What Happens When Our Emotions Stay in Our Bodies

men psychology, men wellness

It’s never too late to address unexpressed emotion stored in the body as pain, tightness, and discomfort.

When we look at the language we use to talk about emotional reactions, there is often a physical sensation associated as well: a lump in the throat, butterflies in our stomachs, a gut feeling, the weight of the world on our shoulders. This isn’t coincidental! Those visceral reactions are messages from our body.

We hear this referred to as “the mind-body connection.” It’s often associated with using the mind or positivity to help boost the immune system or physically feel better. While that is certainly a helpful boost, we shouldn’t ignore what our bodies can do to help heal our emotions.

Most of us can recall a time growing up where we were discouraged from releasing a painful emotion by well-meaning adults. Parents tell little boys to “be a tough guy” or “shake it off” when they get hurt, while women are encouraged and socialized to discuss their feelings. Our bodies hang on to what happens with our emotions—even if we’ve “talked ourselves out of it.” The physical and emotional impact of unexpressed pain is one that lasts. Unexpressed pain sticks around.

Below are some typical patterns of stored emotion in the body as recognized within the bodywork community. Each person has their own patterns as well, but these are some common patterns :

energy and emotion

Infographic courtesy of Nutritional Solutions

Our bodies are aware of the things that our minds would like to push aside. The things that we have forgotten at a conscious level are still present all the time in our bodies. The good news is that it’s never too late to address these issues, and that the results can help with both physical and emotional pain.

 A few steps we can take to release unresolved emotion: 

  1. Find a daily physical practice you enjoy. Notice I didn’t say “exercise.” Caring about our health and fitness is important, but the intention here is a physical activity that we love. It helps to choose an activity that quiets your mind a bit. For me, this is yoga. Many people find running to have a meditative quality. It could be as simple as a ten minute quiet walk where you pay attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body.
  2. Receive regular bodywork. Therapeutic massage and bodywork are some of the most effective ways I’ve seen (and experienced) for releasing stored emotion. When someone works on those knots in your shoulders you have from long held anger or stress, sometimes emotions will come up. I’ve had clients cry on my table—and sometimes they’ve known and shared why; other times, the pain is old and just hanging on in the muscles, waiting to be released. It’s important to remember that a massage therapist is a facilitator for these things—not a psychotherapist. Through bodywork, we can tap into these stored emotions and begin to process them ourselves, or if needed, with another professional.

  3. Make touch a part of your primary relationships. This sounds simple, obvious even. Unfortunately, we have become a very hands-off culture. Fewer and fewer of our daily interactions involve touch. As we rely on social media and smart phones for the bulk of our communication, our relationships often involve less physical contact than we need. Make a point of touching people on the arm or shoulder as you speak with them. Greet friends with a hug. Play a pick-up game of basketball instead of just watching the game. When we begin to remember that we are not just minds stuck inside a body, but body and mind working in concert, we can begin to heal old hurts in a deeper and lasting way.

 

Read more of Kate Bartolotta’s men’s health column, Body Wisdom, on The Good Life.

Image credit: shrff14/Flickr

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Comments

  1. Deanna Ogle says:

    This is fascinating. As you said, I knew the “butterflies in my stomach” and “weight on my shoulders”, but I never thought about it being stored there. Thanks for the information… I’m going to have to think about this some more and start practicing the tips you suggested!

  2. “Parents tell little boys to “be a tough guy” or “shake it off” when they get hurt”
    Yeah maybe 50 yrs ago..
    Now parents tell their children to quit rehearsing their hurt, it isn’t as painful as a broken heart & you’ll live through that– irrespective of gender…
    I’m not ready to sign-off on the idea that “life is painful, get used to it” is a bad lesson….

    • Kate Bartolotta says:

      Sadly, I’ve seen parents do this often, to both genders, but definitely more with little boys. I think it’s fine to not overdramatize and rush in in a panic over a skinned knee, but minimizing the child’s hurt and fear isn’t helpful either.

    • I agree that life is painful and denying that does a lot of harm. But we tell kids that traffic is dangerous, and we teach them skills to keep them safe. Simply telling a kid that life is painful doesn’t teach him or her how to manage that pain.

    • Sure, life is painful.

      But there are more constructive ways to address that pain than just “suck it up”. Crying it out and falling apart isn’t the only other option here, that’s a false dichotomy.

      The answer lies in being able to acknowledge your pain, but not to let it control you.

