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Overcoming "Stuck" Emotions

Have you ever become trapped inside your own head, unable to express; let alone understand the emotions inside of you?

Anyone may experience stuck emotions at some point in their life. No matter the cause, being emotionally stuck can be incredibly debilitating and can affect all aspects of our life – from our physical and mental health to our interpersonal relationships and even our careers.

Unresolved emotions can be difficult to process. Whether you’re feeling angry, shameful, desperate, or numb, emotions that aren’t appropriately dealt with don’t usually disappear.

Fortunately, there is a way out from feeling trapped by your emotions.

Read on as we explore the reason for stuck emotions, how they affect our bodies, and how we can process them more effectively. 

What are Stuck Emotions?

Stuck emotions, also known as “trapped emotions” refer to a pent-up feeling from within that the true self wants to express but cannot seem to do so. As a result, stuck emotions can fester within our bodies, causing stress, muscle tension, pain, and other more serious physical or mental ailments.

There are many reasons why we experience stuck emotions. Oftentimes, they stem from various traumatic experiences from our past.

Some common examples include:

  • Unresolved childhood trauma (i.e. abuse)
  • A significant breakup or affair
  • Major life changes or transitions
  • The death of a loved one
  • Loss of a job
  • An experience of discrimination, violence, or sexual assault

When triggered, the brain has a way of working through the trauma. From one person to the next, this may look completely different. For example, while some people may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), others may experience a heightened sense of anxiety or dissociate completely from the trauma itself.

As a result, these ‘sensory fragments’ that are leftover in the brain due to unresolved trauma can interrupt our body’s natural recovery process and create what we know as stuck emotions.

Where Emotions are Felt in the Body

It may come as no surprise that many of our emotions can be felt in certain parts of our bodies. A relevant example of this is when we feel shame or embarrassment, we typically experience a rush of heat to our face and neck. This concept is better explained by somatization which is the name used when emotional distress is expressed in our physical symptoms or sensations.

Interestingly, this 2013 study was able to explain this connection more accurately.

A group of Finnish biomedical engineers mapped bodily reactions across 700 individuals by asking them to colour the regions of their bodies where they experienced specific emotions (i.e. anger, pride, happiness, frustration, etc.). Throughout this study, they discovered that different emotions were associated with the same unique bodily sensations across all individuals. For example, anger, fear, and anxiety were all found to affect the chest and upper body whereas happiness was shown to permeate across the entire body.

When emotions are not dealt with, they may be stored within our unconscious and wreak havoc on our physical health and well-being. Becoming more aware of these feelings can help guide us toward recovery.

3 Ways To Overcome Stuck Emotions

The best way to process our emotional distress and move it out of our body to relieve us from any physical pain or tension can be accomplished by learning to express these emotions in a safe, healthy, and productive way.

Here are some helpful ways to do this.

1.   Become more self-aware through mindfulness

Mindfulness is a beneficial self-help technique that is used to allow us to recognize and address our feelings or emotions as they arise in our bodies. As a form of meditation, mindfulness is the practice of purposefully bringing our attention to the present moment without trying to judge or interpret ourselves. 

Learning to be more aware of our emotions and how they present themselves in our body, such as through physical tension, anxiety, or brain fog can keep us from suppressing or dissociating from them.

According to research on mindfulness, neuroimaging results display functional and structural changes in various areas of the brain indicating that mindfulness can help improve attention and emotional regulation.

A great way to exercise mindfulness is by practicing stillness. Being physical is shown to help people better connect to their inner thoughts, emotions, motivations, and desires. In such a busy world, stillness helps to enrich our minds and bodies by allowing space for our emotions to come into our consciousness.

Here are some simple ways to practice stillness:

  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Listening to calm music (without lyrics)
  • Repeating affirmations or positive mantras
  • Practicing progressive muscle relaxation

2.   Switch from “suppressing” to “reappraising”

After you’ve opened your mind up to sitting with and experiencing your emotions, it’s time to transition from responding with suppression and begin approaching these emotions through the process of reappraisal.

Emotional suppression is a very common habit that you may not be consciously aware of. On a subconscious level, emotional suppression helps you avoid feeling sadness or anxiety, allowing you to gain a sense of control. As a result, individuals who suppress their emotions on a regular basis are known to experience less positive emotions and reduced relationship quality.

That’s where cognitive reappraisal comes in.

Cognitive reappraisal is a focusing strategy aimed at adjusting the emotional meaning and significance of a situation that elicits a negative or unfavourable emotion. This involves recognizing the negative thought pattern and changing it to one that is more productive or effective. Consequently, this can help us approach and overcome negative emotions with ease.

Here’s an example:

Consider that you have recently been broken up with. Certain thoughts may come up from this to cause you to say things like…

  • “Why do I always give too much in a relationship, they end up leaving me anyways”,
  • “It must have been my fault that he left me”, or
  • “I should have fought harder or convinced them to stay with me”

Regardless if there is any sort of validity in these statements, it’s doing more harm than good to continue filling our minds with unproductive thoughts. Instead, it’s time to take on a new perspective on this difficult situation. Consider these reappraisals as examples of this…

  • “I gave my heart to someone and that takes strength and vulnerability, I do not regret that”,
  • “It takes two people to make and break a relationship, no one person is at fault for this decision”, and
  • “I can not control anyone else’s thoughts, feelings, or actions besides my own”

3.   Realign with your authentic self by focusing on your well-being

When we neglect our true needs in life, we are more likely to experience increased anxiety, depression, distractibility, and overall brain and body fatigue. Over time, this can also contribute to experiencing reduced sleep quality, relationship satisfaction, confidence, and self-compassion.

The best strategy to avoid burnout is self-care.

Indulging in healing habits that help bring about feelings of wholeness and well-being is essential to re-aligning with our authentic selves. As we engage in self-care, we give ourselves permission to reset back to a relaxed state of being, welcoming back inner balance and wellness.

Self-care can happen in many different ways. Whether you enjoy getting out into nature, taking your dog for a walk, creating art, listening to music, meditating, or journalling, it’s important that we all take the time we need to cleanse our minds, relax our bodies, and restore our energy.

The Bottom Line

Having more awareness about our emotions such as being willing to learn to accept or process them is essential for building and maintaining our physical and mental health. In other words, when we allow ourselves to experience our emotions, we become less attached, overwhelmed, and reactive by them.

If you’re struggling to overcome stuck emotions or want to learn more about your own emotions, reach out for support. As compassionate mental health experts, we are here to listen to you and work together to help you achieve the best future possible.

Book a free 30-minute consultation today!

Written by Julie Stevenson, BSW, MSW, RSW

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