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 Befriend Your Feelings 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Simply Well by . View all columns in series
Painful or confusing emotions are par for the course during a time of change, even when it's a positive, life-affirming change in the direction of overall health and wellbeing. If you are using this book to deal with a present illness or medical condition, you are especially likely to encounter strong or disturbing emotions. Anger, fear, unexpected tears, feelings of abandonment, and insecurity all may arise in a period of questioning or transition. If you have had surgery or are taking medication, emotional fluctuations are even more common.

Since there is no way to separate body from mind from emotions, any small changes you are making to orient yourself toward high-level wellness have the potential of arousing feelings, and it is not always easy to plot the link between actions and the emotions they trigger. You may not see a connection between practicing a new breathing exercise, for instance, and a feeling of sadness that washes over you like a wave.

In order to move toward something new, you must often let go of something old. "Letting go" is one way to describe loss, and loss is always accompanied by grief, however slight. When you stop smoking, you may feel the loss of that special rendezvous you had every morning with your fellow smokers. If you change your diet, you may feel resentment at watching others indulge freely in foods that you now avoid. Feelings are part and parcel of a life undergoing change. Be assured. You are not going crazy. You are right on schedule.

What's the Problem with Feelings?
In many cultures there is a great deal of confusion about feelings - especially the strong or painful ones. TV and movies portray people expressing themselves passionately and violently, but in everyday life in the American culture there isn't much permission to rock the emotional boat. It is often considered a sign of weakness to display fear or grief overtly. The desired countenance is one of strength and control, and children are taught, at least by example, to be brave, to act "cool." People are very uncomfortable when those around them "break down." Others think there is something wrong with themselves when they feel depressed.

The cultural norms about anger are really confused. People overlook and sometimes even expect the exchange of angry words in public among strangers, and may applaud it as a motivator to sports and competition and war. The same people then express disbelief or horror when a close friend or family member expresses anger with them or learns that battering and other forms of abuse are going on close to home. Some people are shocked to discover how much anger they have, and try to repress it, while others use anger as a way to eliminate any emotional energy that they don't know how to handle.

Joy and exuberance are generally acceptable as long as they are "controlled." It's all right to sing in church or to dance at a party or nightclub. But you might be thought crazy if you burst into song in a department store or dance ecstatically in the town square. There are many unwritten rules about expressing feelings.

Stop for a moment and recall some of the messages you got about feelings when you were young. What was held up to you as model behavior? Do any of these statements sound familiar? "Don't get too excited or silly; somebody's bound to get hurt." "Don't cry. That's for babies." "Don't ever say you hate anyone." "Keep going, no matter how bad you feel." "Just think happy thoughts and everything will be fine." "Don't expect anything, and you won't be disappointed." It is little wonder that many people have grown up to be emotionally confused and wounded adults.

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 About The Author
John W. Travis, MD, MPH, is the creator of the Wellness Inventory and its parent, the Wellness Index. He is the founder and co-director of ...moreJohn Travis MD, MPH
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