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by Becky Zuckweiler, MS, RN
[Ed. note: This article is intended for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, but it gives extremely useful advice that is universal.]
Emotions might be seen as energy forms that flow along our internal electrical system, which is regulated by our breathing patterns. Emotions are a normal, physiological reaction to thoughts. According to the theory of bioenergetics analysis and other somatic forms of psychotherapy, in which psychological issues are understood and treated through the body, each of the four basic emotions is expressed along its own physiological pathway. Following is a description of these emotions and their pathways of expression, and how you might safely go about releasing each feeling.
If your grieving process is blocked because of a lack of emotional development, it is important that you become knowledgeable about the basics of how emotions operate in the body. This information will allow you to reason with yourself about fear-based attitudes that may be holding you back from expressing your emotions. Integrating your emotions into your whole self so they work in conjunction with your mind and body will help you feel more connected to yourself and less restricted.
Anger typically moves up the back of the body along the spine, over the top of the head, and out through the eyes and mouth. It travels down the arms and goes through the hands. The tendency anger has to move along the back side of the body is reflected in such expressions as “a pain in the neck” or “pain in the butt.” You have probably had the experience of becoming so angry with another person that you instinctively tightened your fist in response to anger moving through your arm and hand. If you closely monitor your body before you make an angry statement, you are likely to sense a surge of energy coming through your eyes and a tightening of your jaw.
All emotions follow a pattern of build-up and natural discharge within the body. Saying that you are angry, blowing out air while making a groaning sound, and smacking your fist into the palm of your other hand are examples of anger releasing from the body.
As with all other feelings, anger is felt in various degrees. On one end of the continuum is mild anger, which might be described as irritation or annoyance. At the opposite end of the continuum is rage, a form of anger that might be characterized as blinding, or out of control.
Once you experience a thought in response to a situation that you feel angry about, you will have angry body energy that needs to be released. Altering your thoughts in order to perceive the situation differently may help you to not produce any additional anger, but you will still be left with the original anger-energy. If the amount of accumulated energy is relatively small, simply saying you are angry may be enough to let it go. If you have a lot of anger, you may feel a need for a more complete release.
Because anger is an emotion that women have been socialized to repress, many women find anger distasteful or frightening. Many women have an intuitive fear that allowing themselves to be angry will lead to loss of control. Women often keep a tight lid on their anger, which creates tension headaches and frequently painful knots in their upper back muscles. Women need to learn that they have a right to be heard and anger is a part of having a voice and asserting ourselves. Anger can energize us and give us the inner strength to tackle a problem instead of adopting a passive, victim mentality, particularly as we go through the process of recovery from a mastectomy. It was my anger and frustration with the post-mastectomy supplies available at the time, that energized me to find new ways to alter my clothes after my mastectomy.
Releasing anger in a healthy, productive way involves expressing it in a safe, useful manner. It is not okay to splatter other people with your anger. Verbally abusing others, screaming, or breaking things are not necessary to release anger, nor are they appropriate or acceptable. Anger is not the same as violence. Remember that anger is simply an emotion. Violence is an unhealthy, destructive method of releasing anger.
If you are only somewhat angry, techniques such as saying how you are feeling, tightening and squeezing a fist while perhaps making a short grunting sound or sighing, and pounding your fist down once on a soft surface or into your other palm are all potentially effective ways of giving your angry energy an outlet. It is important that the physical release be performed while thinking of the reason you are angry in order to integrate the experience of knowing you are angry, understanding why you are angry, and then releasing the anger. This ensures the coordination of mind, body, and feeling.
For more intense feelings of anger try hitting a racquetball or tennis ball against a backboard. Standing up while angry makes some people feel more at risk of losing control, so another option is to lie on your bed with your eyes open (so the energy has an outlet for discharge) and allow your fully extended arms to alternate going up and down onto the mattress in a forceful fashion. Pounding your fists on the bed is only an option when you are dealing with your anger before surgery or after you have healed from your mastectomy. Remember that you will not be able to do this with your affected arm after surgery due to the possibility of developing Lymphedema. Another anger-releasing technique is to bring your legs up and down onto the mattress. In other words, have a safe, well-contained temper tantrum! When your arm and chest can tolerate it, you can also do this exercise while lying on your stomach, but be certain to place a pillow under your abdomen in order to give your lower back necessary support.
A variation on this approach involves using an old tennis racquet to hit a pile of pillows stacked on the floor or on a mattress while you kneel on the floor. Let your head and neck move to be at the same level as your arms; if you keep your head up while your arms come down it will create a bend in your neck where the energy can get stuck instead of being released along an open pathway. Kneel on a soft surface with your legs apart to give you a solid base of support. Keep your eyes open at all times when releasing anger or you will get a splitting headache. If you should forget to open your eyes and develop a headache as a result, simply open your eyes and hit a few more times. This should be sufficient to release the energy. Let words and sounds come out as you are hitting.
