Focus, Express, Transform
On “Conan” last month, comedian Louis C.K. spoke about the therapeutic power of feeling our sadness. The interview, colored with Louis’ trademark earnest, expletive-packed wit, is going viral. I think his sentiment resonated with so many because, on some level, we are all aware of the validity of these darker feelings, and of their potential transformative power. Louis said that when he allowed himself to truly experience sadness, rather than distracting himself with his cell phone, “I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”
So how does this really work? What’s behind the power of Tara Brach’s recovery methods, and Louis C.K.’s singing through tears to a Springsteen song? What is happening in the brain and in the body when this kind of emotional nourishment occurs?
The late Dr. Candace Pert, known for discovering the cell’s opiate receptor in 1973, was a leader in new understandings of the brain and body processes surrounding our emotions. Her research suggested that repressing emotions creates a blockage of neuropeptide signals (chemical information that communicates feeling states), and that this insufficient flow creates weakened conditions that can lead to illness. This is because, according to Dr. Pert, our neuropeptides are in constant communication with our immune system.
In her book, The Molecules of Emotion, Dr. Pert explains, “All honest emotions are positive emotions. Health is not just a matter of thinking ‘happy thoughts.’ Sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-repressed anger… The key is to express it (appropriately) and then let it go, so that it doesn’t fester, or build, or escalate out of control.”
Neuroscientist Dr. Catherine Kerr, of Brown University, has found that “mindfulness” approaches can help alleviate conditions like pain and depression. Her research reveals that people who practice mindfulness – in particular, focusing on body sensations in the present moment – gain better control of the brain’s alpha rhythms that help regulate how the brain processes feeling states. Dr. Kerr says that this practice connects people to a kind of “volume knob” for specific sensory-related brain activity.
In addition to mindfully focusing on and allowing oneself to feel those sensations, also naming strong emotions seems to give us further ability to soothe ourselves. Dr. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA took fMRI images of people’s brains while they looked at pictures that depicted distressing emotions. Lieberman found that naming the emotions calmed the activity in the amygdala, where the brain is active during fear. With the brain’s alarm system quieted, activity shifted to areas of the brain used for reasoning and communicating. When the participants just gave names to the people in the pictures, and did not name the emotions, this calming effect did not occur.
Since I have spent so much of my academic and career life studying how people think and learn, I love to dive into this kind of research. Then I look at it alongside my own practice, teaching experiences, and intuition. So the logical question following all this information for me was, how do we use this knowledge to truly find nourishment from the muddier of our feelings?
In part 4 of this series, we will look at some effective methods for allowing and transforming our challenging feeling states. This is the best part!