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processing emotional PAIN

Of all the coaching tools, processing emotional pain is the one that I naturally resist. To me, it seems the most woo, the most new-agey, the most out there.

I've always thought emotional pain was all in my thoughts. This makes sense because our thoughts -- the sentences in our brains -- are what CAUSE emotions. And when we feel pain, those thoughts are firing in our brains on overdrive. But emotions are actually FELT in our bodies, not in our minds.

Maybe this seems obvious to you. The first time I spoke to a large group audience and I discussed feeling emotions in our bodies I expected to meet a lot of resistance -- because at the time I still felt resistance to the concept myself. To my surprise, the vast majority of the audience said that they do indeed feel emotions in their bodies. Mind blown.

Knowing this, it makes sense that there is a growing body of research showing how pain killers like acetaminophin relieve emotional pain as well as physical pain. There is also research showing how physical pain is intensified by emotions, especially fear.

It also makes sense that we commonly describe emotions with physical feelings -- butterflies in the tummy (from nervousness), feeling sick (from disgust), heart racing (from anxiety). Each emotion has a different feel.

Why is this important?

Understanding that we feel emotions in our bodies can help us identify and process them, which brings us relief.

Have you ever woken up feeling off and not really known why? My natural tendency is to assume I haven't gotten enough sleep, that I slept in an uncomfortable position, or that there's some physical cause. But sometimes, what we are feeling is emotional, and it is caused by the thoughts our brain is producing. We may not even be aware of these thoughts.

This happened to me today. We recently had a death in our family. I woke up this morning and told my husband I felt like I was 90 years old. My shoulder hurt. I had a headache. My hips hurt. I couldn't imagine what would cause so much physical pain. And then I realized I'm feeling so many things -- worry, grief, confusion, overwhelm, impatience, anxiety. Of course those emotions are showing up all over my body.

Most people's reaction to emotional pain is to do one of two things:

1) Avoid it -- we try to think of something else, we "thought swap", or we stimulate our dopamine center with concentrated pleasures like sugar or alcohol.

2) React to it -- we scream, we yell, we hit things, we say things we regret, we make hasty decisions.

But both of these things actually cause the pain to keep coming back -- sometimes even worse than it was before. Resisting pain is like trying to push a beach ball under the water. As soon as you remove the thing pushing it down, it flies back up above the surface with much more force than when it was just sitting on top the water.

So what is the best way to deal with pain?

Process and allow it.

Notice it. Name it. "Grief. There's grief. This is the part of life where I feel grief." Allow all the thoughts causing grief to flood the brain. Sit with it. Be with it.

And then begin to watch for it in your body. Where exactly do you feel it in your body -- is it tightness in your shoulders and neck, a clenching in your fists, a sick feeling in your stomach? Try to find it wherever it lives. Describe exactly what it feels like. Some people can even identify a shape or a color to the emotion.

What you'll find is that this process requires you to become a watcher of your body. That alone gives you a small measure of relief. You begin to understand the emotion. And then, you'll notice the emotion begin to dissipate. The emotion becomes like a wave. It will continue to ebb and flow, but each time it breaks on the sand it gets a little smaller. This process feels cleansing and brings lasting relief.

Next time you experience emotional pain, rather than masking it with a cookie or a drink, pay attention to the pain. Allow yourself to just feel it and let it be. Relax into it. It's easier than you think, and you will feel so much better.

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