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Walking Through Trauma: Feel What You Feel

Traumatic events and grief can be so horrible that the last thing we want to do is feel the pain. If given the option, many of us would choose to never, ever, evvvver feel it, even if that means feeling nothing at all. Feeling pain seems to go against our very pleasure-loving nature.

Those around us may be doing everything within their power to whisk us quickly around the pain, giving it a wide berth. "Think positive," they well-meaningly cheerlead. "Don't cry. It'll be OK. Be brave." "Here, watch a fun movie. Have a drink." "Get ahold of yourself." "Practice gratitude."

We swallow down the golf-ball-sized throat-lump and fortify ourselves against those miserable emotions.

Disclaimer #1: some of you are looking at me cross-eyed: "Laura, what are you TALKING about? I've never been able to stifle my emotions. They always win." If that's you, awesome. I'll write a different blog post for you about riding the waves of bigger-than-life emotions. For the rest of you -- keep reading.

The problem with pounding those pesky feelings down is that they don't go away. They get stored in our bodies. They show up as a headache. Stomach ulcers. A racing heart. Tightness in our jaw. Sleepless nights. Hair loss. Gingivitis.

Disclaimer #2: OK- so maybe there aren't any randomized clinical trials linking suppressed emotions to gingivitis, but the others are real. You get the picture.

Disclaimer #3: (you've gotta have a lot of disclaimers in this lawsuit-ravenous world): Not all physical symptoms are due to stuffed feelings! There are lots of reasons for headaches and stomachaches.

When emotions are experienced as emotions - as sadness or grief or disappointment - we can move through them. Emotions tend to come in waves. That wave may feel like a 2-foot wave or a 200-foot wave, but it will subside. When emotions are experienced as physical sensations, however - as a headache or a stomachache - our bodies are not equipped to process them. They may not subside, or take much longer to subside.

The only analogy I can come up with right now is this: if you pour gasoline into the gas tank of a car, the engine knows how to process it. It will eventually burn up all of the gas. But if you pour gasoline onto the front passenger seat, the seat has no idea what to do with it. It can't process it. The gasoline just sets there -- and stinks.

The very thought of pouring gasoline onto the seat of my car makes me want to delete this post and start again. But let me just say this before we both run outside to gulp in some fresh air:

You don't have to live with the headache or ulcers. (You're going to need a dentist for the gingivitis). Many books have been written on this and similar topics, but the most powerful advice I have ever heard on the topic was by Laura Duncan in this podcast in a 3-word phrase:

Feel what you feel.

If you're in a sad moment, feel sad. If the sad wave passes and you feel like giggling, it's not a crime to laugh in the middle of grief.

And if you find that you feel numb, or that you feel physical pain or discomfort, check and see if there just might be a painful emotion hiding behind that sensation.

Counselors sometimes get a bad rap for talking so much about emotions. But emotions are powerful little boogers with huge potential for creating beauty or wreaking havoc. We might similarly wonder why doctors focus so much on germs or diet and exercise. It's because they matter.

I'm sorry if I've muddled things up horribly with talk of gingivitis and gasoline and diet and exercise. Here's my punch line:

Feel what you feel.

You don't have to get stuck in the feeling forever. If you can't feel, reach out to a counselor who can help you emerge from the numbness. By allowing ourselves to deeply feel sorrow and disappointment and fear, we are paving the way to eventually return to feeling tranquility and satisfaction and love.

This is my hope for you, dear reader.

What are you feeling right now? What emotions have you felt in the past week? What physical pain or discomfort have you felt lately? Is there anything you've been pushing down deep and trying not to feel?

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