BECOMING AN EMOTIONAL PLUMBER Janna Fikkan, Ph.D., a health psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durhan, N.C., trains patients in mindfulness, an approach born from Buddhist meditation that increases awareness of feelings, thought patterns and physical sensations. “A lot of people don’t necessarily associate muscle tension or headaches with emotions,” she says. But everyone has a “signature” for responding to feelings—a kind of personal psycho-emotional vocabulary that manifests in the form of thoughts, aches, pains or other responses.
Fikkan guides patients through a visualization exercise to uncover how their bodies and minds react to emotions, working with the major feeling categories, such as joy, anger, fear and sadness. With anger, for example, she’ll ask patients to imagine themselves stuck in traffic. The first sign of frustration might be the thought, Why does this always happen to me?, followed by a clenching of the jaw and a flush of the cheeks. The idea is that once we identify the signs of an emotion, we can acknowledge it and work through it in a healthy way. At one point in doing this work, Fikkan thought it would be useful if people had the equivalent of a check-engine light to signal when it’s time for an emotional check-in. “A little signal, like, ‘Dink!’” she says. And immediately she noticed her left eye was twitching, a tic she only experiences when she needs rest. Dink!
Kimberly Perez, 35, a postpartum nurse who lives in Boulder, Colo., recognizes her “Dink!” signals well. When she notices that her mind is scattered and she can’t focus on anything, she knows it’s time to take a moment to attend to her emotional life. Usually she’ll have some tea, take a nap, or call an old friend. Her emotional backlog is soon cleared, and she’s back on track.
If you’re looking for your own check-engine light and ways to stay in touch with your emotions before any gaskets blow (the automotive metaphors stop here, I promise), read on. Here, experts share their best tips to keep your emotional pipes clear.