Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 3: I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache

In my last posts, I’ve been sharing information about sneaky emotions as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on in your emotional life and increase your chances of feeling better.

We’ve discussed Anger as a Rowdy Ruse and Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Today, I want to talk about psychosomatic symptoms. To recap, psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. The reason this happens is twofold.

First, our emotional and physical experiences are always tightly connected! We do not have a mind separate from our body. Our emotional wisdom literally courses throughout our nerves. We cry when we’re sad, clench when we’re angry, tense when we’re anxious, and have all felt the literal ache of a broken heart. More and more, researchers are learning about the wonders of the vagus nerve in your abdomen that is the biological explanation for the long held concept of the “gut instinct.” Embracing the fusion of emotion and body is essential, and this post is certainly not about trying to unnaturally separate them. 22059_100569169979883_1506761_n

“Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt”

However, another reason emotional energy gets converted into physical symptoms is because of denial of our emotional truths. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that when used sparingly, can effectively help us cope with difficult life experiences. Consider the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of seeking profoundly helpful treatments versus the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of ignoring her/his need for basic medical care. Some denial is helpful, and all denial is human. But when we can’t accept our emotional truths to the point of repeated psychosomatic symptoms, the level of denial can be deeply ineffective, not to mention literally painful.

If you are someone who struggles with chronic pain, such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues, and a doctor has confirmed that your pain does not have a physical cause, you may consider addressing it through an emotional route. I am not suggesting to dismiss your physical symptoms! Your pain is real and deserves your attention. I’m also not suggesting that your pain is “all in your head.” As I established earlier, there’s no such thing as a complete separation of mind and body. What I am saying is that in addition to engaging in appropriate medical care, you may also consider some deep soul-searching about other causes in the emotional realm, such as disowned anxiety, anger, or sadness.

Popping medicine, or worse, avoiding the activities of your life in some way due to chronic psychosomatic pain without also addressing the underlying emotional causes is much like slapping a Band-Aid on a festering wound: your pain will only get worse. Logically, we can see how this happens. If you’re anxious, say, by social interaction or job performance issues, and begin downing Mylanta and avoiding those situations as much as possible convincing yourself the whole time the real problem is this “bad stomach,” then your anxiety will worsen as you continue to avoid the situation, and your bad stomach will worsen as you continue to avoid your anxiety. On the other hand, if you can begin to connect the dots between your emotional and physical experiences, and then honor or heal those emotions, you will likely experience physical healing as well.

If this sounds like it could be you, take the followings steps:

  1. Admit to yourself that your physical problems may also be influenced by emotional distress
  2. Remind yourself that this is human, it’s not all in your head, and you are not weak or false for having this experience
  3. Confirm through a doctor that there aren’t medical issues causing your problems
  4. Through solitary self-reflection or with the assistance of a trusted friend or helping professional, begin looking at what emotion(s) may be stuck for you
  5. Allow yourself to honestly evaluate your dissatisfactions and insecurities
  6. Validate your emotional experience and if needed, seek validation from others as well
  7. Begin to look at ways to alleviate your distress, and accept help if needed: Do you need to learn specific coping skills? Face a fear? Confront an aggressor? Set better limits? Grieve a loss or old wound? Take steps toward your values and dreams?
  8. Give yourself time to heal, and trust in the wisdom of your mind and body to guide you in this work

Remember to be gentle with yourself as you embark on emotional discoveries and change. Harshly criticizing your experience is just as damaging as the original denial. With a curious and compassionate heart, allow your emotional truths to unfurl. With time you will blossom into all heights of healing.

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All content owned by Amanda Bowers. This post is dedicated in memory of her beloved dog, Ruby.

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3 Steps to Mindful Living

Meditation. Zen. Mindfulness. These are now words of mainstream 21st century consciousness. Yet many don’t really know what they mean, or more importantly, how to use these concepts to enrich their lives. Some people envision monks meditating in monasteries at the tops of foreign mountains, others think of yoga practitioners twisting themselves into ever complex poses, and yet others may think of a blank slate heart where perpetual serenity whitewashes emotions off the canvas of life. In truth, all of these ideas are true. And yet they don’t have to be your truth. It is entirely possible to enjoy a more mindful life without devoting hours in meditation or yoga, and while still enjoying the stirrings of passion, hope, and what this Southern girl likes to call sweet sassy molasssy spunk.

So what is mindfulness? I’ll be the first to admit I am in no way an expert on the definition or practice of this art. The more I read about mindfulness, and the more I talk to people who value a mindful lifestyle, the more I realize that mindfulness is a subjective concept and practice. For me (and for others who share this mindset), mindfulness is more about living than reflecting. It’s more about being in the present moment than remembering that ugly altercation with a co-worker, running your to-do list over and over, and looking forward to dinner with your partner such that you don’t notice the lunch you’re eating now. (And we all know that dinner can then be filled with looking forward to dessert, to sex, to sleep … fill in the blank.) Mindfulness is a way of life that helps you slow down, enjoy the present, experience more novelty, and enhance your connection with yourself, those precious to you, and the world around you in all its beauty and strife.

So how can one become more mindful without signing on for hours of additional “work”? The easy and difficult task of it, is simply this:

1) Attention: We live in a world where our concentration is pulled in more and more directions at once. We can be bathing a child, planning tomorrow’s staff meeting, and casually glancing at work emails to which we feel we must reply as soon as possible all at the same time. We can be eating dinner, watching T.V., and remembering yesterday’s sorrows all at the same time. Mindfulness asks us for our full attention. Something we’ve probably not mustered to that extent since grade school when learning multiplication or creating a splendid holiday craft were all our minds could hold at any one time. Children and animals are exemplary models of mindfulness, yet as adults we have the ability to sustain our attention, and experience meaning from that attention in ways that a child never could. When mindful, we are in the present moment. That is all. You can be in the present moment listening to Prince, or eating a gourmet hamburger, or marveling at the exact curves and taste of your lover’s lips. You can be mindful when you’re driving to work or responding to emails or cooking dinner. Ask yourself to slow down and focus on this moment and this moment alone. Ask yourself, “How can I give this moment my full attention?”

