By Sean Grover
It was a moment that changed my life.
It was about twenty years ago, and I was a patient in a therapy group lead by Dr. Louis Ormont, a pioneer of American group therapy. I was discussing the devastating death of a close friend and the despair I felt. I was in tears when suddenly a group member yawned widely and crooned, “This is soooo boring. Sorry, Sean, I’m not feelin’ it.”
I was stunned by his insensitivity. How could he be so heartless? As he launched into details about his latest girlfriend, I felt a stabbing pain in my lower back, pulsating, as if the base of my spine was on fire. But I said nothing.
After the session, I stumbled out of the office and sat dazed on a bench in Central Park for almost an hour. What was the relationship between that boob’s insensitive remark and my sudden psychical pain?
Then it hit me. I didn’t express my anger; I repressed it. Where did it go? It manifested in my body – specifically in my aching back.
Our language is filled with references to psychosomatic reactions. “My boss is a pain in the neck.” “My co-worker gives me a headache.”
People create feelings in us all the time. A lover may induce feelings of lust, an old friend may induce feelings of affection. But here’s the big question: What you do with these feelings? Do you express or repress them?
A friend recently shared with me the brilliant writings of Nathaniel Branden, the founder of the psychology of self-esteem. Branden insists that we must accept ourselves without censorship; we should never disown, deny or repress any part of our experience. He points out that to deny our feelings is to keep ourselves in a perpetual state of internal conflict. The more you distance yourself from your feelings, the more disempowered and out of touch with your true self you will become.
Where Do You Store Your Unwanted Feelings?
For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. We tend to bottle up powerful feelings such as anger, fear or sadness. This is, by no means, scientific research, and certainly not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to repressed feelings, recurring patterns emerged.
I’ve made a list of these patterns below. You may recognize some of them. Repression isn’t anything to be ashamed of; we all do it. Everyone has experienced some aspect of it (I personally can identify with all the tendencies!). Keep in mind, psychosomatic reactions are not neatly organized; some overlap, many converge. It all depends on your character and interpersonal style.
To Repress or Not to Repress
Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression gives birth to psychosomatic symptoms and fuels self-destructive tendencies. Fear is the driving force behind repression. It is most often deeply rooted in your past. As a therapist, I challenge my clients to come up with new responses to fear instead of repeating old long-standing behaviors.
But before we go any further, let’s explore how repressed feelings may manifest in your body. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?
Top Ten Storage Areas for Unwanted Feelings
1. Lower Back: ANGER
If you sit on frustration, the lower back is a common place for storing repressed anger. For relief, learn to constructively articulate frustration and address conflicts with others in the moment. Sounds simple? Believe me, it’s not. Learning to harness the power of anger and turn it into a creative force is key to living a dynamic and rewarding life. Strive to convert anger into assertion, express it constructively, not destructively. You’ll be rewarded with a surge in confidence, energy and stamina.
2. Stomach & Intestines: FEAR
When you’re afraid, you tend to tense your stomach and intestines. Sayings such things as, “I’m sick to my stomach” or “_______ gives me an upset stomach” are usually bodily responses to conflict. The more you deny or repress fears, the more physical reactions you’re likely to manifest. Begin by acknowledging your trepidation and talking it through with someone you trust. Consider all your choices and outcomes. The more you can express the fear in words, the less of a hold it will have on your body.
3. Heart & Chest: HURT
I recently worked with a woman who was complaining of chest pains. A series of medical work-ups found no psychical cause for her symptoms. Was she supposed to live with chronic discomfort? Reluctantly she turned to therapy. When I asked her if someone she loved had hurt her, she guffawed and brushed my question off as psychobabble. A few sessions later, as she spoke about the demise of her last relationship, she began to cry uncontrollably. For too long she ignored her broken heart. She needed to mourn the relationship and honor her sadness. After this release, the tension in her chest finally lifted.
