When you push your emotions away, they often take up residence as stress-fueled physical pain and other symptoms. Here’s how to tell — and what to do about it.
Enduring something traumatic or stressful is not only noticeable in your brain in the form of thoughts, but research shows that it also translates to pain in your body. You can get a headache or earache, sore muscles, feel nauseated, tense shoulders, pain in your neck, a stomachache, diarrhea, eczema, and the list goes on. And trauma is even more magnified when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), since everything affects us on a deeper level.
It is thought that if you don’t do anything, the trauma will be stored in your body for the rest of your life.
A while ago, I watched/heard Therapy in a Nutshell, a video about a polar bear that shook off the trauma from being chased. Apparently, animals do this to prevent the trauma from staying with them in their body. This self-healing exercise is known by animals, but humans seem to have forgotten this skill.
I Don’t Have Any Trauma… Do I?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event.” You might think: I have never experienced real trauma, so this doesn’t apply to me. But you might be wrong. You may think about experiencing an attack, a flood, or losing a loved one when you think about trauma. However, for our brains, other, less-drastic stressful situations can be perceived as trauma, too.
So having an argument/being yelled at, almost having an accident, or losing an opportunity can cause the same effect. When not taken care of, it can result in trapped trauma in your body. And that is where the trouble lies — when we don’t deal with it. The tension is still trapped in our body. So we get pains, a rash, strange muscle spasms, you name it.
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Being Told to ‘Just Deal With It’
In my upbringing (in the 1980s and ‘90s in Western Europe), there was no place for education about how to manage big emotions. My parents didn’t see my sensitive nature, so didn’t act accordingly. And I have these phrases so many times growing up: “Keep your chin up”; “stop crying”; “stop overreacting”; “you must toughen up”; “don’t be so sensitive”; “just suck it up”; “let it go”; “don’t worry about it”; and countless others…
I believe that in many cultures and families, kids don’t learn how to deal with their emotions in a healthy way. So what happens? We are thought it is “weak” or “wrong” to show we are sad or angry, so we stuff the feeling away — which some call “emotional buffering” — and it festers in our bodies for years. These core wounds, like not feeling wanted or like enough — are really worth investigating and deserve a healing and loving approach.
And, even as adults, we give each other the “don’t sweat it” and “toughen up” messages. Say you have a near-accident on your way to work. When you tell your coworker, they say, “Oh, well, good thing nothing happened,” and then move on with their day. But you are left with a feeling of unease; you were shocked by the near-accident.
Another example may be you missing out on a promotion (or raise) at work that you’d had your heart set on. You’re actually a bit crushed, sad, and disappointed. You start to feel insecure and wonder if you should have done more or worked harder. You talk to a friend about it and their response is, “Oh, well, nowadays you should be happy to have a job at all; don’t worry about it.” But you do worry about it — that’s the thing — and you actually feel grief since you feel you lost something.
Instead of embracing your HSP feelings and emotions, we tend to put them aside; after all, we don’t want to seem childish, selfish, insecure, or weak. We want people to view us as “strong” and “tough” people, and we have been taught that showing emotions is not a part of that.
But I am here to say: Emotions are not a bad thing or things that need to be hidden away like a secret. Instead, we should just listen to them and learn from their message.
And know that it is perfectly okay to feel this way; it is not a situation that needs “fixing.” Most people either downsize your emotional response or will repeatedly tell you, “It will be alright.” But sometimes the best thing we can tell each other is, “Oh, yes, I can understand — that just really sucks! You are right to be angry/sad/lost/anxious/worried/tired, etc.” (And maybe throw in a big hug, too.)
So What Do We Do Now?
Should we shake the feeling off like the polar bear? Well, yes, actually we should. The trick here is to go from your brain to your body. You have to reverse the interaction between your body and your brain. Your brain foresees a threat, and your body gets into the well-known flight-fight-freeze response.
Because there is a physical reaction to what is going on in your brain, you can reverse it by calming your body down. A calm body sends a message to the brain that all is well and you don’t need to fight off a threat or run from an enemy. Here are some ways you can relax.
