The Brain & Feelings
Your brain is a powerhouse, sending messages to your body and allowing you to experience the full spectrum of emotions. Human life is incredibly complex, rich with beauty and also rich with the lessons of pain and suffering. Therapy can be utilized for a variety of reasons. Some folks seek therapy to help manage mental illness, while others obtain a therapist to help them traverse the emotional terrain of their lives. We are feeling beings, and nearly every situation in our lives evokes an emotional response. Feelings impact the brain, and how we think and move through life; feelings affect decision making. And our brain impacts how we feel because it stores memories, creates associations and may be sensitive to certain situations, or stimuli. It’s our brain’s job to form patterns so that life is more predictable, however sometimes we need to readdress those patterns and change our minds.
We all have a slightly different brain, so we have to get to know how our individual brain works. Therapy can be an opportunity to get closer to yourself, and to fully understand your brain and feelings, and how both your mind and emotions affect one another. Therapy as self-discovery can be one of the most rewarding journeys you’ll embark on.
Let’s look at some common feeling experiences, how they relate to our daily lives.
Anger, Aggression and Communication
Anger and Aggression are two common emotions felt by everyone at one time or another. However, because they exist on a spectrum, some folks might find themselves in therapy to manage feelings of anger, or aggression that’s acted out on family, friends or loved ones. Sometimes anger and aggression sabotage intimate relationships. Treatment for anger may start with addressing the feelings that arise in the body, slowing the person down and finding a way to help them to take a pause before aggression is displayed. To prevent aggression from playing out, it may be vital to explore communication styles, develop better ways of expressing frustration so that it doesn’t turn into a full blown life disruption.
The feeling of anger may arise and give way to emotions like blame and hostility. Through these negative emotions, unhealthy styles of communication may arise, like passive aggression. Learning how to talk about anger, and its associated feelings/actions is a process that a skilled therapist can assist you with. When we do this work we have the opportunity to change our brain’s response to familiar situations, and to learn new skills in managing life’s frustrations.
Because we learn how to communicate through a variety of life influences dating back to early childhood, therapy can be a tool to truly understand the way your brain works and learn how to manage navigating unpleasant situations with other folks. When we consider the ways in which we’ve learned how to communicate and process information, we can discover our present style of communication and how it’s helping us, or hindering us. Perhaps we want to work on assertive communication to prevent feelings of resentment from arising when we “go along with other people.” And maybe we take a closer look at our family of origin, and explore how they handled communication. There may be a need to navigate partnership with someone struggling with communication. Maybe our goal is to have blame-free communication as a way to redirect our frustrations and take personal responsibility for the way we deal with problems.
Fear and Anxiety and the Stress Connection
Everyone experiences fear, anxiety and negative emotions as a result of life stress. You might be seeking out therapy to help manage emotional experiences like anxiety that will inevitably arise out of the natural ebbs and flows of life. One does not have to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in order to experience fear, worry and insecurity that affects their lives and relationships. Because your mind is complex, having a therapist as a guide can be game-changing in efforts to create healthier ways of dealing with stress.
We are all beings of nature and nurture, and some of us naturally have an easier time managing stress than others. It’s also important to understand that we learn from our caregivers, and our thinking patterns in the present are often influenced by the models we’ve absorbed in the past. We may have learned that catastrophizing is a way that our family responded to anxiety-provoking events. Our learned experiences can make it difficult to tolerate negative emotions. An experienced therapist can assist you in building a new tool kit to properly cope with difficult feelings, so you can retrain your brain to manage feelings.
Therapy can also be sought out to help you identify what it is that you’re feeling. You may be stressed out and not realize the ways in which that is affecting your emotional health. Getting in touch with how you feel is not something that everyone “just knows how to do.” Feelings are often experienced in the mind, through physical sensations and expressed through words, actions and relationships. Through therapeutic techniques like mindfulness, you can learn to observe these experiences within you, and change your brain by relating to them differently.
Stress and anxiety can wreak havoc on personal relationships of all kinds. Wanting help with managing your relationships is an excellent reason to seek therapy. Perhaps you’re an insecure partner, or you have a partner who feels insecure in the relationship and you aren’t sure how to proceed in a way that feels good. You might be realizing you tend to people-please as a way to keep other people’s stress levels down, all the while your inner life is being neglected. Therapy is an excellent option for any issues surrounding fear, anxiety, insecurity and overall stress management.
Self-Esteem, Confidence and Living a Happier Life
Most people would say they have the desire for a happy life. Sometimes happiness is a lot closer than we think it is, and it’s more like a state of mind or headspace we find ourselves in than a place of outside accomplishments. This “happy” state of mind might include love, gratitude and empathy for ourselves and others. If we suffered heartache, loss or a big change we may have lost our ability to feel confident and hopeful about the future. Because our brains form habits and patterns, sometimes we have to retrain ourselves to acknowledge what’s in the present. Or maybe we’ve needed a “self esteem tune-up” all along because of unresolved wounding around self-worth. How we feel about ourselves influences our emotional state, our relationships and how we make choices in life; therapy can help you understand yourself better, increasing positive self-regard, healthy interpersonal boundaries and an overall happier life.
