Our emotions and body sensations are closely connected. We often feel our emotions through our bodies. As a result, the way we respond to our body sensations that are linked to an emotion affects how we feel. Learning to accept these sensations is an important emotion regulation skill.
DBT Skills: Emotion Regulation and Body Sensations
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
Think about what it feels like to be sad or anxious or angry. How do you know that you’re experiencing a certain emotion? What is it that signals to you that you’re sad rather than happy or content? Or that you’re anxious or angry rather than calm or relaxed?
We generally experience our emotions through our bodies. And we often use the words emotions and feelings interchangeably. And talk about feeling sad feeling angry and so on. And that’s because we really do feel our emotions. There are actual physical feelings in our bodies that we associate with them. In my last video we learned how to regulate our emotions by naming validating and accepting them. In this video we’ll learn to regulate emotions through how we relate to the physical sensations in our bodies associated with our emotions.
There’s often a general physical feeling that accompanies an emotion. Our bodies feel heavy when we’re sad, jittery or tense when we’re nervous or anxious. We might feel hot if we’re angry or warm all over when we’re happy, and so on.
There’s also usually a sensation in a specific and localized part of our bodies that goes along with our emotions. We might feel a lump in our throats or broken-hearted if we’re sad. Or a tightness in our throats or chests, or heart palpitations or butterflies in our stomachs if we’re anxious. Or our heads might feel like they’re going to explode if we’re angry.
So because of this close relationship between our emotions and physical feelings in our bodies, if we’re able to calm the physical manifestations of our emotions and they start to subside, our emotions tend to calm down and feel less intense as well.
So in terms of a general feeling throughout your body associated with an emotion, if you’re feeling some sort of physiological arousal like with stress or anxiety or anger and your heart rate or blood pressure are elevated, or you have a lot of pent up energy and have trouble sitting still, in order to regulate your emotion you need to calm this physiological response.
One way to do this is by slowing down your breathing, and a good way to do this is to breathe in through your nostrils and then breathe out through pursed lips because the pressure of your lips forces your exhalation to be slower. And once you slow your breathing down for a couple of minutes your level of physiological arousal will naturally start to decrease.
And doing something a little active like going for a walk can also help, but a slow relaxing mindful walk not a frantic pacing back and forth. And perhaps tying your walking in with your slowed down breathing, so walking relatively slowly and then taking three or four steps per breath. So in, step, two, step, three, step. And out, step, two, step, three, step. And walking like this is a great way to decrease physiological arousal and calm yourself down.
Or in the case of feeling lethargic or a lack of energy that often accompanies sadness or depression, doing something a little more active can help lift the feeling of heaviness in your body. And i talk about this in more detail in my video on behavioral activation that you’ll find in the playlist that accompanies this video, in the description and pinned comment.
And now let’s look at the more localized physical sensations like a tightness in our throats or chests or, butterflies in our stomachs that often accompany our emotions. But first we’re going to do a quick exercise.
So in a moment I’m going to ask you to take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can. And I’ll keep a timer on the screen, but try not to look at the timer until you’re done. And then make a note of how long you held your breath for. And I’ll keep talking about emotions while you’re holding your breath so you don’t get bored and go watch something else instead.
So I’ll count down from three and then take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can. Three, two, one, go.
Now these localized physical sensations that we feel in our bodies that are related to our emotions can be very distressing. Sometimes they can be acute and come and go throughout the day and when we do become aware of them they can feel extremely intense. Other times they can be more chronic and we notice that feeling in our chests or throats or stomachs from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed and fall asleep. And if we wake up during the night it’s still right there.
And these sensations can be so distressing, not just because they’re so uncomfortable, but because they’re so persistent. We’re sure there’s a physical medical issue that’s causing them. And it’s not uncommon for people to make multiple trips to multiple doctors to try to figure out what’s wrong with them. And when the doctors can’t find any underlying medical issue it can be hard to believe that all of this physical discomfort can be caused by emotions and psychological distress.
So what can we do to try to calm these physical sensations, and as a result help calm our emotions as well. Like with all of our unpleasant internal experiences the first step is to accept them. Not because we like them, but because anything other than acceptance is only going to make things more unpleasant. And if you don’t know what we mean by acceptance in this context check out the videos i link to in the pinned comment and description.
Okay it’s been a while now so you’re probably not holding your breath anymore, so just make a note of how long you held it for and we’ll talk about why you just did this in a few minutes.
Unfortunately we can’t just make these body sensations go away because we don’t like them. And when we fight with our internal experiences like thoughts emotions and body sensations and try to ignore them shut them out, or force them to go away they only gain more strength.
