This is an article about four slightly weird practices that could make a big difference to your wellbeing. One involves holding your index finger on a small machine that occasionally emits gentle beeps. In another, you move your eyes from side to side while talking. In the third technique you tap your fingers on the side of your hand, and other parts of your body. And the fourth is a kind of mind game where you shift your thoughts and feelings around.
These four practices are all techniques and technologies of emotional processing. They can help us release strong, unwanted feelings, that otherwise get suppressed. Before I learned these techniques, when I got upset about something, I’d shout and storm, and I would try not to make things worse, while I waited for the feelings to die down. But now, I can do something in the moment to actively feel, shift and release the emotions.
In this post I’ll discuss Heartmath, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and The Sedona Method. I’m pretty sure there are others, but these are the ones I have personal experience of. Each one has made a huge difference to my life.
Interestingly, they all work in different ways, and come from different theoretical foundations. They all fit into the spectrum of mind-body medicine, which regards the mind and body as interconnected, and works with the interactions of the brain, body and behaviour. (In contrast to conventional medicine, where the mind and body are generally regarded as separate.)
In my childhood and young adulthood I had a lot of blocked up traumatic feelings, and I couldn’t find any help to deal with them. I’m writing this post so that nobody has to do as much research as I have.
The 21st century is a great time to be alive – because so many of these technologies are available and easily accessible. Processing emotions is really important, but it falls through the cracks in mental health practice. I have known many counsellors and psychotherapists who don’t know about these techniques. If you don’t know how to process emotions, then counselling or psychotherapy will be much less effective, and may even be counterproductive.
The Heartmath Institute also uses the term “emotional coherence” to describe this skill.
Why is emotional processing important?
We feel a lot better when we learn to release emotions. Our wellbeing improves.
It’s empowering – we can be free from longterm dependency on expensive mental health professionals and/or prescription drugs.
These are essential skills of resilience. We live in challenging times and learning to manage our emotions is a powerful tool of resilience.
Better parenting – when we learn to manage our emotions we are much better parents, and we can teach these skills to our children.
Social responsibility – people who are sitting on unresolved emotional stress create a stressful environment for those around them.
Why doesn’t everyone already know this stuff?
Emotional self-management is invisible – except where the lack of it creates problems, e.g. addiction, chronic illness, anger, etc (which may not be directly traced to emotional stress, but it’s always a factor).
Those lucky people who have learned emotional coherence from their parents take it for granted. I think those of us who didn’t learn it also take our situation for granted, until we learn otherwise. But in my experience this is something that can be changed.
Most people who aren’t mental health professionals don’t have specialised knowledge of psychological theories and techniques. It’s related to the general stigma around mental illness. We’d rather not think about it too closely, until it happens to us (and then it’s too late).
I have training in the theory and research of the mind-body and mental health fields, although I’m not a practitioner. I also have a fair amount of experience as a client.
Mental health professionals tend to be highly specialised into modalities and disciplines. There are psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors, and they’re very often critical and competitive of each other.
I started thinking about the material in this article when I was studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Health Science at AUT, majoring in Expressive Therapies. I have enduring gratitude to my teachers at AUT, especially Brigitte Puls and Lynne Giddens, for giving me a rigorous introduction to thinking, practicing and researching in this fascinating and important field.
Bottling up feelings
I come from a long heritage of people who learned to suppress their feelings. My theory is that many people in our modern world are suffering from emotional constipation. The Scandinavians are especially good at it. But the Germans, English and various others aren’t too far behind. My dad had to learn to repress his feelings at an English boarding school and in the army. The trouble with suppressing your feelings is that you end up with a “volcano in my tummy”, as a well-known kids’ book puts it. My poor mother (who was a musician) avoided listening to music for half a century because it made her feel emotional, and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to stop crying. One of my biggest regrets is that I learned these techniques too late to teach them to my mother. (But maybe she wouldn’t have been willing to try.)
Emotions are supposed to move
A lot of suffering comes from holding onto emotions. I now understand that emotions aren’t meant to be hoarded. You feel them and let them go.
A few common (but problematic) ways of coping with unpleasant emotions include drinking alcohol, which suppresses emotions but is also a depressant, and comfort eating. High carbohydrate/high fat foods suppress emotions, as anyone who’s eaten a bag of donuts or a pot of icecream at one sitting knows. Looking for the cause or finding someone to blame also works to a certain extent, by projecting the feelings onto someone else. But all of these tactics have negative consequences: alcoholism, eating disorders and fractured families.
Why process emotions
Emotional stress and trauma can be a factor in a wide range of health and wellbeing issues. Chronic pain is likely to have emotional components. Mind-body medicine has a bunch of theories about how this works. Unreleased emotions build up as stress in your body and in your emotional system.
Counselling and psychotherapy help people access the emotions but don’t teach how to release them. If people don’t already know how to process emotions (and I certainly didn’t) then digging them up just re-traumatises.
Without some training in emotional processing, counselling and psychotherapy may be a waste of time – or even make things worse, by re-traumatising.