4. Headache: LOSS OF CONTROL
If you’re a major or minor control freak, you’re in for a real challenge. No matter how strong- willed you might be, an emphasis on control will eventually lead to burnout – and splitting headaches. Not all difficulties in life can be solved by intellect or trying to control everything. In fact, many problems are exacerbated by controlling tendencies. Letting go, accepting what you can and can’t control, and developing a mindfulness practice are the steps you need to take to cure your headache habit.
5. Neck /Shoulder Tension: BURDENS & RESPONSIBILITIES
Shouldering too many responsibilities is a pain in the neck. If you suffer from neck and shoulder tension, it’s likely that you take on too many burdens and responsibilities. Rather than ask for help from others, you’re likely to do everything yourself. This most often leads to neck and shoulder tightness. Learn to delegate, ask for support, decide what is really worth taking on, and for goodness sake, share responsibilities with others.
6. Fatigue: RESENTMENTS
Resentment stresses your entire body and does more damage to you than the people you resent. Blaming others, playing the victim, reliving the events. These are the empty calories of self-expression. Resentments keep you from living in the moment and experiencing the benefits of being present. When you focus on those who wronged you, you are giving in them free real estate in your head and your life. Instead, try to focus on forgiveness, or at the very least, moving on. Strive for more fulfilling relationships, add a healthy dose of self-care, and you’ll feel years younger in no time.
7. Numbness: TRAUMA
When we’re overwhelmed by an event, we tend to numb our feelings. This is our psyche’s way to disassociate from overpowering pain or danger. Traumatic events are not always life-threatening. They can result from a brush with real or imagined danger or a history of childhood abuse or neglect. Over time, if you don’t process the trauma, the memory of it gets lodged in your body. As a result, you deaden your feelings when vulnerable; trusting others is impossible; and true intimacy is lost. Any situation that makes you feel unsafe causes you great confusion; you freeze up or go blank. The first step toward freeing yourself from trauma is recognizing the power it has over you and asking for help.
8. Breathing Difficulties: SADNESS
Breathing difficulties, a panic attack that leaves you gasping for air, a suffocating feeling when anxious. These are the symptoms I’ve notice in folks who are repressing great sadness. They don’t want to cry and avoid mourning heartbreaking events. Instead, they choose to repress sadness, move on and focus on something else. But restricting tears is a lot like holding your breath. When you finally cry, it comes gushing out; equal parts pain and relief. Freeing bottled-up sadness is like sucking in a dose of fresh oxygen. It’s refreshing and liberating!
9. Voice & Throat Problems: OPPRESSION
Oppressed people are not allowed to have a voice. If you grew up in an oppressive atmosphere, speaking your mind or expressing your needs was dangerous. You also carry around a harsh inner critic. As a result, as an adult you tend to withhold feelings. When you have the impulse to speak up, you resort to your childhood tendency to silence yourself and repress your voice. This clash between the impulse to speak and the impulse to withhold causes much tension and often manifests in throat and voice problems. In therapy, I’ve found that journal writing is a great way to expose your inner critic and start talking back to it. Also reading poetry out loud (poetry has a profound connection to the unconscious) is a way of gaining confidence in your voice. Hopefully, you will soon realize you have the right to be heard.
10. Insomnia: LOSS OF SELF
When you go through life changing events – good bad – people tend to lose sleep. You experience anxiety when your life circumstances are in flux. This can happen during times of stress or times of great personal growth. For me, sleeplessness is most often associated with the fear of the unknown. Write down your fears or, better yet, talk them out with a close friend. Learn to work with change, rather than repress your fear of it. When you work with it, you’ll be able to hit the pillow and have sweet dreams.
Toward a More Rewarding Way of Being
Releasing bottled up feelings is fundamental to psychotherapy; it offers you respite from the psychic stress of repression. People always feel relieved when the weight of repression lifts. Soon after, they report a surge of confidence, a product of a stronger emotional core.
When you take better care of your feelings, you take better care of yourself and those you love. You come to appreciate and value your relationships more. Take the time to consider how you manage your feelings and what your psychosomatic pain is trying to tell you. Not only will you feel happier, many studies show you might even live longer. www.seangrover.com