2) Awareness: Now that you’ve slowed down enough to even realize what you’re doing or how you’re being in the moment, allow your awareness to blossom. Not sure how to do this? You can start by paying attention to your 5 senses: What do I touch, taste, hear, smell, see right now? What is this person really trying to communicate to me? What am I really trying to communicate to this person? How does my child’s hair smell right now, and now after I’ve bathed her? How many different colors are in this flower? How many different tastes in this strawberry rhubarb pie? How can I experience this moment instead of going through the motions of this moment? How is it different from all the other moments, even from other similar moments? This doesn’t mean you must get lost in all the intricacies of the particular: the early morning splash of light, the sound of an ambulance passing by, the photocopier oozing ozone into the air. But it does mean that as you remain in touch with your task, you recognize what you are doing as you are doing it, and what the world is offering back.

3) Participation: You’ve slowed down, you’ve noticed the moment, now release yourself to be in that moment. We all have our daily agendas. And agendas themselves are not to be discouraged. Yet getting from point “A” to “B,” or marking this and that off your to-do list does not mean you have to be mindless along the way. You can dance when your favorite song comes on the radio. You can compliment a co-worker’s new hair cut. You can savor the sweet sunshine you taste in your orange juice. You can notice your feelings and neither avoid or cling to them. You can merge into the moment – energetically – such that you experience flow. A flow from this to that to this. Nothing is ever the same. Each moment is always only what is. And when you’re really looking, what is, is so so much.

(Ideas about mindfulness influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy practice.)

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“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

How To Find Your Inner Voice

You must train your intuition — you must trust the small voice inside you which tells you exactly what to say, what to decide. -Ingrid Bergman

We’ve all heard the sage advice from someone – mothers, mentors, and self-help books – about the importance of finding your inner voice. But what exactly does that mean? And why is it so important? What is an inner voice?

Your inner voice can be called many things: soul, heart, gut, wise mind, conscience, intuition, guide … some may even believe in connection to a certain energy, nature, spirit, ancestors, or as Yoda made ever-so-popular in Star Wars, a connection to “the force.” Yet however you chose to define it, your inner voice is an essential component to living a wise and vital life. Your inner voice is that deeply honest and strangely shrewd voice inside that points you in the right direction toward your goals, smells bad news and people coming from afar, and a part of yourself – your birthright even – that helps you live an authentic and even miraculous life.

When making major decisions, feeling dissonance about something and you’re not sure why, or in moments when you realize you’ve really strayed from the path or type of person you set out to be, your inner voice can offer intense comfort and insightful guidance. So how does one tap into his/her inner voice?

1. Quiet Mind – Before you can listen to your deepest self, you have to tune out all the other voices vying for your attention. Friends, family, colleagues, media, everything. Sometimes this mindless or even well-meaning chatter can make it quite difficult to tune into your own frequency. Whether you need literal silence, such as meditation, or engagement in an activity that Zen-ifies your mind, such as sports or art, a quiet mind is a good place to start when trying to tap your inner voice.

2. Expression – If quieting your mind is your connection to that deep place, expression is the process of bringing what is deep to the surface. You may choose to write whatever comes to mind, or engage in some other form of art or expression that works more naturally to you. You may choose to speak your thoughts aloud to a trusted friend or professional. You may choose to engage in a lucid dream if you are lucky enough to have that talent. Whatever you chose, it is important to block the inner-critic, editor, or otherwise naysayer from this process. This is about allowing what is there to bubble to the surface. It is about a process, not a final product.

3. Say It Out Loud – If you haven’t already expressed what your inner voice is saying in a direct manner, do so now. Say it out loud. Say, “I need to find a job that fits my skills and priorities more closely.” “I need to stop drinking so much.” “This person I’ve been dating is not right for me.” “This person I’ve been dating is worthy of my trust and love.” “I’m going to travel to the coast instead of the mountains this year.” Whatever it is – say it out loud.

4. Calm versus Fear – When in doubt about if you’ve tapped your inner voice or not, consider if you are feeling calm or crazed about what message your inner voice has communicated to you. Sometimes we let our fears guide us and call it our inner voice, such as, “I’m sure this won’t turn out good any way, so I just won’t paint tonight.” Other times our inner voice has something important to say, “You need to refill the creative well with good conversation and inspiration before returning to your craft.” These types of messages can be difficult to distinguish. Even if what your inner voice has communicated to you is a scary concept – a big move, starting a family, lifestyle change – you should also have a sense of calm guided by the wisdom and honesty of that decision. Of course you’re nervous, excited, even self-doubtful, but there is a kernel of groundedness. Think: Am I running from something or toward something? With an inner voice, there is a lack of impulsivity, and more of a vision.

5. Personal Values & Goals – If you’re still not sure what to think of your inner voice’s communication with you, consider your own personal values and goals. If you value security, honesty, and loyalty – it’s probably not your inner voice telling you to have an extramarital affair. If you value creativity and community, it’s probably not your inner voice telling you that you aren’t talented enough to share your passion with others. If your goal is to help others, it may be your inner voice pushing you to leave a retail job and go back to school or work for a non-profit. Catch my drift here? When in doubt, consider the source of the inner voice. And that source is you.

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There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
or wise man can decide
What’s right for you— just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
-Shel Silverstein

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.