In addition to the anger-release methods described above, you might also find stomping your feet and making noise very satisfying. Small children frequently release their frustration by stomping. This is because a child’s body is a smaller container than adults so the anger tends to flow up the body as with adults, but it also runs down their legs. If some of your anger is coming from thoughts about how your early childhood years repressed and stunted your emotional growth, releasing the anger as a child does may feel very fitting.
If you have children, you can teach them how to release anger in a healthy way. If you have exposed them to safe, nonviolent anger release, it will make it easier for everyone when you find you have to release your anger. With an open attitude about anger within your family, you can say to your children, “Mommy is really mad right now so I’m going into my room to get rid of it. If you hear some noise you don’t need to be worried or scared.” Then, as soon as you have moved beyond your anger, it is a good idea to reconnect with your children so they can see for themselves that everything is really okay.
Infants, toddlers, and small children are often terrified by the sounds of released rage, so I advise against releasing this intense form of anger where they can see or hear it. Screaming into a pillow will muffle the sound in a way that avoids distressing vulnerable children while still allowing you to discharge your feelings.
Sadness is a tender emotion that comes up the front of the body, through the throat, into the face, and up to the eyes. It is released through crying. It is normal to feel the need to cry a lot before and long after your mastectomy. The deep sorrow we feel as a result of the many losses we suffer from a mastectomy is usually released as sad energy through our tears.
The flow of sad energy is most frequently blocked by restricting the breathing so the diaphragm muscle (the essential muscle for breathing) constricts, thereby holding the sadness in the gut, or by constricting the throat muscles. You will recognize this latter technique for blocking sadness from the feeling you have experienced as a thick lump in the throat from holding back tears. Blocking the release of sadness can lead to very tight throat muscles and a chronic, painful ache in the throat.
An effective way to correct blocks to sadness is by taking a slow, deep breath through the nose and down into the abdomen, filling the chest to expand the diaphragm, then exhaling through the mouth. This will help throat constriction, but you may also need to open your mouth, tilt your head back and suck in air to open up your throat.
Peeling onions will help to open up tear ducts if they have become clogged from lack of use. Sad songs or television programs can also be used to trigger sadness. You might find yourself attracted to sad, intense books, movies, songs, poems, or newspaper articles, as a way of assisting you to connect to the sadness associated with your own loss.
Some people are more comfortable expressing sadness than anger, and find that they start to cry as soon as they try to release anger. This may well be helpless despair coming up as they try to assert their anger. It is very important if this happens to push ahead and continue with the anger work even if you are crying and want to stop.
If you move forward, your anger will strengthen you and pull you out of the despair. On the other hand, sadness is frequently hidden behind anger, so it is not unusual for a person to break into sobs after releasing anger. If you have sadness hidden behind your anger, then releasing that anger can help you connect with a deep sense of grief. After you have cleared out the angry energy and reached your sadness, allow yourself to curl up and sob like a baby while holding onto someone, or something soft and nurturing such as a soft blanket, pillow, or stuffed animal as you continue to release your pain. Bringing in a nurturing protector through the use of imagery described in the mental preparation for surgery can feel very supportive and healing at this time.
As with sadness, joy is experienced primarily on the front side of the body, running up and down the full length of the torso. Joy can be experienced as sexual energy in the genital region or it can be experienced higher in the body, as in that funny feeling you get in your stomach from swinging on a swing or going over and down a hill while riding in a fast moving car. Dancing, singing, smiling, and jumping are all outlets for the feeling of joy (“jumping for joy”). Sometimes the energy of joy is also released through tears, as happens sometimes when a person feels overwhelmed with happiness.
Accepting kind gestures and gifts from those who support us through the painful process of our mastectomies is likely to create feelings of joy. Being told by the doctor that the cancer has not spread to the next level will result in a feeling of relief, which is a form of joy. Accomplishing each step of our healing process is likely to be experienced as joy that your body is going to want to release.
People tend to block or hold in joy if, like many children, they were constantly instructed to “settle down” when they were merely happy and moving to release the joy. Kids love to jump, sing, and dance out their joy. Unfortunately, an emotionally constricted family will not tolerate too much of any emotion, whether it be happiness, sadness, anger, or fear.
Another powerful reason for holding in joy is the fear that expressing will precipitate an unleashing of emotional pain as well. Sometimes emotional constriction stems from a belief that the individual does not deserve to feel good, but it can also result from an attempt to avoid pain if a person lacks adequate skills for dealing with their emotions.
