Do you find yourself shopping when you don’t need anything and spending more money than you have? Do you eat when you are not hungry and past the point of being full? Do you need a drink in order to face your day, or perhaps several? People do many things to distract themselves from their feelings. If you do anything habitually, that you know you probably shouldn’t be doing as much as you do, you may be trying to avoid your emotions.
Emotions can be uncomfortable things. Most people enjoy the good feelings of love, happiness and enjoyment–but not all. The emotions that most often cause us to reach for the icecream or the credit card are usually the negative ones like anger, fear and hate. These are uncomfortable feelings. When we are young, emotions can be overwhelming and painful and we all learn ways to avoid feeling them. As adults, these patterns can take on a life of their own and can result in behaviours that are bad for us.
Unfortunately, emotions do not go away until they are experienced. When we routinely push emotions down, two things can happen. They can build up and then erupt, when they get the opportunity, or they can result in physical discomfort or illness.
If you find that you start crying for little or no reason, you erupt in anger at the slightest provocation, you become frightened or burst out laughing for no apparent reason, you may just be experiencing suppressed emotions that are bubbling up to the surface.
Depression; lack of interest in things that you used to enjoy; feeling like you are just going through the motions–can all be symptoms of repressed feelings. If we close the door on one emotion, it is very difficult to let other emotions in.
Denollet (2009) showed that unexpressed anger increased the risk of heart attack. Miyamoto (2011) demonstrated that the Japanese freedom to express negative emotions is better for your overall health than the North American societal pressure to only express positive emotions. In general, it has been demonstrated that expressing emotions, instead of repressing them, is better for your overall well being (Barber, 2011). There is no question that the happier you are the healthier you are.
Those of us that avoid rather than feel our emotions may be so programmed to reach for a drink or some other diversion that we no longer recognize that we are running away from a feeling. If you have a habit that you often turn to, especially one that you feel is excessive or not good for your overall well being, you need to become aware of it. When the urge strikes, stop for a moment.
Before you indulge in your diversion, be still. Take a moment to sit quietly and focus on your breathing. Take note of where there is sensation in your body. Describe the sensation. Try to picture it. Start at your toes and pay attention to each part of your body up to your head. Is there any vibration, heat, tension, pain, discomfort, numbness or any other sensation? Can you feel your entire body or are there parts that you can no longer feel? Sit with this for a while and pay attention.
This exercise gets you out of your mind and the thoughts that you may try to tell yourself about why you should just go shopping. It does not focus on trying to identify the emotion that you are feeling, just the way that you experience the emotion as a physical sensation in your body.
The next step is to think backward from the moment that you went to your favourite vice until you become aware of what happened that caused you to reach for your diversion. The habit of not feeling emotions right away can become so refined that it may have even been something that happened a day or two ago, or longer. Continue to retrace your memory until you start to recognize the physical sensation in your body again. When remembering “feels” the same way you felt when you started the exercise you have identified the cause of the feeling.
Remember the event. Think about what you thought at the time and try to get in touch with what you were feeling. Do not censor yourself. Some emotions are considered unacceptable in our society and you might be a master of telling yourself what you should be feeling and how you should be responding. Denial of your own emotions is not good for you. You can feel anger without acting on it. You can feel hate, pain and fear without having it change how you behave. Forcing yourself not to feel these emotions causes them to be stored.
By recognizing what you were feeling at the time and allowing yourself to feel it, you can let the emotions move through you. Once an emotion is expressed, it is released from the body. The discomfort that you feel trying to avoid an emotion can last much much longer than the emotion itself if you allow yourself to just feel it directly.
At this point you may find that you choose to indulge in your habit anyhow. The advantage of this exercise is that you become more and more aware of why you are distracting yourself. Also, if you allow yourself to feel your emotions, you may find that your need to avoid them decreases over time.