The Surprising Way Your Body Influences Your Emotions
Our bodies are wise guides to our emotional states. Not only do emotions create a physical response, but also, our bodies’ responses lead to the experience of emotion. For example, when we smile, we feel better. When our heart rate speeds up, we can feel anxious.
But too often, we think about how we are feeling rather than noticing our physical response to experience. By relying too much on thought, we miss critical information about what is really happening inside. There is a deep-seated, inaccurate belief in Western culture that the mind is the brain. But the mind is embodied – both body and brain. This reliance on thought in order to know how we feel often leads to cognitions that are cut off from the knowledge of our bodies.
To understand yourself at the deepest level, become a watchful student of your body’s changing states. All of your emotions are linked to a response in the body. Be curious about how you experience different emotions – like surprise, joy, anger, sadness, confusion, fear, caution, resistance, tenderness, annoyance – in your body. Chances are you have a physical response before you can identify how you are feeling. Yet if you are curious and develop a practice around noticing your body’s responses, you will begin to identify patterns and utilize your physical responses as a powerful source of self-knowledge.
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A 2010 study in the scientific journal Emotion looked at whether people who were more in tune with their bodies could better report changes in their heart rate as they reported changes in emotions. The researchers explored this question by comparing two groups of people who had training at noticing their bodies, experienced meditators, and dancers, with a control group of people who had no prior training in body awareness.
Everyone in all three groups watched short films that elicited both positive and negative emotions. Participants were asked to rate their emotional experience while watching the films by turning a rating dial as their emotions changed. At the same time, their heart rate variability was continuously measured. The question posed by this study was whether the groups differed in their awareness of heart rate changes that went along with emotional changes. The study’s results showed differences in sensitivity to heart rate changes that were related to emotional shifts. In general, people who were taught to be more aware of their bodies rated their emotions in closer alignment with the heart rate changes as they watched the short films.
The meditators had the greatest coherence between physical changes and their experience of emotion, followed by the dancers. Both the meditators and dancers were more aware of the changes in their heart rate compared to the group with no body awareness training. This study showed that practices that involve becoming aware of the body lead to more accurate observations of internal states. This study suggests that training in body awareness can help us notice changes in our emotions earlier on, as well as report them more accurately. The study also implies that meditation training, in particular, might be especially helpful in becoming aware of shifts in our bodies.
Pay Attention to Your Body’s Responses
You can learn more about yourself by paying attention to your body’s response to experience. By doing so, you will understand yourself on a deeper level and, importantly, you will have more choice over how to respond to situations. You will be better able to respond creatively rather than be reactive. When you become a student of your body’s responses, you will feel greater ease more of the time, regardless of what is happening around you.
A good way to begin noticing your body’s subtle responses is to practice meditating with a focus on your breath and other physical sensations. Every day, for as little as five minutes, tune into your body with a short meditation. Then, several times throughout the day, pause, close your eyes and take a few slow, easy breaths. As you do, notice what is happening in your body. These two practices – meditating on physical sensations, and more frequently pausing and tuning into your body – will prime you to notice your physical experience at other times. Eventually, you will be in greater alignment with the wisdom of your body, tuning into it to serve your highest interests.
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