Time doesn’t heal emotions. They don’t go away on their own, if you don’t know how to let them go. You can sit on them for decades and then get them back in full force.
One of the modalities in this article, EMDR, was developed by a practitioner working with post traumatic stress disorder.
How can we learn?
Luckily, we now have access to a range of emotional self-management technologies and we can learn what our parents couldn’t teach us.
These techniques aren’t comfortable at the beginning. Expect to do a bit of crying when you first start – especially if (like me) you’ve been bottling stuff up for a long time. But if you persevere with any of them, you will move through the feelings and get to a new place.
I was introduced to Heartmath by Dr Mimi Irwin, my remarkable family doctor in Auckland in the 1990s. She tried Heartmath on herself and then on her family before teaching it to her patients.
With HeartMath you are connected up to a computer program or a small gadget called an EmWave, that measures your heart rhythms and tells you when they are calming down, i.e. getting into coherence. My family have been using an Emwave for many years. You can practice Heartmath without technology – but it’s very helpful to have a machine that goes beep when your heart rhythms get out of coherence.
Heartmath is based around the theory that the heart is a brain and we can can actively worked with it, to promote wellbeing by building heart-brain-body connections. The techniques involve learning to reprogramme the heart rhythms, to enable a shift to a positive emotional state in just a few minutes.
The purpose of Heartmath is “emotional coherence”, which means becoming aware of emotions while allowing them to move through, and not being “stuck” with them.
The Heartmath Institute was founded by Doc Childre in the early 1990s. It’s an international non-profit business, with accredited training, research and technology support.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (also called EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment developed in the late 1980s by American psychotherapist Francine Shapiro to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.
EMDR involves talking about uncomfortable feelings or memories, while moving the eyes up and down and across, in a particular pattern. It’s based on a theory of how the body processes and stores information.
The effectiveness of EMDR is well supported by research.
Emotional Freedom Technique (also called EFT or just “tapping”) was developed by Gary Craig in the 1990s. He’d already made his fortune as an engineer and investor, so he didn’t trademark EFT – he released the technology to the world for free. With EFT you use your fingers to tap on specific points on your face and body. EFT sounds weird – but it works. It’s based on tapping on the meridians of the energy systems of the body, as in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
There are lots of practitioners claiming that EFT works for a variety of specific situations, but the bottom line is that it is incredibly helpful in facing and releasing emotions.
The Sedona Method
This was developed by an American called Lester Levenson and popularised by Hale Dwoskin. It’s about learning to release specific unwanted emotions or memories by moving through some specific steps.
With The Sedona Method (as I’ve experienced it) you feel the emotions and visualise physically letting them go. It’s a mind exercise rather than physical practice, unlike EFT and EMDR.
There’s also something called The Release Technique, which is said to be similar to the Sedona Method, but I don’t have personal experience of this. Levenson, a physicist and successful entrepreneur, developed the Sedona Method in the 1950s, to heal his own severe health problems after suffering his second coronary at the age of 42 and being sent home to die.
The Sedona Method could be described as a personal growth tool rather than a healing modality (although those categories overlap), but it is very useful in emotional self-management.
I first encountered The Sedona Method when working with Scout Wilkins (she also uses many other interesting “mind body spirit” technologies). www.scoutwilkins.com
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, with kindness and curiosity. Mindfulness practice, as popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, is an important aspect of mind-body medicine. It is related to the emotional freedom technologies – but it’s not the same thing. Mindfulness doesn’t teach specifically how to handle the really uncomfortable feelings – situations when kindness and curiosity just don’t seem to apply.
Mindfulness is a very helpful meta-skill, but I think (from personal experience) that many people with emotional processing problems need specific training in emotional self-management before they can fully benefit from mindfulness.
Some theory: Affect and limbic resonance
Here are two very readable books that contain important pieces of research relating to this field.
A General Theory of Love, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon (2000) is a classic of modern neuroscience, that documents how relationships affect our emotional wiring. The authors are psychiatry professors at the University of California San Francisco. Lewis and his colleagues have figured out how to measure emotional systems, thus making their research intelligible to mainstream culture, which likes facts and figures and finds subjective stuff like emotions problematic.
Their findings include the theory that the effectiveness of psychotherapy is due to limbic resonance: the relationship between the therapist and the client rewiring the emotional systems of the body.
The Transmission of Affect, by Teresa Brennan (2004) is a very interesting book that deals with the idea that the emotions and energies of one person or group can be absorbed by or can enter directly into another. By “affect” she means emotions and the energy contained in emotions.
Brennan wasn’t a mental health professional, spiritual teacher or New Age practitioner – she was a sociologist. She theorises the means by which affect is transmitted, and suggests this is connected to the prevalence of psychogenic health conditions in contemporary life, eg ADD, chronic fatigue syndrome, codependency and fibromyalgia.
More information: where to start
Finding a teacher or doing a workshop would be helpful initially. If you can’t find anyone local, many practitioners offer Skype sessions. There are Youtube videos for all of these techniques. There’s a lot of free information available, and there are also paid courses. EFT in particular can be much more effective when you do it with another person.