Counselling for Teachers Pt.4 - Where do you feel?

Surely you mean "How do you feel?"

Nope, where.

What are emotions? We often think about emotions as things that exist in our minds. But we also talk about heartache, gut feelings and blood boiling. From this perspective, emotions are just stuff going on in our bodies. They are our body's way of telling us something important about our situation: anger tells us that the situation is unfair, fear that it is dangerous, and joy that it is wonderful. Desire tells us that something is worth having, shame that someone might judge us and find us wanting, and sadness that the world is a worse place than we had hoped.

How do they do this? In another article we'll be looking at some of the physiology of emotion, which involve hormones, muscles, blood flow and a whole bunch of systems interacting. But for today we wanted to look at how this physiology is experienced.

Take a moment to imagine yourself feeling very fearful. Think back to the last horror movie or thriller you saw, for example, and put yourself in the scariest moment. Where do you feel that fear? Tune into your body and see if you can identify the part(s) of your body that are telling you about this fear, and the quality of feeling.

I know for me that fear is a tightening of the stomach and a kind of fuzzy humming feeling which, if the fear gets ramped up into, say, terror, becomes a unnervingly cold sensation, which I feel expand into my spine.

Try the same for anxiety. Think back to a moment where you felt anxious. Where did you feel it? For many people anxiety is carried around the shoulders, neck and chest, but everyone is different. Where don't you feel it? Are there any parts of your body which 'disappear' when you feel anxious?

The similarities between people's experiences of emotions can be seen very clearly in this article by Nummenmaa et al (2013). The authors surveyed a number of people, asking them to map where and how intensely they felt various emotions. The picture below summarises their findings:

You can see from the scale on the right that this includes both reports of sensation and lack of sensation: in sadness, for example, there was some activation in the thorax and behind the eyes, but more noticeable is the deactivation of sensation in the limbs - a pattern you can see even more clearly in depression, which is characterised by a lack of affect everywhere except the chest and belly.

so what?

Aside from finding it fascinating to check my own bodily emotional responses against those of the average person, I think it can be really useful to get a better sense of how and where we feel. Often strong emotions can feel unmanageable - like forces which overtake us and over which we have little control. Understanding them better gives us a better chance to respond to them thoughtfully and rationally.

It also gives us a chance to address the physical sensations instead of getting tied up in emotional reasoning, which is not always useful. For example, my anxiety manifests as shallowness of breath, tightness around the shoulders, and a feeling of vulnerability in the stomach. If I try to reason with my anxiety, arguing with myself that I'm stupid to be feeling it, I'll generally get worse. But if, recognising the early feelings of anxiety, I choose to consciously slow and deepen my breathing, and loosen my shoulders by slowly raising and lowering them, I can arrest the anxiety there and then. With the emotion under control (rather than me being under its control) I can then decide whether I want to listen to what the anxiety is telling me, or decide to discount it and move on. 

This is not an easy thing to do. Throughout our early life we're encouraged to either act on emotions or hide them. We spend a lifetime doing this, so finding a middle way - listening to emotions but not being beholden to them - does not come naturally. As counsellors we will often invite clients to describe where in their body they feel a particular emotion, as a way of befriending and getting to know an emotion they may previously have been taught to ignore or disown. And this needn't only take place with a counsellor - just taking a moment to locate an emotion when you're feeling it can give you a little bit more control, and help to make better decisions about how you respond to it.

Everyone's experience of bodily emotion is different, and so the steps we can take to arrest control from unwanted emotions will differ, but they all begin with self-awareness, and a great place to start with this is the body. 

And the children

One final point: we've focused today on self-understanding, but this kind of bodily awareness is absolutely vital for children. The emphasis of PHSCE (or whatever the acronym has been changed to this week) has often been on naming emotions, which is really important, but being aware of their bodily manifestations is vital too. How might we support the children we teach - especially those who are less verbal - to feel more deeply with greater awareness, and so take back control? (Full personal disclosure: I hated, as a child, being asked to name emotions, and as a result was pretty delayed in my own emotional development, choosing to hide them rather than try and fail to name them. If I'd been given a more practical bodily model of emotion I would have been a lot better at understanding and managing difficult emotions today).

The very well-meaning emphasis of PHSCE has also been on expressing emotions, which is clearly vital. But I wonder how wise it is to suggest to children that emotions are always to be accepted and expressed, rather than responded to more carefully. Let me give you an example:

I remember a very emotionally literate child in a class I taught. She was empathetic to others' needs, understood her own emotions and had a remarkably mature emotional vocabulary for her age. Her parents encouraged her to express herself when she felt an emotion, and accepted whatever emotions arose. On a number of occasions, when it came around to maths, she would approach me and say "It's making me feel really sad that I have to do this". She was shocked when I didn't accept and validate this emotion, or even engage with it at that point, letting her know instead that this was a lesson and she needed to remain in her seat, and that we would talk about her emotions at a more appropriate time. 

I'm not suggesting that we encourage children to suppress or ignore emotions: it's great that they can name and express their emotions. But it would be even better if, after feeling the emotion they had the ability to notice it and decide do I want/need to act on this emotion, or can I just let it be? Part of emotional maturity is not just naming and reacting to emotions, but being able to respond to emotions. Learning to locate the sensation of any particular emotion is an early step in this journey, and one which is useful for all of us.

For previous instalments in the Counselling for Teachers series:

Part 3: Locus of Evaluation

Part 2: Hot Cross Buns

Part 1: Basic Skills