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Interpreting & Transforming Emotions with TCM (Part 1)

I have always been fascinated by the concept of body-mind; that our emotional lives are inherently bound up with the body. As a young adult,  I resonated with the idea that how we treat our physical bodies impacts our emotional states (think of how exercise and good food can lift our mood) and conversely, how our emotional state impacts our physical body (think of how wonderful you feel when you’ve fallen in love, and how physically ill you feel when someone you love passes). But what never clicked until recently was the idea that I have a say, a big say, in my emotional state itself and that emotions don’t just “happen” to me. For most of my life, I have lived in what I call a “emotionally defensive” mode, meaning external stimuli would determine my state of mind. If everything was going well in my life (work was busy and stimulating, my kids were doing well in school, my body felt strong and fit), then I was happy. But as soon as something went awry in my life, I would no longer be happy. I would be annoyed, upset, sad, angry. All in reaction to whatever was happening in my external world. That’s what emotions are, right? They’re how we react to the world around us, the way we show pleasure and sadness, anger and grief. Car breaks down on the highway–you get annoyed. Dinner gets burned in the oven, you get upset.Kid gets into a good school–you’re happy. 

But think about this for a moment. When it comes to our physical well-being, we don’t generally allow it to be determined solely by the world around us, if we can help it. If the air around us is cold and we feel chilly, we don’t just sit there feeling cold–we put on a sweater or we turn up the heat. If someone offers us fish but we are allergic, we say no thanks. If someone swerves into our lane while we’re driving, we try our best to get out of the way to avoid a collision. For many of us, we take care about what foods we put into our body and try to avoid excesses as a general rule. When it comes to our physical comfort and safety, we act protectively and pro-actively whenever we can. 

Now think about your emotional body: someone says something cruel, and we immediately feel hurt. A friend suddenly stops responding to our texts, and we feel confused or disappointed. The boss tells you that someone else is getting the promotion you were working towards, and we feel angry and betrayed. We consider these to be typical and understandable reactions. These responses don’t feel as though they are chosen by us, but rather arise unconsciously. But neurologist Antonio Damasio says there is a difference between feelings and emotions: “In everyday language we often use the terms interchangeably. This shows how closely connected emotions are with feelings. But for neuroscience, emotions are more or less the complex reactions the body has to certain stimuli. When we are afraid of something, our hearts begin to race, our mouths become dry, our skin turns pale and our muscles contract. This emotional reaction occurs automatically and unconsciously. Feelings occur after we become aware in our brain of such physical changes; only then do we experience the feeling of fear.” (“Feeling Our Emotions” in SA Mind 16, 1, 14-15 (April 2005) doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0405-14)

So we don’t have much control over our visceral emotional reaction, but we can control our own personal interpretation of events into feelings. Imagine that you hear some terrible news, say, an unexpected death in the family. Your first reaction would be very similar to the reaction of anyone hearing such bad news: your stomach would drop, you might start sweating, your heart might start racing, you might feel suddenly lightheaded. But how you interpret that news would be unique to you: a very religious person might interpret the incident in light of his belief in God, feeling comforted by his belief that this person is going to heaven. A relative with the same health conditions might feel terrified that he too might die. While we can’t change our emotional reaction to a given event, we can change the story we tell ourself about why it happened and what it means. 

This is the lynchpin to changing our emotional landscape: recognizing that we have the power to interpret events differently, if we so choose. In my next post, I’ll address how TCM can help us with these big emotional shifts.

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