Skill #10: How Emotions Get Trapped in Your Body and How to Release Them

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Trauma, anxiety, and other emotions can get trapped in your body- essentially emotions can get stored in your autonomic nervous system response. Your nervous system has two responses: the sympathetic response and the parasympathetic response. Both serve an important function in helping us process through intense emotions like trauma and anxiety, but when we interfere with our natural ability to calm down, those emotions can get trapped in the body. So it’s important to learn how to release emotions trapped in your body and to heal stress, anxiety, and trauma through the body.

Everything that happens to us emotionally or psychologically happens to our bodies as well. It’s all connected.”  James S. Gordon, M.D

For a very long time, the field of psychology was dominated by psychologists who insisted that the way to change how you feel is to change how you think. And honestly, this is true: when you change how you think, you can change how you feel. However, there’s something deeper than thoughts. 

The older, more instinctual part of your brain actually has superiority over your cortex, and modern research into trauma and anxiety work is showing that your nervous system really runs the show. For many people, you can’t just think your way out of emotions. But when you calm your nervous system, you can then calm your thinking as well. 

In this section, you’re going to learn about the two states of your nervous system, how emotions can get stuck in the body or the nervous system, and how to train your nervous system to be calmer so you can process through emotions, feel happier, and make better choices. 

Learn About the Two Parts of the Nervous System

In the last section we learned about the FFF response. This is an automatic reaction in the nervous system in response to threats or the need to perform. But your beautiful, brilliant brain isn’t just going to leave you hanging. There are two automatic responses in your nervous system: a natural alerting response and a natural calming response.

Quick review: when we feel unsafe, our nervous system has a way to get activated in order to respond to threats. This is the sympathetic nervous system. This is what leads to the physiological changes in the body with the fight/flight/freeze response.  

Your nervous system also has a response to calm down. This is called the parasympathetic response. I remember this by thinking “para” as in parachute. It slows things down and helps the nervous system and physiology return to a calm state. 

The parasympathetic response slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, turns back on digestion, loosens your muscles, and softens your eyes.  This state is also known as rest and digest or feed and breed. This is a healing state. Your immune system gets back to work, and your sense of peace and safety are restored. 

Both of these responses are helpful. It’s important to be able to respond to threats, but it’s also important to rest and heal. These two states are kind of like muscles. The part of our nervous system that we use the most becomes the strongest. 

A healthy nervous system alternates between the two states easily. It can go through cycles of activation, such as waking up, performing a task, getting motivated, and dealing with problems, and it can switch to relaxation — taking a break, sleeping, rejuvenating, refreshing. A healthy nervous system tends to spend more time in the calm state. 

Your Body Has a Built in Way to Release Trapped Emotions

Our nervous system is designed to go through a natural cycle of rest–alert–FFF–shake-it-off–return-to-safety–rest-and-digest. Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing Therapy, explains this process so well. He uses this example of a polar bear to demonstrate our nervous system’s cycle: 

So this Polar Bear was peacefully doing his thing when suddenly a group of researchers chased him with a helicopter and shot him with a tranquilizer dart. This is stressful, and the bear is helpless to stop the researchers who examine it, tag it, etc. The bear has experienced a traumatic event, but after the researchers leave he begins to shake violently. This is his body’s natural response to burn off the excess adrenaline that surged through his body when he was trapped. After shaking for a while, the bear walks off with no residual effects from the experience. He returns to a calm state of hunting and eating.

This cycle is the essence of emotion processing in our body. We start with a resting state, go onto alert, then FFF, then afterwards we shake it off.  In humans this looks like laughing or physically shaking or crying, and then we return to feeling safe and back to rest and digest. 

Shake It Off

Let’s take a minute and look at the shake-it-off stage. Have you ever seen someone who had a near miss — a car nearly hits them or something? Their immediate reaction is this strange laugh. Or someone who has been in a car crash but is unharmed will often go into this shaky stage afterwards. 

This is your body trying to burn off that adrenaline and process through those stress chemicals that you just got flooded with. Your body is naturally trying to return to calm by going through emotions in a physical way. 

However, we humans are different than other animals. We have this huge cortex, this thinking brain, that helps us plan things out, and it often gets in the way of that response. “Don’t cry,” it says. “This is too embarrassing. Act like you’re fine,” it says. “Try not to get shaky at your presentation; just don’t think about it,” it says. 

And so our brilliant thinking mind and our attempts at avoiding these raw, visceral emotions interfere with our natural ability to resolve that stress response. Consequently, emotions get trapped in the body. They get trapped in muscle tension, stress chemicals, or hormones like cortisol, and we carry them around with us and try not to think about them. Or we cope with stress, but our body holds the deep wisdom of how to let them go. 

Release Your Emotions Through Your Body

Here’s an interesting story from Nicholas Sieben, a self-proclaimed acupuncturist and healer. “(A) patient, a successful male artist, came to me for “general wellness.” He thought I could do something to help him, yet it was unclear exactly what he had in mind. He appeared withdrawn, scattered, and shy. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me. He spoke of sexual problems with his wife and a lack of enthusiasm about his seemingly abundant life.