  3. It’s great to read about this online, I have been practising this method of reaching and releasing emotions from my body for a few years now and I must say it’s the best method I ever tried also for some illnesses and many other discomforts. Now I am also leading my workshops where I use many methods (dance, improvisatino, use of voice) to discover and release emotions stuck in the body, take a look http://www.facebook.com/ritualdance.

    • Kate Bartolotta says:

      Wonderful! I am always looking for complementary practices and therapies to recommend to clients. I’ll take a look.

  4. Hi Kate
    Yes,our emotions can get stuck in our bodies.
    But tell me more about this illustration you use.
    Where is your reference to the validity ?

    This is simply hypotheses ?
    Or is it facts?

    I feel you give a simplistic view,and you also ignore the fact that professionals that have good knowledge of the relationship between feelings and muscle tension will never just start a massage to get rid of all muscle tensions. It can open of for a psychoses.

    I know I sound harsh,but I think your little article here ignores how deep this goes and how complicated this relationship is.

    • Kate Bartolotta says:

      Hi Iben,

      Absolutely! The infographic above was not one I created, but the link to the source has more information on the background. I am a professional, and mind-body work is a major component of my massage and wellness practice. This article is just intended to touch on the subject, but I am in the midst of a book length project on embodied wisdom and emotional healing through body work. You are correct, it is a tremendously deep rooted issue, and each person has their own body map of where past emotion is stored. This infographic is culled from patterns that are often seen, but it is by no means a definitive picture of every person’s experience. Thanks!

      • Hi Kate
        I hope I did not sounded very critical. I looked at the drawings and saw how lifted shoulders was decribed. I lift my shoulders when I am scared,not when I carry a burden..

        Your work is important and interesting.
        I wish I lived in a society where a massage did not cost a fortune.
        My body carries memories that has no words. You have my support.

  5. Gint Aras says:

    All of this is true. It should be common knowledge. My Zen master taught me techniques to listen to “felt senses” in the body during meditation and just every day activities. They reveal so much.

    Your work is fascinating.

    • Kate Bartolotta says:

      Thank you, Gint!

    • ogwriter says:

      You bring up a great issue Kate. I would like to expand the reach of the discussion and get your opinion. If It true about the impact of negative emotions on humans when they are forced to withhold their feelings or are prevented from expressing them, then, what should we expect-behaviorally- of people who have been subjected to horrific dehumanization? If we recognize that this kind of thing has impact in this gender context, it most assuredly has negative consequences in other human interactions.

      My problem is there seems to be a failure to connect the dots among humans who suffer from similar abuses. In other words, if we can realize that it wrong for little boy’s to be emotionally constipated by society, can we not see it is wrong in other contexts as well? I won’t mention them, but they are obvious. Humans emotionally repressing scores of “other” humans is nothing new in human culture.

      • Kate Bartolotta says:

        I agree, I don’t think people can go through dehumanizing abuses without tremendous scars being left behind. I do think that it’s possible for some to release it and deepen their compassion for others, while some just continue the cycle of abuse. A great book on this is The Untouched Key by Alice Miller (author of Drama of the Gifted Child). She examines what makes the difference in those who make it through trauma and live beautiful, creative lives and are of benefit.

        Yes, emotionally repressing others (even in subtle ways) and then continuing to repress ourselves isn’t new, but it’s still tragic. I believe awareness is a great first step.

        • ogwriter says:

          @Kate: There are people who say that The Bible,The Qur’an and he Torah are books that can do what you suggest Alice Miller’s book can do. These books are among the most inspirational and most widely read of all time. They have failed miserably to do what you say Alice Miller’s book can do. Reading a book written by someone who has never been a part of a culture that were slaves for hundreds of years and has never studied or examined said culture or what happens to a culture that undergoes hundreds of years of institutionalized abuse means little. Do you really imagine that the pain and suffering experienced by Native Americans can be lessened by reading a book?

          • Hi OgWriter

            Do you know the history of the gypsies in Europe?
            They have many names or clans, right now we use the word Roma people.
            If you study their life situation in Europe now,for example in Romania you can see what former slavery, an many hundred years of abuse to people.

            For a long time they were slaves in Romania.

            Today travel to other countries in Europe to beg,and they are treated like animals.
            Most are illiterate today,they do not speak English or any other language than their own..
            Europeans try to understand them but can’t. And we don’t know their history.

            In my lifetime the conflict I see between the Roma and my country men and women is the most ugly racism I have witnessed.
            But I also wonder if the Roma culture underwent a process of ” underdeveiopment” during their stay in Europe.

