All our feelings and emotions are inside us. They are messengers of important information from our body, as well as an expression of the energy of how we feel in any given situation. Our body is a wealth of information and can be a great source of inner guidance. A key component of emotional health is being in touch with our emotions, taking the time to understand them, and navigating through them.
Think of physical and mental exercises as tools on a continuum that can help you to manage your emotions. At one end of the continuum is external movement, and at the other end are meditation and internal focus of the mind on one point or sound. In the middle are practices like yoga, which embodies elements of both. Here’s a brief look at what each tool offers.
1. Cardiovascular exercise
Fitness can help move emotion through your body. As your heart rate goes up, the chemicals that are released in the body act like nature’s pharmacy and give you a mood boost. These chemicals are called endorphins, and they interact with your pain receptors so that you actually feel less pain. This type of workout is fantastic when your emotions are heightened.
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It is important to meet your emotions where they are. Anger and contempt can be moved out of the body with strong or fast movement. When you are sad or have low energy, restorative yoga and tai chi can help to bring your emotions back to balance. Using a bolster and props can instill a sense of support during meditation and visualization. Feeling supported physically helps to promote feeling supported emotionally.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is often accompanied by release of adrenaline and cortisol. When there is an excess of adrenaline in the body, you can help to burn it off through cardiovascular exercise. Researchers suggest that it takes about 30 minutes of cardio to burn off the anxiety that can accompany an adrenaline rush.
In the practice of yoga, there is extensive teaching on how emotional tension shows up in the body. Yoga states that the upper body, specifically the shoulders and neck, is where most people hold their stress and tension. Shoulder openers and neck-releasing asanas (postures) and exercises can help to release some of the stored muscular tension that might have arisen from work or relationship stress. Sadness is also often held in the upper body but tends to be located in the chest (the heart chakra). Sadness is something that is often quite visible in the physical body in the form of posture. When someone’s chest and shoulders are slumped forward, it is most likely related to sadness or a feeling of being disempowered or deflated.
Anger, on the other hand, is said to be held in the hips, and deep hip openers like pigeon pose can help to alleviate muscular tension as the hip flexors stretch deeply. The hip flexors are what tense up or brace when we are in fight-or-flight mode. The psoas is quite literally ready to help you to sprint away or dig in and fight. Deep hip openers can be so intense that many yogis begin to cry while doing them. It is said that on the other side of anger is sadness. When we release deeply held resentments or old hurts, the salty tears can feel like a cleansing ritual. We are able to remember that we are not our emotions and that our emotions are not permanent.
In addition to yoga poses and postures, two distinct aspects of yoga that can be used to aid you in achieving emotional health include visualization and pranayama (i.e., breathing techniques to help expand life force energy).
3. Neti neti visualization
In Sanskrit, the mantra neti, neti translates as “not this, not that.” The “this” and “that” refer to the outside world and can also be translated as “I am not this thought, I am not that thought, I am not thought.” It can be all too easy to identify with thoughts and emotions and to take them on as part of the identification of self. It is common that when you are deeply into a heavy emotion, it can be challenging to remember that the emotion and accompanying thought patterns do not define who you are. Having the tools to remember that thoughts and feelings are impermanent can be both comforting and liberating. Here is a visualization to help you to remember that thoughts and emotions pass.
Stack a few pillows to set up an incline for your upper body. Begin seated with the soles of your feet together. Allow gravity to draw your outer thighs down toward the floor. If there is a lot of space between your outer thighs and the floor, you can fill in the space with folded blankets. Slowly lie back onto the blocks and bolster with your head above your heart and your heart above your hips. This is called supta baddha konasana, or “supported butterfly.”
Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Settle into an easy rhythm of breathing, much like the rhythm of the waves of the ocean. Allow your thoughts to slow down as your breathing slows down. Now envision the emotional situation that you would like to resolve. It should be easy to connect to because most emotions insist on our full attention. See the entire scene, whether another person or simply your own judgment of yourself has caused this emotion. Sense, see, and feel the environment from which the emotion arose. Notice any sounds or scents around you, and allow your mind to fill in all additional details.
Now envision all these events happening on a movie screen. See yourself sitting in a large theater, watching the movie of your life. Notice the characters on the screen and their reactions to events. Take a moment to recognize that you are sitting in the theater and that these events, although very dramatic, are not who you are. You are the witness. You are witnessing these events as they play out, but they do not in any way define you. Notice the calm demeanor of the self as witness. Notice how she can watch the events without feeling lost in the emotions. Breathe slowly and deeply and feel the peace within the witness part of yourself as you remember that your sense of peace belongs to you and no one else. No one else has the power to shift your emotions without your permission. Breathe into this awareness as you contemplate the theater of life. When you feel a sense of completion, flutter your eyes open and come back to the present moment. Bring the feeling of being a witness into your daily life. Take with you the lesson that you are not your emotions; they can feel huge at times, but they do not define who you are.
4. Mindful breathing
Your autonomic nervous system helps to keep your body in balance and has two main components: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight-or-flight response, and kicks into high gear when there is clear and present danger. In our ancestors, this response was especially necessary to flee from large animals and natural disasters. In the modern world, the sympathetic nervous system cannot distinguish between a tiger chasing us and being stuck in gridlocked traffic. The effects in the body are very similar in both situations. The chemicals intended to help you flee from danger can be detrimental, especially when experienced daily. Whether it’s caused by an angry boss, a self-righteous in-law, or the evening news, stress causes the body to reflect what it is consistently fed. Looking at your emotional and mental intake can be as important as your food intake. Each element has an initial and cumulative effect on health.
The parasympathetic nervous system is also referred to as the rest-and-digest system. It helps your release anxiety and feel safe in your body. An easy way to trigger the parasympathetic, or relaxation, response is deep diaphragmatic breathing. When you slow your breath down, the body relaxes, and muscle tension begins to soften. This type of breathing can also help knots in the shoulders to unwind and tight hips to release.
Meditation is an ancient tool that helps connect you to your higher self, meaning the wise voice within that does not dart around from one thought to another, or what many faiths refer to as “the still, small voice.” Many people think that meditation means that the mind is still, or that it requires sitting down and chanting. Although this can be true, like exercise, there are many different ways to enjoy meditation. Seated meditation is the classic form, but there are also walking meditations, sound bath meditations, silent meditation, meditation with visualization, and others.
It is the nature of the mind to be very active. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason for our patterns of thoughts, and very often thoughts bring up feelings. When you replay a negative thought over and over, it can be easy to connect to anger or sadness because the mind can’t necessarily differentiate between the past and the present. Meditation can help to powerfully anchor your awareness in the present moment. An easy technique for practicing present-moment awareness is to simply count the duration of an inhalation and try to match it to the length of the exhalation, as follows.
Breathe in slowly for a count of five.
Breathe out slowly for a count of five.
Repeat this type of breathing for at least two minutes.
Each time the mind wanders, come back to the awareness of the breath.
Yoga, breathing, and mindfulness practices can aid the process of balancing your personal growth with tenderness toward yourself. See which tools work for you, and remember that emotional work is not one size fits all: At any point in life, the process might look a bit different, but these tools can help you stay true to yourself, which ultimately keeps you in your power.
Orbeck, Andrea, Desi Bartlett, and Nicole Stuart. 2023. Total Body Beautiful: Secrets to Looking and Feeling Your Best After Age 35. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.