Within the first three sessions [of acupuncture treatment], a deep grief began to emerge. The patient would begin crying on the table and felt a tremendous amount of fear and shame of which he couldn’t explain . . . I encouraged him to allow the emotion to be expressed without trying to understand or classify it . . . For several sessions he experienced expressions like this. He kept coming back because of the growing sense of lightness he was beginning to feel. He was once again feeling joy. His sexual function was also returning.

After a duration of about three months, this patient also began to seem like a new person. Very different from the man I’d met months before. His posture and demeanor changed dramatically. He seemed to glow and radiate with enthusiasm and energy. His relationship improved, as did his sexual expression. He began to radiate sex appeal and gained the attention of many people, which also seemed to help his creative work and self-esteem.

Once the expression of grief, fear and shame ceased to occur during his treatments, we decided the therapy had concluded.”

There are lots of anecdotal reports of huge physical releases of trauma or emotion, when doing physical treatments. People suddenly start shaking or crying during a massage or acupuncture or yoga. 

Can we say in a very specific way that your trauma is stored in your shoulders or your uterus, or that acupuncture releases your chi to flow? No, because we simply don’t have the tools to measure that. But we can say with certainty that physical activity is powerful at resetting the nervous system and healing anxiety and trauma. 

If you are struggling with PTSD, anxiety, or stress, I encourage you to work with a therapist who specializes in trauma. One thing you could look for is someone who is certified in EMDR or somatic experiencing. 

There are a lot of experimental treatments where people think they’re healing, but most of them are untested. I encourage you to work with evidence-based treatments. That being said, the research is starting to catch up with these physical treatments as an effective way to heal trauma. 

Yoga has been shown to be an effective treatment for PTSD and, according to Bessel van der Kolk, is more effective than most medication treatments. Physical treatments like acupressure, massage, dance, or deep belly breathing are all things that people say help them with stress. And what these are most likely doing is rebalancing the nervous system.  

Same thing with exercise — it’s been shown to be more effective than medication at treating depression and anxiety. And this is because it’s helping the nervous system go through those natural cycles of activation and relaxation.

Don’t Let Trauma or Chronic Stress Dominate

Unresolved trauma or chronic stress can leave us trapped in the sympathetic response. It’s like the thermostat gets turned up and that FFF response becomes very sensitive — it gets turned on easily and stays on for a long time. In this way, trauma or stress gets stuck in the body even when we may not be consciously thinking about the actual trauma.

An unhealthy nervous system gets stuck in elevated levels of stress, rarely going through cycles of calm. The sympathetic nervous system takes over and you feel constantly anxious. You see danger in the slightest signal and find it very difficult to relax. This leads to periodic exhaustion and crashing. We are often unaware of when or why we are going into high-alert mode, and this leads to us staying stuck in it even longer. 

Avoid Hypervigilance

It’s not healthy to be stuck in high alert all day long and then collapse at home or to simply rely on relaxation to recharge. We need to learn how to regulate our nervous system throughout the day.  

I recently worked with someone who trains emergency room doctors, EMTs, police, and military to regulate their nervous system throughout the day. Many of these people have very stressful jobs, and if they are clenched, if they’re stuck in FFF at work, they end up exhausted, traumatized, and burnt out. He trains them to build a healthy nervous system through the skill of relaxed vigilance. This is essential for PTSD, anxiety, and stress — aka mental health in general. 

In the next section, I’m going to teach you all about it, but the basic skill is learning to trigger that parasympathetic response in small moments throughout the day through simple body-based activities. These include taking deep breaths or tensing and then softening muscle groups. You can still be a high performer in a high-stress job and have a parasympathetically dominant nervous system. You can train yourself to be calmer.

Heal Stress, Trauma, Anxiety, and Anger Through the Body

Our nervous system (including our brain) has an amazing ability to change and grow depending on how we use it. There’s good research out there showing that we can change the physical structure, chemical balance, and electrical activity of our brain, depending on how we use them. We can even influence how our genes are activated and passed on.  

We can learn to have quite a bit of influence on our nervous system, training it to activate when we need to wake up, perform tasks, or respond to problems. We can also teach it to calm down when it’s time to relax, recoup, process, or repair. We do this through physiological, emotional, and psychological exercises. The many skills you are learning in this course are geared toward this process. 

When we are calm, we can make more intentional and powerful choices with our lives. We create calm by resolving the needs of survival and attachment and by training our brains to feel safe. We’re going to keep developing those skills as we move through the course. For now, here is one exercise that can help us feel safe.

Shake it off. Go ahead right now and just start shaking your arms. Just give them a good shakeout. Now let them go floppy. Feel free to look like a crazy person for a minute. Play some Taylor Swift. Go ahead and stand up and shake your legs out. Let them jiggle and shake, one at a time. See if you can notice the sensation of the anxiety leaving your body.  

In upcoming lessons, we are going to teach you how to train your mind and body to respond differently to threats, resolve anxiety, and teach the body to return to calm quickly. We will teach you how to strengthen the calming part of the nervous system through self-regulation skills.

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