Emotions Are Physical

I write and talk a lot about mental health and mental illness, which means I spend a lot of time talking about emotions. In response to one of my recent posts about trigger warnings, someone pointed out that being triggered is a physical as well as an emotional response. This is a good clarification, and something I should have said in the first post, but the comment illuminated to me a bizarre divide we have in common parlance: emotions do not include physical components in most people’s conception.

When I talk about emotional responses to stimuli, I almost always am including a physical component in my conception. While most people don’t notice or recognize that their emotions are expressed in their bodies, there are few emotions that come without a physical component. These vary slightly based on the person, but think about the last time you felt excited or anxious or sad. You probably had an elevated pulse if you were excited, tensed muscles if you were anxious, or a tight chest if you were sad.

Our brains like to reuse neural pathways, which means that emotional and physical pain get processed by the same brain bits. The bifurcation of these realms of life is not accurate to the actual experience we have of them. Bodies are what tell us that we’re feeling things through tensed muscles, pulse changes, tears, clenched jaws and hands, and all the other little things our bodies do to express emotions.

Why does it matter if we don’t recognize or talk about this?

For a lot of people, identifying emotions is hard. But knowing what you’re feeling and why can be very helpful for addressing problems or just riding out the emotion. Knowing what your physical tells are is a useful way to approach your emotions from a new perspective.

It’s also a useful way to bypass your emotions if you want to change them. Our bodies and minds are pretty closely linked, which means the influence goes both ways. If you can relax your muscles, take a few calming breaths, and take on the posture of an emotion that you’d like to be feeling, your emotions are more likely to stabilize or move towards the thing you want to be feeling. This is actually a technique in DBT, and has been studied fairly extensively (as DBT is an evidence based treatment).

When I talk about emotional responses, I include physical responses, because our brains and feelings don’t exist in a realm separate from our bodies. I blame Descartes for all the dualism. Stupid Descartes.

2 thoughts on “Emotions Are Physical

  1. […] out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our […]

  2. […] tend to be emotionally driven. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that emotions are often physical. Our bodies often express our emotions before we even really know what […]

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