How to Get Rid of the Tension That Comes with “Emotional Baggage”

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You may be able to release trapped emotions by acknowledging them and connecting with them. Other practices that help you work through trauma may help.

You’ve probably heard the term “emotional baggage.”
It’s sometimes used to describe the phenomenon of carrying past trauma or so-called negative experiences through life, relationships, or a career.

You may see this reflected in someone’s posture, as if they’re carrying around an unbearable weight. It may even prevent them from moving forward in life.

Everyone carries unprocessed emotions from experiences to some degree. However, emotions that aren’t dealt with don’t just go away.

They can affect:
the way you think about yourself
how you react to stress
your physical well-being
your relationships with others
After all, emotional baggage gets its name from somewhere, right?

Let’s unpack the layers of how and where emotions get stuck, so you can release what’s weighing you down.

What does it mean to have ‘trapped’ emotions?
Perhaps you’ve heard of people crying during yoga, massage, or acupuncture treatment because of a tender spot that, when activated, appears to lead to an emotional release.

Though some may refer to trauma being “stored” or “trapped” in the body, that isn’t necessarily a scientific way to put it.

However, the symptoms of traumatic stress can manifest physically.

This may be because the brain associates this area with a particular memory — often on a subconscious level.

Activating certain areas of the body may trigger these memories, according to Mark Olson, PhD, LMT, the owner and director of the Pacific Center for Awareness & Bodywork.

“Emotions are constantly being generated — subconsciously or consciously — in response to the reactivation of memories or unsatisfied goals,” Olson says. “The touch to X area is simply a reliable stimulus to reconstruct the pattern associated with that traumatic event.”

Alternatively, some believe that trauma and difficult emotions can, in fact, become literally stuck energy in the body, though this isn’t supported by scientific evidence.

According to Bradley Nelson, DC, trapped emotional vibrations cause surrounding tissues to vibrate at the same frequency, known as resonance.

In his book “The Emotion Code,” Nelson writes, “Each trapped emotion resides in a specific location in the body, vibrating at its own particular frequency.”

This may cause you to attract more of that emotion, he says, creating a build-up or blockage.
Still, Nelson’s stance remains theoretical until further research can be done.

How do emotions get trapped?
That said, research as early as 1992Trusted Source along with more current research supports the mind-body connection, or the belief that a person’s mental and emotional health impacts the state of their physical health.

A classic example of this is fear.
If you’re in a situation where you’re afraid, your body generates a physical response to this emotion by activating the fight-flight-freeze response.

According to Nelson, three things happen when an emotion is experienced.
We develop an emotional vibration.
We feel the emotion and any thoughts or physical sensations associated with it. This is where the mind and body’s interconnectedness comes into play.
We move on from the emotion by processing it.
According to Olson and other , emotional processing occurs in the limbic structures of the brain.
We’re constantly taking in information, which generates pre-conscious autonomic nervous system responses. This sends a signal to the body activating the corresponding emotion.

In other words, your “feeling” comes from what your nervous system is telling you.
According to Nelson, when the second or third step mentioned above gets interrupted, the energy of the emotion becomes trapped in the body. As a result, you might experience muscle tension, pain, or other ailments.

“The phrase ‘trapped emotions’ usually means that the true self wants to express something that the false self doesn’t want us to express,” Olson says. “In psychology, we think of the true self as the part of us that we are born with that is naturally open, curious, and trusting, while the false self emerges as a set of adaptive strategies to deal with pain and loss.”

This repressed negative emotional energy can express as:
resentment
poor decision-making
self-sabotage
overreaction
increased stress and anxiety
depression
fatigue
Mind-body therapist Kelly Vincent, PsyD, compares trapped emotions to carrying around a large backpack. It weighs us down, impacts our mood, and drains our energy.

Additionally, she notes that it can also destroy body tissues and prevent normal functions of organs and glands.

“It’s just like a giant roadblock on the freeway,” Vincent says. “It is hard for energy to flow naturally through.”

“The phrase ‘trapped emotions’ usually means that the true self wants to express something that the false self doesn’t want us to express,” Olson says. “In psychology, we think of the true self as the part of us that we are born with that is naturally open, curious, and trusting, while the false self emerges as a set of adaptive strategies to deal with pain and loss.”

This repressed negative emotional energy can express as:
resentment
poor decision-making
self-sabotage
overreaction
increased stress and anxiety
depression
fatigue
Mind-body therapist Kelly Vincent, PsyD, compares trapped emotions to carrying around a large backpack. It weighs us down, impacts our mood, and drains our energy.

Additionally, she notes that it can also destroy body tissues and prevent normal functions of organs and glands.
“It’s just like a giant roadblock on the freeway,” Vincent says. “It is hard for energy to flow naturally through.”

Trauma can come about through life experiences like:
a breakup
a major life change
a major illness
the death of a loved one
infidelity in a relationship
loss of a job
an experience of violence, discrimination, or racism
Trauma can impact cognitive processes.

