put them into regular practice.
First, get the thoughts out of your head:
- Talk out loud. Talk to yourself if you need to. Talk to a friend, a spouse, a coworker (if it’s appropriate), your coach, your pet, your neighbor, or your pot of petunias. Don’t obsessively revive your thoughts and feelings (also called rumination) or dump on others. Do give voice to your feelings and process your thoughts. When you say things out loud, you often see (and feel) them in a different way. As a rule, if you feel worse (more angry, sad, jealous, etc.) after talking, you were probably ruminating. If you feel better, that’s healthy processing.
- Write. Numerous studies show that journaling helps you gain clarity, reduce stress, prioritize your life, and process emotions. You can keep a regular journal, if you like. Or you can write on a plain sheet of paper and burn it when you’re done, use a white board or chalk board to catch fleeting words, or use a stick to write in the sand or dirt. Get those words out of your head and let them go.
Second, get the energy out of your body:
- Move. Your body responds to threats with a fight or flight response. If you’re angry (fight), your body sends energy to your arms. Try throwing a football, boxing, punching a pillow, chopping wood, or any other strong upper body move to release that energy. If you’re scared (flight), your body sends energy to your legs. Try running, jumping, swinging, kicking, or going up and down the stairs to release that energy. The point is not to exacerbate the emotion (don’t imagine you’re punching the person who made you angry, for example), but to give it somewhere safe to go.
- Cry. No one has to see you cry. But if you feel like crying, do it. Crying releases stress hormones and toxins from your body and increases feel-good hormones like oxytocin. It literally clears your system.
- Breathe deeply. Breathing helps you release tension and toxins from your body, too. It is a physical way to flush out emotions and their effects. E x h a l e .
Third, replenish with things that feel good:
- Breathe deeply (part 2). Yes, exhale, but don’t forget the inhale, too. Release the pain, tension, and toxins, and be sure that you physically and figuratively take in healthfulness and peace. Deep breathing relaxes your muscles, relieves pain, massages your internal organs, provides oxygen to all your systems, and helps you think clearly. And it feels really good.
- Get some water. I’m not the type of person who likes to get IN water, but I sure like to listen to streams, waterfalls, and the crash of the sea. Whether you’re dipping your toes in the ocean, sitting in a hot tub, gazing at a fountain, or sipping ice water on a warm day, water refreshes your body and spirit.
- Fill your well. You know what replenishes you. Music? Laughter? Time with friends? Time alone? Sleep? A walk in the woods? A good book? Nourish yourself.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Your imagination and past experience will help you find your own ways to clear thoughts from your heads, emotional reactions from your body, and refill your physical and emotional tanks with things that do you good. Take some time to assess and address what you’re feeling so that you can give yourself what you need. Then you’ll be able to give others what they need, too: your attention, your presence, yourself.