The Process of Emotional Processing

Let me process this

One of the challenges of stepping into body-based practices like massage, yoga and Feldenkrais, is what can get unleashed.  I can be absorbed in the practice and then whoa – I am back in a visceral physical memory as a young child.  Did I sign up for this? 

Our past history, the conditioning of emotional experiences and the energy underneath what we feel – they are hidden in how we move, what we could call our muscular habit.  When we open up to less familiar, freer patterns of moving, when we find more efficient movement or a longer posture, our past history and the emotions that come with it are no longer held in place.  Emotional emergence.  I have explored this for myself during Awareness through Movement classes and seen this emerge for my students. 

Being naturally curious about how this process works, I found part of an answer from Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book How Emotions are Made.   Lisa explores current information about how our brain works with the process of emotional experiences.   Explaining a complex phenomenon as simply as needed, she describes our brain is kind of a scientist.   Our brain is on the job to keep us functioning and keep us safe.   In doing this, our brain makes predictions, based on past experiences and compares them to the flow of incoming sensory information.   When your brain is functioning well, it is a good scientist – its predictions match the information brought from our senses.  But our brain can be a biased scientist too – ignoring sensory inputs to keep its predictions intact.   From your brain’s point of view, your body is another part of the world that it must explain.   And your brain gives your body’s sensations meaning.  Have you ever felt sensations in your belly and decided you were hungry? A legitimate feedback loop for a body/brain that functions well.  A biased brain could interpret a sensation of gurgling in the gut as hunger if it is working from a history of using food to soothe difficult emotional feelings.    

The interoceptive network is the network inside you that issues predictions about your body, testing your brain generated simulations against the sensory input of your body as a way to update your brain’s model of your body in the world.  We process our interoceptive sensations in this predictive, testing against sensation way.   So given that a large part of our behavior is driven by instinctive and early learned patterns, we can see that our brain can operate like a biased scientist, taking information from internal sensations and making our experience to fit what it predicts.  Ok – so I don’t know about you but this is helping me make sense of my evening habit of emotional eating – when I am alone and feel lonely a 9 pm snack always feels like I need it before I can get to sleep.  To counter my brain as biased scientist, I need to get a little more curious about what is going on here if I want to interrupt this pattern of feeling emotion and eating.

Another concept to weave into this exploration of how we process emotions – body budget.  Our brain is a master controller of how we use energy, predicting when we will need more energy and when we need to restore our energy levels.   Someone walks towards you who looks angry – your body budget is spent on increasing cortisol, upping your heart rate and blood pressure, and on many other body adjustments so you have the energy you need for the situation.  The situation can be real (Bear!) or can be imagined (my sense of my Boss’ approval) – the real and the simulation both impact how your body budget is spent.

Barrett notes that most people spend at least half of their waking hours simulating the world rather than paying attention to the world around them.  Our internal simulated reality, designed and maintained by our body/brain, drives our emotions, our feelings and our feelings about our feelings.  I feel lonely, I sense what I interpret as gnawing hunger pangs, I feel guilty about feeling lonely and hungry – hello bag of chips!  I eat the chips, feeling momentary relief from loneliness and hunger pangs so I can comfortable settle into feelings of guilt and shame before going to sleep. 

This one is a kicker for me.  When you experience feelings without knowing the cause, you are more likely to treat those feelings as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world.   It’s a difference that matters.

Our feelings are valid, a legitimate experience we are having.  But are they true?   While I have written about other strategies to check on the accuracy of your experience (check out by my blog on truth and accuracy in experience at: https://www.kindpower.ca/this-is-the-third-post/), a key one I want to emphasize here is staying with your experience when it happens.  What can you learn about your internal sensations, your feelings physically, emotionally of your experience?  What happens when you leave off rushing to label it, to act on it, to change it or make it go away?  What happens when you allow your experience to express, to be part of you, to be within you?   Investigate yourself.

We typically are conditioned to constrict ourselves when this kind of experience emerges.  We literally become shorter in our spine, in our limbs when we protectively react to strong emotion emerging.  Can we stay with what emerges, expanding our curiosity, our presence, our physical self to be with our experience.  Try it out and let me know how it goes.