It especially affects memory processing and the ability to recall factual information, or explicit memory. As a result, the traumatic experience or memory is not “logged” properly in the brain.

“When it comes to an extremely overwhelming experience, like a trauma, the brain encodes the traumatic memories as pictures or body sensations,” Vincent says.

When triggered, the brain may disconnect from reality or replay the traumatic event in the form of a flashback.

This is known as dissociation, or psychological disconnect.

When trauma isn’t processed or resolved on its own, it may linger far past the actual event.

This is often seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that develops after a person undergoes terrifying or life-threatening events.

ResearchTrusted Source shows that those with current PTSD have a smaller hippocampus, a center for emotions and memory in the brain.
Stress leads to the release of the hormone cortisol, which is a part of the fight-flight-freeze response.

Research from 2011Trusted Source showed that prolonged stress damages the hippocampus, which may show up as abnormal blood flow or reduced size. As a result, your body may remain in this hypervigilant state even if you’re not consciously thinking of the traumatic event.

Where are trapped emotions stored in the body?
Ever feel a tightness in your chest during an anxiety-inducing situation? Or do you notice that it feels good to stretch your hips after an emotionally draining day?

Where one person feels tension or sensitivity in their bodies might not be the same for another.
Some studies, however, provide a baseline for where emotions are generally experienced. But there’s still more research needed on this subject for conclusive takeaways.

One such study from 2013 led by a team of biomedical engineers in Finland sought to explain where emotions are felt in the body.

They mapped bodily reactions to emotions in about 700 individuals by asking them to color in regions where they felt reactions increasing or decreasing due to various stimuli.

For example, anger, fear, and anxiety showed increased activity in the chest and upper body.
This may explain the origins of expressions like “hot-headed” or “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

These emotions can also kickstart the sympathetic nervous system to create a quick response in the body. That’s why you may feel your heart pulsing or your muscles tightening when you become nervous or stressed.

A chart in the study references where these feelings were found to be experienced in the body. See a summary below:
For example, anger, fear, and anxiety showed increased activity in the chest and upper body.
This may explain the origins of expressions like “hot-headed” or “carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
These emotions can also kickstart the sympathetic nervous system to create a quick response in the body. That’s why you may feel your heart pulsing or your muscles tightening when you become nervous or stressed.
A chart in the study references where these feelings were found to be experienced in the body. See a summary below:

Unprocessed emotions
Emotions that aren’t dealt with may become stored in your unconscious, and may even affect your body posture.
“Your head is in a different position when you’re confident and when you’re confused,” Olson says. “Your spine takes on a different shape when you’re defeated or victorious.”

“Muscle tension emerges to create and maintain postures that keep oneself safe or unaware of unpleasant feelings,” he says.
Certain postures and gestures also relate to specific feelings and social meanings. Think of a warm embrace versus crossed arms.
This may help us understand why some believe tension in the body is associated with specific areas. However, Olson advises against using this to create general narratives.

“This puts a very shallow limit on how far one can explore as they defer to a [list] rather than what they can find within themselves,” he says.

How to release emotions from the body
Ever feel like you need to cry, scream, laugh, punch a pillow, or dance it out?
We’re often taught to bury our pain and soldier on. Over time, this can lead to repressed emotions, also known as unconscious avoidance.
Research from 2019 linked emotional repression with decreased immune system function.

Here are a few ways to release repressed emotions:
acknowledging your feelings
working through trauma
trying shadow work
making intentional movement
practicing stillness
Acknowledge your feelings
The more you understand your emotional world, the more you can digest your feelings in healthy ways.

The first step is to connect with and understand your emotions. People with repressed emotions may have trouble identifying their feelings, which is why it can be valuable to talk with a mental health professional.

Work through past trauma
Often, there are things we carry around for years that stem back to childhood. Some examples of past trauma include:

abuse, including mental, emotional, physical, or sexual
neglect
loss of a loved one
separation from a parent or caregiver
bullying
dysfunction at home
Unresolved childhood trauma can show up in many ways, including:

withdrawing from social activities
In order to work through trauma, Olson says it’s crucial to feel the grief about the fact that you may never get what you wanted or deserved years ago.

Once you’ve allowed yourself that grief, you can acknowledge the adaptive strategy you developed as a result.
For example, you may have developed a coping strategy to be independent that eventually results in feelings of isolation. Without recognizing your strategy, you might think you’re being alienated by others.

Shadow work
Similar to exploring childhood trauma, shadow work offers another lens of exploring different parts of ourselves that we keep hidden, typically due to shame or inadequacy.

People tend to hide the parts of themselves that they believe are unacceptable.
For example, were you told to “calm down” or “stop crying” when you were upset as a kid? This emotional invalidation may cause you to feel ashamed of your emotions or to downplay them.

 

 

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