The Emotional Body

Did you know that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are experienced by the conscious mind? We explored this in our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain,’ where we saw that subtle changes in mood are often experienced first in the body and only afterwards by the conscious mind.

The physiological effect of emotions was demonstrated by a group of scientists at the University of Iowa. The scientists set up a gambling exercise in which participants were asked to pick cards from a red deck or a blue deck. In the course of the game, the participants all eventually realize that over time it’s only possible to win by taking cards from the blue deck. But most people didn’t realize that until turning over 80 cards. However, the significant part of the experiment occurred before each participants consciously realized that the red deck was disadvantaged. About 40 cards into the game, their palms began to sweat when reaching for a card from the red deck—a clear sign of nervousness. Their body knew there was something wrong with the red deck 40 cards before their conscious mind was aware of it.

This is only one example of the way emotions effect the body before we are conscious of the emotions, but further examples might be multiplied endlessly. The cash-value of recognizing that our feelings correlate with bodily conditions is that we can move onto the next step, which is learning to “tune-in” to the messages our body may be trying to send us. In so doing, we can pick up valuable clues about our emotional life and make appropriate adjustments to our behavior as a result.

The best explanation on the relation between emotion and physiology again comes from Google’s resident mindfulness-guru Meng:

Every emotion has a correlate in the body. Laura Delizonna, a researcher turned happiness strategist, very nicely defines emotion as “a basic physiological state characterized by identifiable autonomic or bodily changes.” Every emotional experience is not just a psychological experience; it is also a physiological experience.

We can usually experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind. Therefore, when we are trying to perceive an emotion, we usually get more bang for the buck if we bring our attention to the body rather than the mind.

More importantly, bringing the attention to the body enables a high-resolution pereption of emotions. High-resolution perception means your perception becomes so refined across both time and space that you can watch an emotion the moment it is arising, you can perceive its subtle changes as it waxes and wanes, and you can watch it the moment it ceases. This ability is important because the better we can perceive our emotions, the better we can manage them. When we are able to perceive emotions arising and changing in slow motion, we can become so skillful at managing them…

The type of “high-resolution perception” of emotions that Meng is talking about is the key to exercising emotional self-care. Observing what we are feeling enables us to pause, take a deep breath and do an “emotional audit.” We can ask ourselves questions such as:

  • “What am I feeling right now?”
  • “Why am I feeling this emotion?”
  • “Is this emotion being unnecessarily amplified by unhealthy cognitions?”

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