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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

There is a heavy price to be paid when feelings are denied or repressed. Lethargy, boredom, and a sense of deadness toward life may be the sorry consequence. When this happens, bigger and stronger forms of stimulation are required to feel happy and alive. Some people drink, others drive recklessly. Paradoxically, some people get seriously ill as a way to get attention and still feel alive.

An equally heavy price is exacted when feelings are overindulged and dramatized as a means of justifying ourselves or manipulating others. Some people punish themselves with their own anger or guilt; they close themselves off completely from help, and therefore from the healing potential of human relationships, withdrawing from others to obsess about their own wounds.

Those who are unaccustomed to dealing with feelings in healthy ways often seek out other means to cover their feelings, or to distract themselves from feeling at all. At the first inklings of pain, fear, or loneliness, they may turn to alcohol, food, drugs, TV, unhealthy relationships, or compulsive work. Thus, bigger problems, more pain, and more fear are created in a terrified attempt to avoid pain and fear.

Repressing emotions out of fear or pain may lead to a habit of trying to control and dominate others as well. This form of relating - the stern teachers who won't tolerate the enthusiasm of children; the rigid bosses who only want things done their way - has, in some domains, become the norm. These highly controlled individuals, however, are emotionally unwell. Inner strength and integrity come with the ability and willingness to acknowledge and/or express emotions freely, to use emotional energy constructively. The result is partnership, rather than a dominant or submissive role in relationship to others.

In considering the connection between wellness and feelings, we have seen what happens with clients and students when "emotional" energy - anger and sadness in particular - gets blocked. Depression is common with people who do not allow themselves to experience rage or grief. And depression will weaken the immune system, making the whole body more susceptible to disease. Other people literally create a body armor by severely tightening muscles in an attempt to defend against painful emotions. Such armored bodies are more apt to develop symptoms of chronic pain and crippling disease.

How to Deal with Feelings
Adopt the attitude that feelings are natural and normal. This is a primary healing attitude. Strong feelings are not indicators of something "bad." Feelings have no morality. They just are. Even if you are uncomfortable with them, accept strong emotions as valuable feedback telling you that something in your life is in need of attention. And the best attention is gentle acceptance. Befriend the emotional parts of yourself.

  • Write about your feelings. Express and explore your feelings on paper. Write an angry letter and then tear it up, or compose a poem about your grief. There are many books that suggest ways to use writing for self-help; see the resources at the end of the book.
  • Draw or paint or dance your feelings. This is a healthy way to defuse potentially explosive emotions and to soothe painful ones. When you've expressed yourself creatively, you may have a whole new perspective on the situation and may be in a more balanced place from which to speak to others.
  • Exercise vigorously. Exert yourself. Exercising, even brisk walking, will take the emphasis off the worrying mind and encourage fuller breathing, which is a powerful healer of emotional wounds. Try digging a hole and voicing your emotional pain into that hole. Then when you are finished, fill the hole back up with soil.
  • Talk about your feelings. If you are confused, you can always start a conversation with a friend by saying, "I am not sure what I'm feeling," and proceed from there. Your listeners may not have answers for you, but the process of speaking opens the door for both clarification and support.
  • Change your mind. Because thoughts arouse feelings, if you change what you are focusing on or thinking about, your feelings will change accordingly. When you are feeling frightened or inadequate, remember a time when you were strong and competent and create a mental image to support that. This type of imagery is used in many healing disciplines.
  • Surrender your feelings. Give them over, along with the rest of your life, to a higher power.
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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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