Emotional Baggage is the feelings you have about your past and the things that have happened to you, which often have a negative effect on your behaviour and attitudes.
In adult life, emotional baggage comes to the fore in relationships in two main forms.
- First, there are the often negative expectations created by previous relationships, perhaps of an abusive nature a kind of bondage to the past that can contaminate new and potentially more positive interactions.
- The second type of memories contributing to adult emotional baggage are recurrent bringing-up of the history of the current relationship, with the result that minor problems in the present become overwhelmed by negative currents from earlier times which cannot be resolved or set aside for good.
Behind adult problems, however, there may be deeper forms of emotional baggage rooted in the experiences of childhood, but continuing to trouble personality and behaviour within the adult.
Men and women may be unable to leave the pain of childhood behind and look to their partners to fix this, rather than to address more adult concerns.
Similarly, as parents, both sexes may find their own childhood pasts hampering their efforts at more constructive child-rearing, whether they repeat, or seek to overcompensate for, parental patterns of the past.
Everyone carries unprocessed emotions from experiences to some degree. However, emotions that aren’t dealt with don’t just go away.
They can affect:
- the way you think about yourself
- how you react to stress
- your physical well-being
- your relationships with others
Let’s unpack the layers of how and where emotions get stuck, so you can release what’s weighing you down.
Perhaps you’ve heard of people crying during yoga, massage, or acupuncture treatment because of a tender spot that, when activated, appears to lead to an emotional release.
Though some may refer to trauma being “stored” or “trapped” in the body, that isn’t necessarily a scientific way to put it.
However, the symptoms of traumatic stress can manifest physically.
This may be because the brain associates this area with a particular memory often on a subconscious level.
Activating certain areas of the body may trigger these memories, according to Mark Olson, PhD, LMT, the owner and director of the Pacific Center for Awareness & Bodywork.
“Emotions are constantly being generated — subconsciously or consciously — in response to the reactivation of memories or unsatisfied goals,” Olson says. “The touch to X area is simply a reliable stimulus to reconstruct the pattern associated with that traumatic event.”
Alternatively, some believe that trauma and difficult emotions can, in fact, become literally stuck energy in the body, though this isn’t supported by scientific evidence.
How do emotions get trapped?
If you’re in a situation where you’re afraid, your body generates a physical response to this emotion by activating the fight-flight-freeze response.
According to Nelson, three things happen when an emotion is experienced.
- We develop an emotional vibration.
- We feel the emotion and any thoughts or physical sensations associated with it. This is where the mind and body’s interconnectedness comes into play.
- We move on from the emotion by processing it.
“The phrase ‘trapped emotions’ usually means that the true self wants to express something that the false self doesn’t want us to express,” Olson says. “In psychology, we think of the true self as the part of us that we are born with that is naturally open, curious, and trusting, while the false self emerges as a set of adaptive strategies to deal with pain and loss.”
This repressed negative emotional energy can express as:
- poor decision-making
- increased stress and anxiety
Trapped emotions and trauma
It’s impossible to have a conversation about trapped emotions without exploring trauma, especially how the brain experiences it.
Trauma can come about through life experiences like:
- a breakup
- a major life change
- the death of a loved one
- infidelity in a relationship
- loss of a job
- an experience of violence, discrimination, or racism
Trauma can impact cognitive processes.
It especially affects memory processing and the ability to recall factual information, or explicit memory. As a result, the traumatic experience or memory is not “logged” properly in the brain.
“When it comes to an extremely overwhelming experience, like a trauma, the brain encodes the traumatic memories as pictures or body sensations,” Vincent says.
When triggered, the brain may disconnect from reality or replay the traumatic event in the form of a flashback.
This is known as dissociation or psychological disconnect.
Where are trapped emotions stored in the body?
Ever feel a tightness in your chest during an anxiety-inducing situation? Or do you notice that it feels good to stretch your hips after an emotionally draining day?
Where one person feels tension or sensitivity in their bodies might not be the same for another.
Emotions that aren’t dealt with may become stored in your unconscious, and may even affect your body posture.
“Your head is in a different position when you’re confident and when you’re confused,” Olson says. “Your spine takes on a different shape when you’re defeated or victorious.”
“Muscle tension emerges to create and maintain postures that keep oneself safe or unaware of unpleasant feelings,” he says.
Certain postures and gestures also relate to specific feelings and social meanings. Think of a warm embrace versus crossed arms.
This may help us understand why some believe tension in the body is associated with specific areas. However, Olson advises against using this to create general narratives.
“This puts a very shallow limit on how far one can explore as they defer to a [list] rather than what they can find within themselves,” he says.
Emotional Baggage. How to release emotions from the body
Ever feel like you need to cry, scream, laugh, punch a pillow, or dance it out?
We’re often taught to bury our pain and soldier on. Over time, this can lead to repressed emotions, also known as unconscious avoidance.
Here are a few ways to release repressed emotions:
- acknowledging your feelings
- working through trauma
- trying shadow work
- making intentional movement
- practising stillness
Note: When an emotion is not fully processed, it may become “stuck” in the body.
However, it’s the limbic structures of the brain where emotional processing occurs. While some areas of your body undoubtedly hold tension or may be associated with an emotional experience, ultimately it’s the brain that’s reconstructing the emotion.
By using techniques to work through your emotions, like therapy, intentional movement, and shadow work, you can learn to move on from past traumas and release the associated bodily tension.
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