Our bodies tense up as we strain to fight these feelings, which exacerbates the feelings of tension in our throats chests or stomachs. And any negative reactions we have to them like, damn it’s still there, why do i always feel this way, when is it going to end, it’s just going to make them more difficult to tolerate, because our subjective experience of them will be worse, because now we’re faced with not just the unpleasant physical sensation but with our negative thoughts about them as well.
And our negative thoughts have a negative effect on our mood and will tend to increase the intensity of our emotions, which in turn will make the physical sensations more intense as we get stuck in this vicious cycle. And that’s something i talk about more in my video on distress tolerance and the difference between pain and suffering. So once again we’re left with the problem of how do we accept these things that we find so unpleasant.
Well first we can try to adopt an attitude of acceptance through calming thoughts and statements that we say to ourselves such, as whatever’s here right now is okay. This is my experience right now. Whatever it is, is already here. There’s nothing i can do to keep it out. There’s no need to fight it or struggle with it or try to make it go away. And just allowing myself to be open to it.
And the more you stop resisting your unpleasant body sensations the less they have to fight to be acknowledged. And as a result the more likely they are to lessen a bit in intensity. Now this doesn’t mean they suddenly go away. Our emotions and corresponding body sensations are like waves. They may seem like a constant and monolithic force but when we start to pay attention to them we can start to notice their ebbs and flows.
They often come into our awareness when they’re at their peak, either because that’s why they’ve drawn our attention, or because when we check to see if they’re still there they tend to perk up like they know we’re talking about them and they start to swell a bit. But if we’re able to just allow them to be there, after the initial swell they tend to crest and then start to dissipate and trough. And then they’ll swell up again and then contract and continue like this to ebb and flow and wax and wane.
And so when you have an uncomfortable feeling in your body rather than fighting it, just allowing it to be there and noticing what’s going on in your body as you hold it in awareness. And tuning into any feelings of tension or tightness or discomfort, and then breathing into these sensations using your breath to bring your awareness to them on the in-breath, and then breathing out of these sensations and seeing if they soften or relax on the out breath. And just letting your experience of these sensations be whatever and however they are from moment to moment. And if you’d like to try a short guided meditation that incorporates some of what we’ve just talked about in the last section of the three-minute breathing space we practice breathing in and breathing out a physical sensations in our bodies.
So let’s go back to the holding your breath exercise. We’re going to do it again now but this time with some guided instructions. While you’re holding your breath, and again there’ll be a counter on the screen but try not to look at the time until you’re done and then make a note of how long you held your breath for, so counting down from three, two, one, start holding your breath.
And now while you’re holding your breath, whenever you notice you’re having the urge to breathe, try to notice exactly where you’re feeling this urge in your body and whatever the body sensations associated with this urge to breathe are.
And then seeing if you can just allow these uncomfortable feelings to be here without taking a breath yet. And seeing what happens to this urge to breathe as you just open yourself up to it, allow it to be there, and allow yourself to experience it however it feels, without fighting it. And seeing if you can continue to hold your breath despite the uncomfortable feeling you’re having. And then when the urge to breathe starts to become overwhelming, take a breath and record how long you held your breath for. And I’ll just leave the timer up for a little bit longer in case you’re not done yet.
Now take a moment to think about any differences you noticed between the two times you held your breath both with respect to how long you were able to hold your breath for and what your experience was like while holding your breath.
Most people find that they hold their breath longer the second time, when they’re simply accepting of their experience for what it is allowing in that discomfort and urge to breathe and just watching it and letting it be there without resisting fighting or trying to change it or make it go away.
And so this exercise can help illustrate that the way we respond to discomfort and unpleasant feelings can change how we experience them. And that if we simply let them in and allow them to be there instead of engaging in our tendency to try to fight them or shut them out, they can become more tolerable and manageable.
And this is borne out by research into pain management that shows that responding to chronic physical pain with mindfulness and acceptance can reduce subjective pain intensity ratings by an average of forty percent. Now that’s a lot less than a hundred percent, so acceptance isn’t a magic cure that automatically makes discomfort go away, but a forty percent reduction is significantly better than nothing.
So when we don’t have the option to make our uncomfortable or unpleasant body sensations related to our emotions just disappear, why not try accepting them and make them significantly more tolerable and manageable? And the more we’re able to just accept these uncomfortable physical sensations, the more likely they are to lessen in intensity. And as a result we begin to experience a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the emotions associated with these sensations. So by learning to accept these uncomfortable physical sensations we learn to regulate our emotions as well and in the next video we’re going to look at the difference between emotion regulation and distress tolerance.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.