8 Ways to Calm Your Body Down
1. Give yourself a vagus nerve massage.
The fight-flight-freeze reaction sprouts from your so-called lizard brain. This is the part of your brain that is really old and does not respond to language, but listens to sensations in the body. Your vagus nerve is a parasympathetic nerve responsible for the resting, digesting, feeling-joy-and-connection-to-other-people part of your brain. So in this nerve lies the solution to relaxing muscles that are cramped up due to stress and/or trauma. Watch this video on how to do this. Basically, it involves applying pressure to parts of your head and neck. Even looking over your shoulder and stretching the opposite side of your neck can work wonders (at least for me).
2. Pat various parts of your body.
This can be as simple as touching your face or patting your arm or leg. Just the sensation your body feels will reconnect you to your body and help reduce any tension.
3. Do intentional movement, like dancing, yoga, or push-ups.
Moving intentionally creates a sensation of feeling safe and can release trapped trauma.
When I have emotions bottled up inside, or when I am overstimulated and do an intense exercise such as push-ups, I will start to cry. The intensity of the muscle work will release the plug. For me, crying is my pressure valve. I will feel tired and have a headache afterwards, but I feel like a weight has lifted and I can breathe properly again.
So interact in big movements with your body to release the energy inside you. You can put on some music, close the curtains, and just dance, do yoga, or exercise. Whatever works best for you!
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4. Sit in stillness.
We HSPs absolutely love and cherish stillness. This desire can be hard to fulfill in a world where there is always something going on or making noise. Humans really should appreciate the benefits of stillness and quiet more; it can do so much.
Being still, like through mindfulness or meditation, taps into the brain’s default mode; in this setting, the brain briefly enters an idle state. You will start daydreaming or your mind will start to wander, signs of self-generated cognition. You can sit still and stare into the abyss, stare at the sunset, the ceiling… just let your mind wander. Close your eyes if you want to. Closing your eyes is also a great way of giving your brain a break from all the stimuli it receives.
5. Do breathing exercises, like the Wim Hof Method.
Your breathing is a great tool to send your brain the “I am safe and okay” message. Try the 4-7-8 technique, the Wim Hof method, or the Buteyko technique. Or make up your own method — as long as it relaxes you!
6. Laugh… often!
Don’t you feel incredible after laughing out loud? My husband and I are renovating the kitchen and he asked me to blow through a tube in order to remove dust. It made such an unexpectedly hilarious sound that we fell into a laughing fit, tears streaming down our faces, and it felt so good!
Look up funny videos or do crazy things with your kids or partner and just laugh your socks off. I can really recommend this video; it absolutely cracked me up.
Opposite of #6, but also very effective. As I mentioned, crying can be a great emotion-releasing exercise. Watch a sad movie or listen to sad music. Some piano music loosens my tears almost every time. If I cry easily while watching a movie (and trust me, I cry in an instant: a lost cat or two lovers losing sight of each other and I am in need of tissues), I know I have a lot of emotions built up inside me.
8. Do shadow work.
A way to release repressed emotions is also through so-called shadow work. This allows your body to let go of the trapped traumas and will improve your well-being, too. I myself use the Loner Wolf Shadow Work Journal, and love it. Shadow work helps you get in touch with your hidden/dark sides that you keep hidden and feel ashamed about.
I hope I have given you some ideas about how you can deal with build-up emotions and unresolved trauma. Please keep in mind that it can take some time to feel relief, and know that emotions are not things that need “fixing.” Awareness, respect, and space are the tools to process emotions and give them a place in your heart and soul. It is not about erasing, but about embracing.
Note: I’m dedicating this article to a dear friend of mine. We often talk about being highly sensitive, and a topic that comes up frequently is feeling an emotion as physical pain in your body — and what you can do about it.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you in the comments on what your experiences are with feeling trauma and emotions in your body — and how you deal with it.
You might like:
- HSPs, Your Body Affects You More Than You Think. Here’s How to Make it Your Friend.
- 9 Life-Changing Skills HSPs Can Learn from Meditation
- Trauma Hits Differently When You’re a Highly Sensitive Person. Here’s Why (and What to Do About It)
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