            • Kate Bartolotta says:

              Yes, so sad! I read Mikey Walsh’s memoir last summer, called Gypsy Boy. It was heartbreaking in places, but wonderful. The abuses we can heap on each other as human beings are unthinkable, but I believe the ability to show compassion and help heal the damage from that abuse is what makes life worthwhile.

            • Kate

              Yes I agree. But some population groups have a history with repression,abuse and violence inflicted on them for many hundred years and it never ends. When this goes on from generation to generation it must affect also their BODIES where we store all their hurt.

              I among many others try to understand why Roma people act they way they do,and have the lifestyle and culture they do. But I understand maybe only 1% of what I see.
              Their history is so different from mine.

              I see a culture,an ethnic group or the most troubled part of an ethnic group spiraling downwards and making destructive choices,as a result of hundreds of years of discrimination,slavery and abuse. So they fight back and refuse to be a part of society but they ask for help at the same time.

              This is not the theme of this thread.

            • ogwriter says:

              @Iben: Yes, I know of the long history of abuse heaped on gypies, though I didn’t know they are now called Roma people. At one in in Europe’s history 40to60 percent of the population were slaves or serfs. Europe has a long and storied history of slavery and human rights abuses dating well back thousands of years. The Catholic church approved slavery of Christians as long as they weren’t owned by non-Christians.

              Nonetheless, this subject, in my mind, is related to the main point of this article. Trauma and abuse are the same, even if the context shifts because of the relationship of those involved. We talk of compassion but fail to see the connection among all humans when we compartmentalize trauma and abuse, raising the profile of one set of victims over that of another.
              This is what has happened to the gyspies; what happens to them doesn’t matter. We miss the fact that humans are abusive when we only see and speak about abuse in certain contexts. The reasons we abuse each other are nothing, That we are abusers is the point.

          • Kate Bartolotta says:

            I think you’ve misunderstood my comment. I have not suggested that Alice Miller’s books can do anything transformative; she discusses trauma and its ramifications. It’s a good read if this is an area that affects you or work.

            The whole point of my work is that for healing to happen—emotionally, physically and spiritually—I believe there needs to be an embodied component. Talk therapy is a wonderful thing for many people, but we are not just minds. We hang on to these things at a cellular level.

            Thanks for your thoughts!

            • ogwriter says:

              @Kate: Perhaps I did misunderstand your intent. Obviously, Iben thought similarly as I did after reading your comments. However, my point is that you cast a shallow net. If one wants to find trauma and abuse that needs healing in culture there is plenty to be found. I am suggesting that what we find to be important enough to write about and focus on says something about what our priorities are and what and who we find to be important.
              I am suggesting that if we to simply review and reflect on the historical, chronic abuses in culture and connect them,we might find an answer for the abuses that are happening to boy’s in the context you pointed out.
              We might realize that there were over 10,000 homeless, newspaper boy’s ,some as young as 5 and 6 years old, working and living on the streets of New York at the turn of the century. We might realize that if we did that to them then ,we are capable and will do other things later. If we connect the dots, we wouldn’t be so damned shocked when we hear of abuse happening as if it is something new that we have to be aware of. We would realize that we are the problem. When we do that we will have a chance to deal with abuse at all levels in all instances. And healing can truly begin. Society needs to heal ,but it won’t if we don’t talk about it.

          • OgWriter,

            Your point seems to imply that only one who has experienced a particular suffering has the right to discuss it, or the ability or wisdom to offer anything which may alleviate it. I disagree. Must a dentist be absent all her teeth in order to alleviate my own abcessed tooth, or does she need the wisdom, experience and appropriate tools to assist me beyond my own pain? I saw Kate suggesting that a book offered another frame for a particular people’s suffering. I have seen that to be true in many cases: VIktor Frankl’s work comes to mind. Although Logotherapy was written based on his experiences in the concentration camps of WWII, I don’t believe that his experiences are useful only to survivors of war atrocities. They speak to anyone who can gain from the understanding that we have the power to decide how we respond to circumstance. Abuse needs to be healed on many levels. Societal healing is one aspect. The personal is another. I believe both are valid, and there is no gain in disparaging what another person has found useful and meaningful.

