The Experience of Emotion
There are various ways in which we experience our emotions. Imagine someone preparing for a performance, in front of a large audience, or students getting ready to take a final exam. One may described the anticipation and anxiety by stating, “I have butterflies in my stomach.” Or other times one may hear children making reference to one of their sibling who won’t stay out of their room. “He is a pain in the neck.” The reference of these sensation occurring in one;s body is actually emotion. Emotions are experiences of our body.
Each emotion produces patterns of skeletal muscle contractions that can be seen and observed by other on the outside. However, each individual experiences emotion on the inside as well. For instance, someone who is experiencing a loss may feel extreme sadness. On the outside, his or her eyes may be red and tensed together. This emotion may be easy to see. However, someone may be relating to the internal sense he feels when he or she makes the statement, “I am all choked up.” He or she may be referring to his/her experience of this sadness based on the feeling of a lump in the throat.
For some, it may be difficult to link the physical internal sensation with the emotional experience. For instance, it can be difficult to identify tension when one is angry or anxious. Others may notice a clenched jaw or hunched shoulders and can alert the individual that he or she appears to be experiencing emotion. However, it can be very helpful to increase one’s own awareness of the internal sensations as these are often helpful in learning about triggers, recognizing when it is important to attend to these emotions, and in developing ways to manage the emotions.
Often times, individuals can be triggered by events or situations and display a behavior to assist them in dealing with emotion. The behaviors that result may not be the favored responses, but can seem difficult to change. If an individual is unaware of the warning signs or the emotion, the behavior may result from impulse. Consider hunger as an example. One may overeat as a means of managing emotion that is experienced as an internal sensation of hunger. The hunger that is felt may be triggered by a situation that evokes anger, anxiety sadness, etc. If an individual is able to learn how to pay attention to hunger as an emotion, recognize what triggers this emotion and then apply appropriate coping skills to address this, he or she is likely not to overeat as often.
There are many physical internal sensation that can be translated as emotion. Changes in heart rate or skin temperature, nausea and dizziness are all internal sensations that have the potential to alert the individual to experiences of emotion. When recognized appropriately, it can be very helpful to identify emotion, particularly deep-rooted emotions. Feelings of shame or fear that can be associated with trauma are not always experienced as outwardly as they are internally. An individual who has developed a means of coping to manage the outward expression of the emotion may have difficulty managing his or her internal experience of that emotion.
Learning more about our internal emotions is important to learning more about oneself. Take a body scan to consider the variety of sensations in one’s body and then think of one’s various feelings. Memory is crucial to the experience of emotion. Remembering a time that one was angry and then considering any change in internal sensations may assist him or her in learning more about the emotions. Adding details of verbal exchanges, visualizations, or other sensory imagery can assist one in this process. Afterwards, recalling a time of happiness is likely to produce different internal emotions. It can be helpful to bring awareness to the change between these states.
Working with one’s therapist can help individual develop the skills necessary to learn to identify and attend to the internal experiences of emotion. According to Babette Rothschild, “Each emotion is the result of interplay between the sensory, autonomic, and somatic nervous systems interpreted within the brain’s cortex.” (Rothschild, 2000) The sensations that one’s body produces becomes the basis for making decisions, weighing the outcomes of consequences, and learning of one’s own preferences. Thus, it is of great benefit to learn about one’s emotions and how they speak to you.
Rothschild,B.(2000). The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and
trauma treatment. New York: W.W. Norton
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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