It is becoming increasingly accepted these days that stress is a major contributor to disease. But what is stress exactly?
To me, stress is simply an emotional energy that has not been able to move through the body and be discharged or recylced into new energy.
This is often due to cultural discomfort with showing and experiencing emotions in general, and some emotions in particular.
Different societies have different attitudes to emotional display, and different hierarchies of acceptable and unacceptable emotions. Then there is also the specific culture within your family of origin. And finally, your own personal emotional culture that you cultivate in response to a combination of your personality, these wider cultures of influence, and your particular life experiences.
You may have a belief, for instance, that it is wrong to ever be angry. Or to cry in public (or at all). Or have come to label certain emotions as unacceptable and unattractive — resentment, for instance — and hence bury these feelings instead of allowing them to come up, be acknowledged, move through you, and be transformed.
Transformed, for instance, into energy for taking action.
‘Big boys don’t cry.’ ‘Oh well, there are people worse off than you,’ ‘But she didn’t mean to hurt you.’ ‘Can’t complain, can you?’ ‘Don’t be a sook.’ These are some of the many ways we try to damp down emotion in ourselves and others, and way too often in children. Thus very often feelings of shame or anger get added onto the original feeling and buried in the mix.
Or you may have been a very sensitive child in a less-than-perfect family situation, who was never given appropriate help or modelling for how to handle emotions in an effective way. Being the ‘feeler’ in a family (the ‘cry baby’, the ‘over-sensitive one’) can be extremely painful. So perhaps at some stage you made a decision to simply shut them down and not feel them, to become very ‘rational’, and ‘think’ your way out of feeling.
But burying feelings doesn’t just create momentary stress. It can have severe long-term effects. Perhaps not immediately, but almost always eventually.
Emotions are powerful. Their energy — like all energy — doesn’t just disappear. It is either transformed (felt, acknowledged, released: fuelling action or change or growth), or it stays in the body, stuck, stagnating, causing havoc.
For instance, a buried feeling (perhaps going way back to early childhood) can create a ‘trigger’, so that anything that is similar in some way has a tendency to re-activate this dormant energy, causing a stronger than necessary reaction to the new event (an ‘over-reaction’).
Each time this occurs, if the energy of the new emotional experience is not dealt with appropriately, then it gets added to and stored with the original one. So that each time this happens, the emotions become harder and harder to ‘control’ and more disruptive and painful.
For some, repressing or disowning emotion can become a habitual response — so that eventually it happens in a nano-second, way below the level of awareness. This habit can be very serious, because it means you no longer have access to your most important guidance system.
The tiny alarm bells that allow you to move through the world in a relaxed way are things like ‘Hmm.. for some reason this makes me feel bad’. If you have this shut off, then how are you to distinguish between safe and unsafe?
Without this internal guidance system, the whole world can feel potentially dangerous. ‘Be vigilant’ and ‘brace yourself’ becomes the default position rather than one activated temporarily and as appropriate.
To be in this state of chronic ‘hypervigilence’ (always in a mild state of ‘flight, fright or freeze’) is increasingly being recognised as a significant factor in physio-neurological conditions (most chronic conditions) and in the creation of disease.
Here’s some questions you might like ask yourself whenever you feel even slightly destabilised:
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
Two questions that, asked often enough, might just change your life.
Thanks for reading.