  6. OirishM says:

    As someone who’s just started working through about a decade and a half of suppressed feelings, thanks for the article – and the series :)

  7. I read this article with real interest, and then I saw who wrote it. Well done, Kate!

    For better or worse, I’m an “emotional” person. I cry rather easily (sad, happy, poignant experiences), I’m relatively quick to anger, and I don’t have trouble expressing my anger. Thankfully, I’m also easy to please. I love nice people, and I’m a Kindergarten teacher so I get to know many different personalities and appreciate their unique qualities. I love laughing and connecting with all kinds of people. All that is to say that I express a full range of emotions, without shame. Expression is the key for me, because my experience is that emotions are powerful forms of energy. When feelings negative feelings fester, their energy builds within and eventually manifests as an outward explosion, or as detrimental an implosion (depression). There are many ways to express frustration, impatience, anger, irritation, etc. I write, for an audience, real or imagined (hahaha) a private journal doesn’t help as much. I speak directly to the source, when possible. And, this works just as well for me, I work out. My workout is basketball, but more importantly, it’s physical activity that requires a ton of energy. I’m honestly able express my emotional highs and lows: love, joy, excitement, hope, anger, heartache, etc. as physical energy, and as long as I do, I’m able to stay balanced and focused, healthy and happy, no matter what.

    Hope this helps someone! And thanks again for this important piece, Kate.

  8. I just discovered your posting via Trauma-Informed Practice on FB. How you’ve described feelings—felt senses–in the body is exactly how Gendlin’s Focusing approaches healing. Through Whole Body Focusing we bring people into the EXPERIENCING of embodied Self. For many folks, it’s the first time that their “body” is experienced as a safe place. This embodied safety is the beginning of a process of being able to turn towards whatever’s been held or hidden in the “body”.

    btw, I always write “body” in this way b/c we are much more than mere musculo-skeletal beings. But it’s a good short-hand. Thx for writing about this issue for all people.

    Podcast interview at bodylearningcast.com/focusing

  9. I specifically work with clients as a licensed Massage Therapist and Registered Polarity Therapist. What I love about the work is that those folks who receive treatments are left with amazement at how good they feel, the clarity that they leave with regarding a particular area of their lives. Given that these therapeutic approaches to healing the mental, physical and spiritual foundations of humans have existed for centuries, it is no wonder that they work and they continue to work wonders.

    And it’s been proven over and over again that 85% of all cancers have an emotional element.

    • I know this is an old article, but wow is it a dangerous one. I’m really disappointed to see this stuff on here.

      “And it’s been proven over and over again that 85% of all cancers have an emotional element” – this is the most absurd, ridiculous, unfounded thing I’ve seen in years, and I’ve seen a lot of absurd, ridiculous, and unfounded things (like this whole article). Actual science supports none of this. It’s anti-scientific, anti-medical quackery, and it’s violently dangerous because it prevents people from taking actual medical advice from actual doctors based on actual evidence. People actually die as a result of this nonsense.

  10. Thanks Kate! Emotional embodiment is such an important skill, so many more people need to know about it and how to do it!
    But there’s an important next step: actually dealing with the issues and ways of being underlying the emotions.

  11. Wow, great article! I was physically, emotionally, and mentally abused from my mom from a very young age to age 17. She is still abusing me emotionally and mentally, but I just shrug it off. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with Intersitial Cystitis and my acupuncturist said that with all that happened with the abuse and stress in my life caused my IC. I quietly came to terms with it all, but my mom will never change.

  12. I know it shouldn’t be funny but thanks for the laugh.

    When I read the headline my first thought was your head explodes and brains and gore go everywhere.

    I am 38 seperated suffering ptsd from childhood abuse. It wasn’t funny 6 months back from holding in 35 odd years of emotion in when my head exploded (metaphoricaly speaking)

    Its good advice btw and it works but touch can be hard to come by.

  13. So, financial support is on the right side of the body, correct?

  14. SwitchSpur says:

    On what are you basing these claims? Very unscientific of you. Pain in the left hip only is a sign of lacking emotional support? These claims are easily refutable.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] This is a comment by ogwriter on the post “What Happens When Our Emotions Stay in Our Bodies“. [...]

  2. [...] What Happens When Our Emotions Stay in Our Bodies (Published May 27, 14K ppv) By Kate Bartolotta, staff writer [...]

  3. […] finally, here is a link to the article on emotions stored in the body as pain that promoted this blog piece. It’s actually aimed at men, but it has real relevance for us […]

  4. […] of the impact of unrealistic portrayals of women and men in the media alluded that men are “emotionally constipated.”  In not connecting with others on an emotional level, men do not have deep, meaningful […]

  5. […] friend of mine, Mary Crimmins, recently posted a great article on her Facebook page, “What Happens When Our Emotions Stay in Our Bodies, by Kate Bartolotta” It describes a phenomenon that I have experienced first-hand that will literally kill you from the […]

  6. […] – from the shipbreaking industry and platonic touch to a modern genocide in the Americas and what happens when emotions stay in our bodies. We’ve started a unique and desperately important conversation and my goal now is to continue to […]

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