We can usually tell whether we’re feeling happy, sad, frustrated, or angry. But sometimes emotions get trapped inside us, making them difficult to recognize and deal with.
Our subconscious feelings can manifest physically and suddenly, triggered by something seemingly benign. This is especially true when you’re working through grief.
Maybe, for example, you might get a massage after the death of your mother and begin sobbing—perhaps you suddenly remember her touch. You’re telling yourself to put on a brave face and just get through the next few weeks or months, but you’re only disconnecting from your true emotional self.
How do emotions get trapped?
There are two parts to our nervous systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Your sympathetic nervous system gets activated as a response to stressors, helping us confront anything from having a disagreement with a coworker to a near-miss on the freeway. This is how your fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in.
After this, your parasympathetic nervous system begins to calm you down. It works to get you back to your resting state, where you can breathe, eat, and socialize normally. In the wild, when an animal escapes a near-death experience, its parasympathetic nervous system kicks in almost immediately. The animal will shake and reset, therefore able to continue on without dwelling on what had just happened.
As humans, we usually don’t allow ourselves this opportunity to experience the fear and reset. We rationalize our experiences, saying it’s best to put on a brave face or to ignore what just happened. We feel it’s embarrassing to cry or show emotions to other people. In reality, this is bad for our emotional wellbeing and stunts our grieving process, because we don’t allow our nervous system to complete its cycle.
Coping with grief
Grief doesn’t just have to be a response to death. You might be grieving the end of a romantic relationship or friendship, a miscarriage, a loved one’s serious illness, losing a job or home, or the death of a pet. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, no matter what your situation is.
Grieving is valid and normal. Pushing your intense emotions aside will only create a blockage for you down the road. Grief is ultimately an emotional experience that needs to be deeply felt and worked through, as opposed to being ignored and pressed down.
Releasing your feelings
- Understand the emotion
Learning to acknowledge what you’re feeling without judgment takes time and practice. But it’s the first step to releasing your emotions. You cannot release something you can’t name or understand. It’s important to say aloud the exact way you’re feeling so you can accept it.
- Respond to the emotion
As a response, you might feel the need to laugh, cry, scream into a pillow, or some other bodily impulse. It’s important to give yourself the space to act in whatever way seems fit.
- Take care of yourself
Give yourself a moment to heal. Take a bath, journal, read, or whatever other self-care feels best for you at this time.
When to seek help
If you suspect you might be retaining trapped feelings, therapy is a good option for dealing with them. Sometimes acknowledging and releasing these feelings is best done with an impartial mediator in the room. A licensed therapist can help you work through the physical and emotional responses to grief.
Be sure to look for a therapist who specializes in grief counseling, as well as a grief-focused therapy. Therapy techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or complicated grief therapy (CGT), might be right for helping you address your loss and the unresolved emotions that accompany it.