Emotional Processing Is A B*tch
Emotional processing is a weird thing. It happens haphazardly (imho) and is often misunderstood, even by the person processing. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van der kolk is one of my favorite books that describes the glitches in the emotional processing system that happen with PTSD. To explain it as simply as possible, when a traumatic event occurs, there is an ACTUAL PHYSIOLOGICAL change in our brains. That change means that when we are presented with another situation that is similar in some way or another, the same set of emotions are triggered. The emotional responses to the new situation can seem exaggerated to those on the outside and even sometimes the logical brain knows that we are ‘overreacting’ but still, we cannot control the emotions or their expression.
This definitely happens to people with PTSD and I believe that it also happens this way in most people on a smaller scale. We have strong reactions to certain events in our lives and when our brain recognizes something similar, we respond with the same emotional response even if we can logically explain that what just happened isn’t actually a problem. The animal part of our brain takes over and our rational / logistic thinking brain deactivates automatically.
Example. I HATE the sides of my body to be touched. I was a ticklish child and when I was tickled it made me laugh, but more out of stress than fun. I F*%&(^*G HATED to be tickled. Now, all these years later, as a 35 year old woman, I shudder when someone touches my side and pull away immediately. This is an easy example – a situation that happened and a repetition of the situation but often times, it’s not so easy to make the connections.
It is difficult to explain to patients that their shoulder pain is related to grief that they experienced a year before (that actually happened – a chest opening yoga pose and a good cry and the shoulder was fine). It is difficult for us to make the connections between our emotional lives and our physical ones, especially when it’s not as clear as “Was tickled, will scream”. Sometimes people will be aware that their shoulder tightness is due to ‘stress’ but they aren’t sure what emotions or situations are causing it.
It might be something like this: when they were younger, their father shouted a lot. When he did, they raised their shoulders and covered their hands with their ears. Now, whenever someone corrects them or is upset with them, those muscles activate. They probably aren’t covering their ears, but you can bet those shoulders go up and get tense. Now, they don’t feel particularly stressed out. Life is ok. They have a decent job. But there is this one person at work who just always seems to be out for them. The criticism is meant to be constructive, but the idea that they are disappointing someone brings back those same emotions and thus that same physical reaction.
It is almost as if the emotions were aware that we didn’t have the capacity to deal when things were more stressful, so they waited for a ‘better time’. Now, you don’t feel so stressed out, but you are in pain and your hair is falling out and your menstrual cycle is unregulated and you tell me “But I’M NOT STRESSED OUT”. And I believe you and then respond “Maybe not right now….”.
So, if you are having a weird symptom and you don’t know where it’s coming from please be aware that it might be an old hurt that came up to say hello.
It doesn’t mean that you are a crazy stressed out in denial person. It means that something happened, at some point, that you shoved down (I mean, we’ve all got plenty of those, right??!?!) and now it’s popping up and bothering you.I usually know when a symptom is emotionally related in a patient if it doesn’t get better in the first treatment or two and the patient stops talking about it. When I ask a few treatments later, they mention casually that it’s still there but that it’s ‘not bothering’ them. BS. It is, but it’s not changing and they don’t know what to do, so they move to acceptance.
So, what can YOU do if you suspect you might have one of these old sneaky emotions wreaking havoc in your body?
My best advice? Meditation. Any kind you can handle to start, but I love Body Scan meditations. They go through your body and teach you to relax from head to toe. You repeat that pattern enough and your body has the space and time it needs to process out whatever is building up. You can look up the app: Insight Timer – it’s free and amazing. Cheers to my sister for teaching me about it! Within the app, click on the headset icon and search guided meditations. You can search with the words Body Scan or Yoga Nidra. Yoga Nidra is the original Body Scan.
Find one that you love and do it before bed every night. Give your body the time and space it needs to process. I promise, you’ll be happy you did.