Mind & Body

The Great Emotional Escape

When the tough stuff comes up, most of us run. Here’s how embrace your internal chaos.
The Great Emotional Escape
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As a yoga geek who writes about wellness for a living, I’m well-versed in the “right” things to do for a healthy life. I rattle off advice to friends about nutrition, meditation and relationships, often hedged with the caveat, “but do what feels right for you.” And yet, when I take on too many articles (usually about health or happiness), I start skimping on sleep, real meals and exercise—and I have no idea about what feels right for me.
The irony is rich, I know.

Soon I’m bumping into furniture, losing it with tech support and my inner a cappella band is crooning, “Whatcha Doin’ with Your Life?” (aka “The Loser Song”). Then I have total amnesia about all that might return me to emotional balance. (Yoga? Is that a snack food?) When I let it go long enough, you can find me on the sofa entranced by Gilmore Girls DVDs, surrounded by (dark) chocolate wrappers, crusted cereal bowls (with almond milk), and empty (compostable!) iced-coffee cups, feeling pretty terrible about myself—and terrible about feeling terrible. The yoga girl’s lost weekend.

Your version might look different, but we all have our go-to emotional avoidance tricks. You may pick a fight with your partner, or vanish into a Project Runway binge, making it work with a bag of chips. Or you might dive into busyness—e-mailing, studying, volunteering, caretaking—filling up every second of every day with perfectly justified productive activity.

Of course, often when we launch into under- or overdrive it’s because we’re masking something brewing beneath the surface. It’s often unconscious (it’s not like we want to plow through an entire bag of cookies while looking at every photo of an ex on Facebook). But if we ignore what’s really happening in the depths of our emotional beings long enough, it can start wreaking major havoc on our bodies, brains, relationships and overall well-being.
“Getting a handle on your emotions and learning elegant ways to name them, claim them and express them is probably the most important thing you can ever do for your health,” says Christiane Northrup, M.D., an integrative physician in Yarmouth, Maine, and author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam).

Why? For starters, bottled up emotions tend to manifest physically. Many integrative docs believe deepsixed feelings can cause physical tension that may lead to muscle tissues not getting enough oxygen, causing pain and contributing to everything from back aches to headaches to gastrointestinal distress. Not being able to express how you’re feeling can also lead to excess and prolonged stress, which causes the body to release potentially damaging hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Insulin levels may also rise, causing swings in blood sugar levels, which can drive you to overeat or perhaps even drink heavily—temporarily making you feel better. All of this creates an imperfect inner storm.

“A vicious cycle ensues. You gain weight, increase your chances of developing high blood pressure, and your insulin, cortisol and epinephrine levels skyrocket. Over an extended period of time this leads to cellular inflammation, which is the root cause of all chronic degenerative disease—diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, that kind of thing,” Northrup says.

It’s enough to make you reach for the Ben & Jerry’s.

But there’s hope beyond the frozen dairy aisle. Experts have honed simple and effective ways to help you cozy up to your emotions—whether good or bad—and agree that the practice can have transformative effects on your health and happiness.