We often think of emotions as non-material, but they are a whole body experience.
Imagine you’re a cartoon artist trying to convey the emotion of shame in your character. How would you draw it? Perhaps you’d draw your character’s eyes looking down, his face red and flushed, and his whole body drooping.
It’s difficult to describe an emotion without referring to how the body feels or appears. Our mental, emotional, and physical states are all closely connected to and influence one another. In fact, they are so closely tied that they are practically one and the same.
Here’s what that means.
You might think of your emotions as non-material or as only happening in your mind, but emotions are also very physical. In fact, there’s a constant feedback loop between your body and mind, known as the mind-body connection.
Think about how you felt the last time you were really happy. Maybe you felt more energy coursing through your body, you felt light on your feet, and you couldn’t help but have a big smile on your face. It was an entire body experience.
Whenever you experience an emotion, it sets off a series of impulses in your brain and body which leads to specific physiological effects. So whether you’re feeling happy, sad, or angry, you experience immediate changes in your body movements as well as your autonomic nervous system (breathing, heartbeat).
Emotions trigger important systems in the body so that we’re adequately prepared for environmental challenges.
For example, fear activates your “fight or flight” response. When you’re afraid, your body increases adrenaline and cortisol. You likely feel tense, full of energy, and either ready to fight or run away.
Research shows that emotions activate the following systems:
- autonomic nervous
In a 2013 study, researchers created a “map” revealing where different emotions show up in the body.
The research team used guided imagery via short stories and movies to induce various emotions in 701 participants. The participants were then asked to color in a body map to depict where they felt increasing or decreasing bodily activity or sensations.
Despite being from different parts of the world, the participants showed remarkable similarities in their emotion-body perceptions.
The researchers found that most basic emotions were tied to greater activity in the upper chest area, likely corresponding to the emotions’ effects on breathing and heart rate. Sensations were also commonly felt in the head, likely reflecting facial expressions and mental activity.
Long-term physical emotions
When we experience long-term stress, sadness, or anxiety, it can lead to depression, which in turn can lead to significant changes in the body.
Depression is commonly linked to pain in the body. In fact, vague aches and pains are often the most notable symptoms of depression.
Body symptoms in depression might include the following:
- back, joint, or limb pain
- stomach and digestive problems
- tiredness or fatigue
- sleep problems
- slowing down of body movements
- appetite changes
In addition, long-term stress can result in chronic inflammation and a weak immune system. You might be more likely to feel run down and get sick more often.
Suppressing your emotions
When you suppress your emotions and try to keep them from showing in your body, it can lead to health complications and negatively affect those around you.
Emotional suppression may also cause significant problems in communication with others. One study found that when a person suppressed their emotions during a conversation, both the person and their conversation partner exhibited physiological reactions consistent with threat.
Emotions and physical symptoms go hand-in-hand. It would be very difficult to be angry or happy and not have the emotion radiating off of your body.
Here are some of the more common physical sensations of emotions:
- Anxiety. Lump in your throat, churning stomach, trembling, dry mouth, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling weak or tense.
- Anger. Hot or flushed face, clenched fists or jaw, shaking, jerky body movements.
- Joy. Feeling of lightness in your body, warm heart, “butterflies” in your stomach.
- Sadness. Feeling of “heartache,” heaviness in your body, tightness in chest, fatigue, drooping face.
- Shame. Hot face, lowered eyes, sunken body posture.
- Fear. Dizziness, weakness in legs, goosebumps, fast breathing and heart rate.
We also have numerous sayings referring to the mind-body connection:
- hot-headed (anger)
- hot-blooded (passionate)
- getting cold feet (doubt or apprehension)
- stomach-dropping news
- gut-wrenching anxiety
- spine-tingling fear
- paralyzed with fear
- flushed with anger
- nerves of steel (ability to remain calm under pressure)
- heart-stopping fear
- all bent out of shape (extremely angry or annoyed)
- on pins and needles (worry or anticipation)
- head over heels in love
- gut feeling
Sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re feeling. Is it anger or sadness? Excitement or pleasure? Paying attention to how your body feels can be helpful. One way is to tune in to how much energy you feel.
In 1980, psychologist James Russel developed the Emotion Circumplex Model, a circular model of emotions that has two axes: One axis is from high to low energy, and the other axis is high to low pleasure.
High-energy positive emotions:
Low-energy positive emotions:
High-energy negative emotions:
Low-energy negative emotions:
You can use this model to gain deeper insight into your emotions. The next time you experience a powerful or confusing emotion, try considering if your emotion leans positive or negative, if your energy leans high or low, and where in the body you are experiencing your emotions.
This method can teach you how to use precise language surrounding your emotions, helping you better understand yourself and communicate with others more effectively.
Your emotions, thoughts, and physical body are all closely intertwined and significantly influence one another. In fact, there’s a constant feedback loop between them called the mind-body connection.
Emotions trigger several systems in the body, including the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous systems. This allows us to prepare for environmental challenges, such as escaping a perceived threat.
Tuning in to how your body feels on a regular basis and identifying and expressing your emotions can help you stay both mentally and physically healthy.