The relationship we have with ourselves is the most important relationship of our lives. It is from ourselves that we have relationships with our partners, children, parents and friends. Seeking therapy can be a way to increase how comfortable you are in your own skin. Therapy can help you to evaluate your coping skills, and create ways in which you can help yourself when you’re feeling triggered or down on yourself.
Therapy can also help you become an expert boundary-setter, allowing yourself to feel like your life is your own. A happier life starts with you feeling content with yourself, at ease in your body and feeling worthy of all good things. Therapy can help to increase self-esteem levels and grow into who you’re supposed to be!
Feeling Lonely, Numb and How to Reconnect
Feeling lonely, numb and/or disconnected are challenging experiences to grapple with on your own. Feelings like abandonment, numbness and grief are some of the rawest, most tender of human experiences. Human beings are social creatures, it’s how our brains are “wired.” We thrive in community over isolation. When we stop feeling connected to ourselves, we can’t connect authentically with others. And we begin to feel shut out, not belonging to the world or our social groups. We may even become hyper-critical of ourselves and feel undeserving of connection. Experiences like this can occur after grief, heartbreak or even a change in living location. Or maybe you have a history of fearing abandonment and therefore you abandon yourself in efforts to keep others around, forfeiting your unique qualities, wants and needs. It’s imperative that you reconnect with yourself and your feelings, and finding a therapist to assist you in this process can remind you that you’re not alone.
When we abandon our values and preferences for the sake of pleasing others, or keeping them close to us, we are self-abandoning. We may have been taught to do this to receive love from a very young age. Your mind might be used to automatically self-sacrificing in efforts to keep everyone around you happy. However, this is the fastest route to feeling numb, disconnected and at a distance from yourself. Finding yourself isn’t a one time gig, it’s an on-going commitment that a therapist can help you stay true to. There will always be things in life that throw us off balance temporarily, like grief and loss. With a skilled therapist by your side, you can learn to stay connected to yourself and better weather the storms of life.
Grief can come for many different reasons. You can grieve the death of someone, the loss of a relationship (human or pet), the loss of a baby (miscarriage), and even the loss of yourself and how you pictured your life to be. It’s important to honor that your feelings are here for a reason, and that grief, although painful, is a part of the human experience. Society is often at odds with honoring grieving processes. You might get only three paid days off of work for bereavement, and people might tell you to “move on” or “get over it.” Life does keep moving despite grief, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to grieve in your own way, and take your time with it. A therapist can help you to slow down and understand the symptoms of grief, helping to normalize your experiences and feel less alone.
Healing Guilt and Shame
Guilt can be defined as a normal human experience that occurs when we feel bad for something we did. We might feel guilty for behaving outside of our value system. Shame can be more sinister; it can be experienced as your whole self being wrong, rather than a specific action. Sometimes we carry shame from childhood trauma, being rejected by our families and told we are not good enough, or that something is wrong with who we are. Although shame and guilt are two different things, the two work together in an often “painful dance.” You act outside of your value system, or you aren’t sure what your value system looks like, and you conclude that there’s something wrong with you as a person.
Because we have social brains, and we strive to feel included, we are wired to feel guilt and shame. For example: if we “fall out of line” with social norms, we feel guilt or embarrassment. Through socialization we learned how to behave as children and young people. Unfortunately, shame in particular can become problematic. We may be keeping ourselves hidden from others, having troubles with self-expression and intimacy because inside we feel unlovable, or that we should not be seen. Shame often gives way to strong emotions like discouragement, hopelessness and deep sadness that can be hard to manage on your own. Talking about your shame in therapy can be like relieving pressure and tension. Sometimes just speaking things aloud can be healing, because your therapist will be a compassion witness who will not judge you. Your therapist can also help you to develop healthy coping skills to handle experiences of rejection, so that you don’t go so far into believing that rejection means there is something wrong with you. When we work through shame, we get to release ourselves from perfectionism and embrace the full spectrum of being human.
Trusting Self and Others and Embracing Vulnerability
We might hear “trust your gut”, but what exactly does that mean? And how do we know what our gut feelings, or intuition feel like? When we begin to experience a feeling, sometimes we are then hit with a wave of cognition, or thoughts that talk us out of feeling the very thing that’s trying to emerge. Perhaps you begin to experience anxiety when spending time with a new partner, but instead of learning what the anxiety has to teach you, you think “no, no, no- this has to work out!” And you don’t give yourself a chance to properly evaluate the situation and how you feel within it. The denial of recognizing our feelings diminishes our ability to truly know where we stand, and impedes upon self-trust. In order to trust yourself, you have to be willing to feel what’s here and accept reality.
Part of trusting yourself is trusting that there is something to learn about your feelings. When we stop denying our feelings, we may feel an increased sense of vulnerability. Some of us avoid this vulnerability because we learned a long time ago that it’s not safe to feel vulnerable. Or maybe we were taught that “feelings are bad”, or we lacked support in managing our emotions as children. A skilled therapist can help you to learn the skills needed to feel your feelings and understand the blocks you have in trusting yourself. And ultimately, from a place of vulnerability and openness, we can experience more relaxed intimacy with ourselves and others.
The more you learn to trust yourself, the better your relationships will feel with both yourselves and others. It is relaxing to trust yourself, to know that you have your own back and can make the best, most informed decisions possible to result in a good outcome for yourself.