Joy is held in by shallow breathing and by holding the breath. Regular deep breathing will allow joyful energy to move through the body. This process can be frightening and intimidating if a woman is not comfortable with her sexual feelings because the energy can drop down into the pelvic area.
One way of getting used to the sensation of joy is to go to the neighborhood playground and do some slow swinging. Swing slowly and work on paying attention to your body. Gradually build up your “tolerance” for joy by adding a little more height.
You can also open up your breathing by singing while driving in the car. You do not have to have a good voice in order to feel the joy from singing. The movement of breath will create the sense of joy. I have a terrible voice but singing the high notes along with Barbra Streisand really makes me feel alive and joyful as it opens up my breathing. Dancing will do the same. As your constriction begins to loosen, the feeling of joy will flow more and more naturally.
Fear is typically felt in the pit of the stomach. It can move along the front side of the body or it can travel along the spine.
When I ask my clients what happens in their bodies when they are scared, the most common response is that they feel “tight.” Stiffening the body is an attempt to avoid feeling fear, which is released through trembling or shaking. Think about a child giving her first book report in front of the class. She might experience shaking, trembling legs and hands that are incapable of holding the paper still. This child is likely to feel shame in response to her fear if other students notice the trembling and call attention to it by laughing. As a result, she will learn to keep her breath shallow and to tighten her muscles to prevent the trembling. Fear is a very common emotion that will surface many times for women going through the experience of losing a breast. There will be moments of very intense fear, such as when you are waiting on the surgical table wondering if you will come out of the surgery alive, to less intense times when you are worried about how you will look when you go back to work. I remember making the surgical table vibrate with my intense trembling as my body shook out my fear of dying.
Fear will actually pass more quickly if you allow the energy to be released through the trembling, as long as you are in a safe situation. If you are still in a frightening situation, you will continue to experience thoughts that tell you you are not safe, thereby generating new fear to be released. Once your thoughts are consistent with being safe, the terror or fear will pass much more quickly if you take some slow, deep breaths and permit your body an opportunity to shake out the fear by not tightening your muscles. While lying on the surgical table, I remember trying to take slow deep breaths to open my muscles and as I did my body released the fear through the trembling. I was able to observe how the trembling lessened as I told myself I was not going to die and I would be okay. I released the fear that had already been generated but prevented additional fear by putting comfortable, positive thoughts in my mind.
You can reach the point where you are capable of opening and closing your emotions almost at will. You need not deny your feelings nor allow them to run your life. When you have developed the skill of handling your emotions and have learned deep breathing, you will understand that, although your thoughts create emotional energy that your body needs to release, you can decide when and how you are going to do the releasing.
For clients who have trouble processing their feelings, I often recommend setting aside a certain amount of time each week to focus on the emotional self. This exercise allows for deepening feelings while also creating freedom from constant emotional intrusion into daily living. If you are at work and sad, angry, or scared thoughts keep intruding into your concentration and interfering with the task at hand, say to yourself, “I have set aside Tuesday from 7:00 to 8:00 P.M. for this. I’ll think about it then.” If you are faithful to yourself and follow through on your commitment to address the disturbing issues, you will be amazed at how your psyche will let up on you. If you fail to follow through, distracting thoughts and feelings will continue to creep into your mind as your psyche’s way of forcing you to deal with your emotions. Your body wants to be healthy and it works jointly with your mind to keep you on the path to good health.
Making a date to address your feelings can also be very helpful with sleep problems. When you are trying to sleep but your mind is spinning, ask yourself if you can do anything about the problem at that time. If not, identify a time when you can give the problem some attention. Once you have done so your mind is more likely to quiet down so you can get some rest. Your support group, individual therapy time, and/or regular journaling can be ways of devoting time to your emotional needs.
The price we pay for holding in our pain is shutting out our joy. Opening up your breathing will give you access to your entire emotional self. Avoiding your emotions will limit your ability to express yourself, which prevents closeness in personal relationships and puts you at risk for having your feelings come out in ways you didn’t intend. We may find ourselves taking our anger out on the doctor or our partner by being sarcastic, or hiding our fear, or sadness by being evasive. Leaming to express my emotions allowed me to do past and present grieving, which led to an openness about these losses. Because my family repressed the grief of my mother’s breast cancer and death, we were never able to talk about her or the experience we had gone through. We had to bury all our memories so we could keep from having to release our feelings. Once my sister and I each finally grieved over our mother’s death we no longer had to avoid talking about our past, including our memories of our mother. I now think of my emotions like waves I have had to learn how to ride as they come and go.
The more we learn to accept, experience, and release our emotions without judgment, the more we will feel whole and complete and find the inner strength and optimism to move on.