The Physical Impact of Our Emotions

Why feeling our emotions is important for our mental and physical health

While the mind-body connection might be making a comeback for western medicine, in Chinese healing this idea has never left. According to traditional Chinese medicine, and practices that are over 2000 years old, our emotions and physical health are intimately connected.¹ They’ve identified five main emotions that, in-turn, are associated with a particular organ in the body and its functioning.

These are:

  • Joy – with the heart
  • Fear – with the kidney
  • Anger – with the liver
  • Worry – with the spleen
  • Sadness and grief – with the lungs

When out of balance, emotions are believed to affect the organs’ functioning, leading to discomfort, or in the case of severe imbalance, disease.

Even if this is not the default belief in our medical model, it is hard to deny the direct link between our emotions and physical sensations. Let’s look at some straightforward examples: when you’re anxious you can feel a lump in your throat, it can cause you to tremble or sweat, or be short of breath. When we are angry we can get flushed in the face, clench our fist or jaws, and when we’re happy it gives us a feeling of lightness.³

These are all effects of trapped emotions in our bodies. Some of the effects of these trapped emotions are pretty typical, like chest tightness and a lump in your throat, but in other cases, the symptoms and the root cause can be more difficult to connect. For example, grief is linked to the chest area. Some people who are grieving the loss of a loved one can experience chest pain so intense that it can be mistaken for a heart attack. Anxiety can also be linked to stomach issues like digestive problems, nausea, or stomach pain. Repressed anger can lead to frequent headaches because the energy associated with anger can get trapped in the head and the neck area.

The link between our emotions and where they are experienced in the body was beautifully visualised in research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The heatmap is shown above. The research clearly demonstrates that different emotions are consistently felt in certain parts of the body, emphasising its physiological impact.  “These results thus support models assuming that somatosensation and embodiment play critical roles in emotional processing.”²  

Emotional Processing

Let’s talk about emotional processing for a second, because how much do we actually know about this? As an adult I must admit I haven’t actively learned anything about this until I started doing this work. It isn’t really taught to us as children, at least not consciously, and to be fully honest, what is being taught in western society is quite the opposite (I’m not sure this is even limited to only western society). From an early age, we learn that big feelings should not be expressed around other people, and nobody tells us what else we should do with them either. As kids we are taught to shove feelings down, put on a brave face and smile through the pain, and thus this is what we will do as adults too, and the loop continues.

In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle describes this scene of two ducks in a pond, that really stuck with me. In this scene one duck comes and invades the peaceful pond of the other. They get into a quarrel, which lasts for a couple of seconds and then go their separate ways. A thing they do, after such high energy encounter, is to literally shake it off. They flap their wings a few times before going about their day, which is a way of releasing the tension and energy that’s stuck in their bodies. Tolle then goes on to brilliantly illustrate what a human would do in such scenario, how we keep the negative encounter alive for longer, replaying it in our heads, coming up with even better arguments to what we should have said, and hold on to this energy way past the point of the encounter.

What I am trying to point out is that animals, and not only ducks, have this natural instinct to shake off such events shortly after it happened and not carry it along, while us humans tend to do the complete opposite. Some of us ruminate about it for days, weeks, even years in some cases, without actually processing it, while others shove all this anger down, pretending all is fine and going about their lives.

Imagine if you only had one such occasion – one duck invasion – in your life, chances are you won’t feel much from it. But now imagine you’ve had several of these situations, per year, all these bundles of energy that we can physically feel in our body, left unprocessed, kept alive, stuck… It isn’t hard to imagine that this has an effect on our general wellbeing.

Connecting your mind and body is integral to your overall well-being. In fact, according to Hilary Hendel (LCSW), “ignoring, burying, or blocking your emotions may contribute to more illnesses. For example, when your mind-body connection is weak, you may neglect your emotional and/or physical health”.

Emotional baggage is a very commonly used term to describe the conscious and even subconscious emotions we collect and carry around with us through our lives. The problem is that this emotional baggage can then become the underlying cause of things such as depression, anxiety, phobias and panic attacks, eating disorders, and self-sabotage of all kinds. Also on a physical level, it is the underlying cause of the majority of all chronic physical pain that people have.

Photo by Molnár Bálint on Unsplash

Where our emotions are held in the body

Here are some examples of pain we feel in our body and the most common feelings they are associated with:

  1. Neck pain: is often associated with strong judgement. If you hold strong judgement, whether it is over yourself or others, this might come out in the body as neck pain. The emotions linked to the neck are guilt, forgiveness (of yourself or others) and self-blame. If you have reoccurring neck pain, ask yourself, have I held strong judgment lately?
  • Shoulder pain: ever heard the expression “having the weight of the world on your shoulders”? This doesn’t just come from anywhere, it has everything to do with the feeling of taking on too much, carrying too much responsibility. If this is an underlying feeling you have been carrying, where in life could I do a little less or maybe ask for help?
  • Upper Back pain: pain in the upper back is linked to a feeling of lack of emotional support, or feeling unloved. Ask yourself, is there a conversation worth having?
  • Lower back pain: pain felt in the lower back is often linked to worries, and most commonly financial worries or the lack of financial support. Is there a way you can review this part of your life and make a plan that makes you feel more comfortable in the long run?
  • Hip pain: pain in the hips is most commonly linked to fear of the future and making decisions about the future. This has often to do with major life decisions, around relationships or work. If you feel hip pain, ask yourself, “Is there a decision you might keep putting off?
  • Knee pain: knees are linked to flexibility or its counterpart rigidity. It has to do with your ability to bend in life and adapt to the ever changing flow. If you have a hard time with change or adaptation your knees can feel rigid and painful. You may ask yourself, Is there an area where you might be a little stubborn and refusing to bend?

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