Mental Health

UNDERSTANDING

OUR EMOTIONS

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Ever wonder why your palms get sweaty when you’re nervous? Or why it feels harder to breathe when you’re feeling stressed? Ever think... “What’s going on inside my body?”

Naming our emotions, understanding where they come from and how they are connected to our bodies can help us better understand ourselves, others, and the world around us. Understanding our emotions also supports our mental health, because when we're able to identify and name what we're feeling, we're in a better place to begin our journey of healing.

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I Get So Emotional, Baby!

“Don’t cry!” “Calm down!” “Don’t be so sensitive!”  

We’ve all heard this before. 🙃 While the people who say these things usually have good intentions, these statements show us how society discourages us from experiencing and expressing our emotions.  

We live in a culture that tells us to downplay our emotions because they make the people around us uncomfortable, and we’re taught that expressing our emotions, like crying, is a sign of “weakness.”

We’re here to tell you that being emotional and in touch with your feelings is a sign of strength! 💪 We also get that because of the society and cultures we grow up in, some of us are given more space to experience and express our emotions than others. For example, our society doesn’t always allow men or masculine folks to really feel their emotions and talk about what's on their mind. Other folks, especially those who are BIPOC, are not always granted the safety to express their emotions in certain settings or conflicts.  

Feeling emotions is normal for all human beings. But a lot of us weren’t taught about the range of emotions we can feel and how to handle them. For many, the societies, cultures, religions, and family dynamics we grow up in might’ve taught us to downplay our emotions. Maybe you felt pressured not to feel or express certain emotions because of how others might perceive you, or how it could undermine your intelligence, or maybe you weren’t surrounded by people who expressed their emotions, so you weren’t shown how to express yours, either. But the reality is, no emotions are specific to any one person or identity, and it's never too late to start recognizing and naming how you feel.

You can think about your emotions in terms of seven core feelings: happy, sad, bad, disgusted, angry, surprised, and fearful. When people are feeling one of these core emotions, what they’re usually feeling is a combination of the second and third ring of emotions on the wheel. For example, if you’re feeling bad, you might actually be stressed out because you’re overwhelmed by the aspects of your life that feel hard to control. 😬

Understanding where your feelings come from can help you realize your unmet needs, and what you need to do to fulfill them – more on that here.

Feel Wheel
emotions cycle sad happy surprised bad fearful angry disgusted
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When you express your emotions, you’re being vulnerable with yourself because you’re allowing yourself to process something that you’ve gone through. 💗

For example, crying might feel weird or embarrassing at first, but then you might experience a sense of relief afterwards. You may feel a little lighter, or like you can breathe more easily. Keeping your emotions bottled up inside can strain your body – click here for more info on how our bodies respond to our emotions.
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Feelings Can Be Physical

When you feel an emotion coming on, your body might have a physical response, like how your heart rate increases when you’re nervous, how your face feels hot when you’re angry, that lump in your throat when you’re trying not to cry, or that sinking feeling in your stomach when something goes wrong. Your body can also become activated by positive emotions, like the butterflies you might feel when you like someone! 😍 The mind-body connection is real, thanks to our nervous system.

This is also why when we bottle up our emotions, we carry them in our physical bodies. For example, pent-up stress or anxiety can lead to more chronic health issues, like stomach aches, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and more.  

Managing your mental health is also about being able to recognize when you’re becoming emotionally activated by paying attention to the changes happening in your body, and knowing how to respond. Being in touch with your feelings and how your body is reacting to different situations can also tell you more about your triggers, and why you might react to things the way that you do. Keep reading to learn more! ⬇️
Feelings Can Be Physical

Emotional Triggers are Your Teachers

When you have an experience that suddenly brings up feelings of distress, anxiety, sadness, or pain, you might’ve experienced a trigger. Emotional triggers are "intense" emotional reactions stemming from almost anything – from past or present experiences, memories, images, or events, regardless of your current mood. Triggers can look like so many things – from seeing someone familiar in the distance, to a particular smell, song, or book. Sometimes, triggers can be related to something that happened in your past, or they can be cultural or intergenerational due to colonialism, racism, religious discrimination, and more.  

A trigger can show up as a sudden or unexpected emotional and physical reaction, like bursting into tears, or as a pang in your stomach that something feels wrong or off. The emotions you feel when you’ve been triggered can tell you a lot about what you need, or how something from your past has stuck with you. Sometimes you can narrow it down to something someone said, or a specific moment or event in your day.  

