Have you ever felt hijacked by your emotions? Maybe you’ve cried at a time when you didn’t want to, or maybe you’ve felt a familiar flush in your cheeks and pounding in your chest as unexpected anger bubbles to the surface. Maybe you’ve noticed yourself reacting intensely to a critical comment and wondering why it affected you so strongly.
Many people have experienced moments where their minds and bodies feel overwhelmed with emotion when they least expect it, and often look back at the moment with confusion about what came over them. If you find moments like this happening frequently, consider this: You may have to clean out your fridge.
To explain, this is a metaphor given to me by a client who came to me feeling humiliated for multiple instances of crying in front of their boss over feedback that normally would have been distressing, but tolerable. After some discussion, we identified that the client was suppressing unpleasant emotions throughout their workday in order to appear more composed and credible.
As this client learned, distracting ourselves from feelings can be helpful, but not all feelings disappear when we ignore them. Some of them stay and generate ongoing stress until we can process them. When the stress hormone cortisol remains chronically high, it generates inflammation that is linked to medical issues like heart disease and diabetes. It is also no surprise that this “allostatic load” contributes to mental health issues, including a decreased ability to regulate our emotions. As we become less able to regulate our emotions, revisiting them feels all the more impossible, and we continue to avoid them, despite feeling worse and worse. It is as if all the feelings we are holding onto are crying out for release as we insist on pretending that they are not there. But, as the title of trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk’s renowned book says: The Body Keeps the Score.
Through implementing reflective or expressive/active practices that help us return to emotions we may have had to ignore momentarily, we can move that stored emotional energy through and out of our bodies. After a few weeks of using these skills, my client returned one day with the metaphor you’re probably still wondering about. To paraphrase, they said, “It’s like putting leftovers in the fridge. If you don’t eat them in time, they start to stink. The more they stink, the less you want to open them up. All the while, you’re putting more and more leftovers in the fridge until there’s no more room and now you’re crying in front of your boss. I just need to make sure that I’m eating my leftovers every day, and checking occasionally to see how full my fridge is getting, no matter how smelly I think it’s going to be.”
Our feelings can nourish and energize us, or they can keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns. It’s important to consider which leftover we eat, and which we toss. For example, if you notice you feel hurt because of someone’s insensitive or prejudiced comment, you can “chew” on and “digest” the feeling by discussing it with a friend. This can help you “metabolize” the feelings and convert it into energy for the tender communication of needs and boundaries. If you notice the feelings lingering because they resonate with old wounds, some vigorous exercise or a ritual focused on release may be more appropriate.
Practices that help us digest and release feelings can include journaling, open and vulnerable conversation with others, meditation, therapy, and creative expression. Sometimes, we might need something more body-focused, including meaningful movement or exercise (yes, this includes sex!), acupuncture or massage. Spiritual and cultural approaches like prayer, energy work, and other rituals are also fantastic for creating space in which these feelings can be held and processed safely. It doesn’t have to be time consuming, either; 10-15 minutes daily can have a surprising effect when done consistently.
Find what’s right for you, and make a little time each day to turn toward the feelings you may have had to set aside for one reason or another. More room in the fridge means we can also hold bigger feelings that arise in moments of crisis or growth. It’s not just our real fridges that benefit from a little Spring Cleaning!
Learn more about the author of this post: Ben Walker, LCSW