Befriend Your Feelings

Painful or confusing emotions are par for the course during a time of change, even when it’s a positive, life-affirming change in the direction of overall health and wellbeing. If you are using this book to deal with a present illness or medical condition, you are especially likely to encounter strong or disturbing emotions. Anger, fear, unexpected tears, feelings of abandonment, and insecurity all may arise in a period of questioning or transition. If you have had surgery or are taking medication, emotional fluctuations are even more common.

Since there is no way to separate body from mind from emotions, any small changes you are making to orient yourself toward high-level wellness have the potential of arousing feelings, and it is not always easy to plot the link between actions and the emotions they trigger. You may not see a connection between practicing a new breathing exercise, for instance, and a feeling of sadness that washes over you like a wave.

In order to move toward something new, you must often let go of something old. “Letting go” is one way to describe loss, and loss is always accompanied by grief, however slight. When you stop smoking, you may feel the loss of that special rendezvous you had every morning with your fellow smokers. If you change your diet, you may feel resentment at watching others indulge freely in foods that you now avoid. Feelings are part and parcel of a life undergoing change. Be assured. You are not going crazy. You are right on schedule.

What’s the Problem with Feelings?
In many cultures there is a great deal of confusion about feelings – especially the strong or painful ones. TV and movies portray people expressing themselves passionately and violently, but in everyday life in the American culture there isn’t much permission to rock the emotional boat. It is often considered a sign of weakness to display fear or grief overtly. The desired countenance is one of strength and control, and children are taught, at least by example, to be brave, to act “cool.” People are very uncomfortable when those around them “break down.” Others think there is something wrong with themselves when they feel depressed.

The cultural norms about anger are really confused. People overlook and sometimes even expect the exchange of angry words in public among strangers, and may applaud it as a motivator to sports and competition and war. The same people then express disbelief or horror when a close friend or family member expresses anger with them or learns that battering and other forms of abuse are going on close to home. Some people are shocked to discover how much anger they have, and try to repress it, while others use anger as a way to eliminate any emotional energy that they don’t know how to handle.

Joy and exuberance are generally acceptable as long as they are “controlled.” It’s all right to sing in church or to dance at a party or nightclub. But you might be thought crazy if you burst into song in a department store or dance ecstatically in the town square. There are many unwritten rules about expressing feelings.

Stop for a moment and recall some of the messages you got about feelings when you were young. What was held up to you as model behavior? Do any of these statements sound familiar? “Don’t get too excited or silly; somebody’s bound to get hurt.” “Don’t cry. That’s for babies.” “Don’t ever say you hate anyone.” “Keep going, no matter how bad you feel.” “Just think happy thoughts and everything will be fine.” “Don’t expect anything, and you won’t be disappointed.” It is little wonder that many people have grown up to be emotionally confused and wounded adults.

There is a heavy price to be paid when feelings are denied or repressed. Lethargy, boredom, and a sense of deadness toward life may be the sorry consequence. When this happens, bigger and stronger forms of stimulation are required to feel happy and alive. Some people drink, others drive recklessly. Paradoxically, some people get seriously ill as a way to get attention and still feel alive.

An equally heavy price is exacted when feelings are overindulged and dramatized as a means of justifying ourselves or manipulating others. Some people punish themselves with their own anger or guilt; they close themselves off completely from help, and therefore from the healing potential of human relationships, withdrawing from others to obsess about their own wounds.

Those who are unaccustomed to dealing with feelings in healthy ways often seek out other means to cover their feelings, or to distract themselves from feeling at all. At the first inklings of pain, fear, or loneliness, they may turn to alcohol, food, drugs, TV, unhealthy relationships, or compulsive work. Thus, bigger problems, more pain, and more fear are created in a terrified attempt to avoid pain and fear.

Repressing emotions out of fear or pain may lead to a habit of trying to control and dominate others as well. This form of relating – the stern teachers who won’t tolerate the enthusiasm of children; the rigid bosses who only want things done their way – has, in some domains, become the norm. These highly controlled individuals, however, are emotionally unwell. Inner strength and integrity come with the ability and willingness to acknowledge and/or express emotions freely, to use emotional energy constructively. The result is partnership, rather than a dominant or submissive
role in relationship to others.

In considering the connection between wellness and feelings, we have seen what happens with clients and students when “emotional” energy – anger and sadness in particular – gets blocked. Depression is common with people who do not allow themselves to experience rage or grief. And depression will weaken the immune system, making the whole body more susceptible to disease. Other people literally create a body armor by severely tightening muscles in an attempt to defend against painful emotions. Such armored bodies are more apt to develop symptoms of chronic pain and crippling disease.

How to Deal with Feelings
Adopt the attitude that feelings are natural and
normal. This is a primary healing attitude. Strong feelings are not indicators of something “bad.” Feelings have no morality. They just are. Even if you are uncomfortable with them, accept strong emotions as valuable feedback telling you that something in your life is in need of attention. And the best attention is gentle acceptance. Befriend the emotional parts of yourself.

  • Write about your feelings. Express and explore your feelings on paper. Write an angry letter and then tear it up, or compose a poem about your grief. There are many books that suggest ways to use writing for self-help; see the resources at the end of the book.
  • Draw or paint or dance your feelings. This is a healthy way to defuse potentially explosive emotions and to soothe painful ones. When you’ve expressed yourself creatively, you may have a whole new perspective on the situation and may be in a more balanced place from which to speak to others.
  • Exercise vigorously. Exert yourself. Exercising, even brisk walking, will take the emphasis off the worrying mind and encourage fuller breathing, which is a powerful healer of emotional wounds. Try digging a hole and voicing your emotional pain into that hole. Then when you are finished, fill the hole back up with soil.
  • Talk about your feelings. If you are confused, you can always start a conversation with a friend by saying, “I am not sure what I’m feeling,” and proceed from there. Your listeners may not have answers for you, but the process of speaking opens the door for both clarification and support.
  • Change your mind. Because thoughts arouse feelings, if you change what you are focusing on or thinking about, your feelings will change accordingly. When you are feeling frightened or inadequate, remember a time when you were strong and competent and create a mental image to support that. This type of imagery is used in many healing disciplines.
  • Surrender your feelings. Give them over, along with the rest of your life, to a higher power.

Here is a simple exercise that will help you sensitize yourself to how and where emotions affect your body, and will encourage you to accept emotions as natural expressions of your being. You can do this exercise alone or invite a friend to help you.

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable place. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply to help you relax.
  2. Repeat the following phrases five times each, very slowly but energetically, so you can really generate the mood of the phrase. (Or ask your friend to say them for you.) As you speak, focus all of your attention on the physical sensations that these words evoke.
      • I am scared.
      • I give up.
      • I hate you.
      • I love you.
      • Please don?t leave me.
      • No, no, no.
      • Yes, yes, yes.

    Add an emotionally charged phrase of your own.
    Try to sense where these various emotions “live” in your body and how they affect you physically.

  3. Repeat the exercise, but this time let the feelings come and go as if they were currents of air blowing through you. You can learn to feel your feelings without identifying with them so closely that they overpower you. Let fear be there. Let discouragement be there. Don’t try to chase them away. Look at them. Then move on to the next emotional statement.
  4. Share with your friend, or write about, what you have learned as a result of doing this.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021