Health & Wellbeing

How Emotions affect our Physical Reactions

Have you ever thought about how when you’re angry or stressed, your jaw tenses and your shoulders tighten up? Your body literally reacts with a physical reaction to the stimulus of that emotion?

The physical ways in which our body reacts to certain emotions can actually be helpful for us to tune in to what we’re feeling and therefore what we’re thinking.

For example, you may not have realised that a series of situations or triggers were bringing about a full on panic attack… but if you can learn to read the physical signs, the little clues that our body gives us, then you can take action to prevent unwanted events occurring, like a panic attack. Early signs that you’re about to have a panic attack can be tense muscles, shallow, sharp, quick breathing, and a racing heartbeat. Even something as subtle as a dry throat.

(in fact, as I write this, I have an extremely sore throat, but I haven’t really been around people enough to have ‘caught’ it off of anyone, and the suggestion is that too much stress and anxiety recently has in turn made me physically ill). I’m sure we’ve all heard of ‘stress headaches’ before too.

Our body can be affected in other ways such as a lack of appetite or difficulty sleeping. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of our physical reactions until we’re asked the question; “How does that particular emotion manifest itself physically in your body??”

I remember years ago when I was first diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; my specialist therapist at the time asked me what it felt like physically to have a panic attack. I told him;

“I sweat, and get hot, my heart races, my breathing becomes quick and sharp, and I feel a little dizzy.”

Then he asked me; and what happens to your body when you’re excited about something, like when you’re about to go on stage?

I told him;

“I sweat, and get hot, my heart races, my breathing becomes quick and sharp, and I feel a little dizzy.”

Then he said to me – “Now you don’t have to tell me out loud… but just think inside your head; what happens to your body when you’re sexually aroused?” In my head I thought “the same” and I smiled and nodded.

Our bodies have a few basic ways to let us know that “something is going on” – but they can’t really differentiate between whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. One of my favourite dance teachers; Alexis Southall taught me that instead of looking at stage fright as ‘I’m so nervous to go on stage’ – instead, change the label we give that physical reaction and emotion to; “I’m so excited to get on stage!!” . The physical reactions are the same, but the way we change our story about how we feel about the situation, is what changes our emotions around it.

If our bodies cannot tell us – this reaction is because of ….X … then it is up to us to determine what is going on.

But… What if our minds are warped with negative thinking and we’re just labelling everything negatively? That’s when we need help.

Fight or Flight Response Mode

We have had this thing called ‘fight or flight’ mode since “the dawn of time” (I’m sure you’ve all heard of it). Whilst this natural reaction to threat or possible danger has served us well to keep us alive in the past, it isn’t often that we need to use it in our modern way of living. Almost as if, we’ve taken so much of the natural everyday stresses of “will I get eaten by a big carnivorous animal today while I’m gathering food” away from our lives and replaced them with “will this Facebook post get enough likes?”

I sometimes feel that by taking away the basic strife of surviving day-to-day without getting eaten by lions… we’ve created a much bigger problem. Things like filling our homes with “stuff” we don’t need or truly want, in order to fill “the void” of emptiness we often feel… things like obsessively checking our phones for social media updates least we risk becoming disconnected with the fleeting suddenness of today’s communication attention spans.

Fear of not finding food to survive has been replaced with FOMO.

I’m fully aware that I come from a place of being addicted to social media and struggling with the automatic reflex of opening up my phone to check……

… check for what?

I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. The best evenings I have are the ones where I forget my phone in my bag and then come to it later with 100’s of notifications. That to me now is the measure of a good night, my phone silently buzzing away in my bag, having its own little shit-fit whilst I blissfully ignore its cries for attention. Actually living.
This is the toxic relationship I should have been purging all along.

I’m completely digressing from the original subject (a prime example of our modern day attention spans).
I can’t help but realise… the times I have been the happiest in my life, have been those when I had very little and I focused only on survival.

When I was 16 living in a car, the only thought that occupied my daily mind was “where are we going to park tonight to sleep” or “where can we go to get a shower”.

When I lived in Japan, getting around in the Kanji filled world of culture shock and managing to order food successfully and get from A-to-B, fed and safe; was a great accomplishment. Arriving in a brand new city and finding your way around; was a great accomplishment.

When I lived in New Zealand and arrived in Auckland completely homeless, jobless and almost penniless – and within a week I’d found a floor to sleep on, an address to use on my CV, a library to print my CV and a job which eventually lead to getting a room to rent; that was an incredible sense of accomplishment and also made me feel like I could survive almost anywhere (some of us just ‘get shit done’).

I guess what I’m saying is; when you have a struggle to overcome, you just get on with it and overcome it. Your mind is focused on survival and you feel a great sense of accomplishment knowing you have found shelter, created a homely space and have food and water. This is the happiest sense of wellbeing I have ever experienced: when your happiness comes from fulfilling your basic needs.  It’s the same as me having crippling anxiety in mundane situations; and yet twice in my lifetime I have been the only calm one on the phone to 999 responding to an emergency whilst others lost their heads. Things either have to be completely fucked up for me to be calm and centred…. Or I have to be high.

The problem comes when all your basic needs are met, and you have nothing important left to strive for anymore, then what…..? What is it all for?
That’s when we experience physical reactions to stress – NOT because we need to be frightened of a dangerous threat, but because the threat is perceived all in our ‘busy’ little run-around minds.

Almost as if in our modern lives we have run out of things to be afraid of… so we’re subconsciously making up things to panic about. Anxiety is a rising epidemic in our modern society, but I wonder if the ‘system’ all fell apart around us and all we needed to focus on was finding food and shelter, would we actually all be happier?

And now I sound like a flat-earth’er

Take care little kittens xxx