When we’re triggered, we may experience something called the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response. This is when your body sounds the alarm that something’s gone wrong, and then starts producing stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, that help you respond to the situation. These hormones can give you more energy, increase your heart rate, and temporarily decrease your ability to feel pain.
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The fight response helps you respond directly to the situation, while the flight response helps you get away from the situation as quickly as possible. When you freeze, you’re unable to make any decisions, and when you fawn, you give in to the situation, often to make it end sooner. When your body is constantly sounding the alarm and over-producing these stress hormones, you might be experiencing anxiety.

Learning more about what your triggers are can strengthen your relationship with yourself, because triggers are your body’s way of telling you about what has emotionally impacted you. We can care for ourselves and our mental health by regulating our emotions and setting boundaries with folks to avoid negative, emotionally triggering situations in the future.

Know youR hurt

Content Warning: The information below discusses experiences that may be upsetting or triggering for some, such as family dynamics, bullying, homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism, abuse, and violence.
When you’re emotionally activated or triggered, it’s usually your nervous system reacting to something that reminds you of a similar or related event. For some of us, that experience was really difficult or upsetting, which is why it brought on those emotionally intense feelings. Some folks might refer to these kinds of experiences as a “trauma.”
The simplest way to describe trauma is anything that happened to you that was too much for you to process at the given time.
Some say that trauma is anything that was “too much, too fast, too soon.” But trauma can also happen over a long period of time, or in ways that might be hard to realize until later, like intergenerational trauma.  

Words like “trauma” can carry different meanings for different people. When most of us hear it, we may think of really big life experiences or events, but that isn’t always the case. Remember, you have the power to use whatever words you feel best describe your experiences – and you don’t have to label them at all, if it doesn’t feel right.  A lot of us use different words instead, and that’s valid, too. The kinds of obstacles we encounter along our journey can look different for everyone, but its impacts usually affect us in the long term, especially if we aren't aware of it or know how to address it.  

Below are a few examples of challenges that may come up in your life.

Past Experiences

Sometimes, specific events in your life can cause hurt that you end up carrying with you long after the experience or incident happened. This can include:
  • Bullying and cyberbullying. This could be about how you look, talk, dress, your hobbies and interests, or anything else that’s specific to you. Because bullying often happens when you’re younger, the effects can linger long into adulthood and may shape how you behave and/or see yourself.
  • Discrimination based on aspects of your identity (which can also be a form of bullying). This can be about your race, religion, culture, sexuality, gender identity, or disability.
  • Accidents. These can include witnessing, experiencing, or responding to accidents like a car crash, overdose, a workplace or environmental accident, or any other accidents you’ve come across.
  • Forms of loss, including neglect, abandonment, or death. These can include how much attention you got from your caregiver(s) growing up, whether your gender identity or sexuality were accepted by the people in your life, the passing of someone close to you (that includes pets! 🐾), the separation of your caregivers (e.g. divorce), or any other major changes in your household growing up.
  • Unhealthy or abusive relationships and violence. These can include physical, verbal, psychological, sexual, emotional, or financial abuse or violence from your caregiver(s), family, intimate partner(s), friends, and anyone else you might spend time around. If you ever feel that something happened to you that didn’t sit right, know that whatever you feel is valid, and what happened to you is NOT your fault. Click here to read more.
These experiences or events can happen to you more than once, and sometimes connect to other challenges in your life. For example, ongoing yelling or conflict at home, bullying that goes on for a long time, or continuously not having your needs met by the people in your life can all be examples of ongoing or continuous hurt. For some folks, these experiences can shape patterns of behaviour that show up in their everyday lives and impact the decisions they may unconsciously make. For example, sexual abuse can impact your sexuality, your sex drivesex dri, your relationship with substances, how you go about future relationships, and can also contribute to challenges with your mental health.

Your Childhood

Sometimes, your emotional hurt goes back to your childhood and how your needs were or weren't met by your parent(s), guardian(s) or caregiver(s). These include emotional and physical needs, like wanting to be seen, heard, and to receive love and comfort. Some people might’ve learned to completely ignore their needs in order to receive attention from their caregiver(s), or that they need to be high achievers to receive love from others. Other people may have learned that they need to keep their feelings to themselves.  

The way your needs were or weren’t fulfilled by your caregiver(s) in your childhood can play a big role in how you learn to seek and show affection from others later in life. These interactions can shape your worldview, leading to behavioural patterns you might find yourself repeating or re-creating. This can look like people-pleasing or always saying “yes” to things to gain the affection or approval of others, bottling up your emotions, or trying to avoid confrontation at all costs. For those who might’ve had emotionally reactive caregiver(s), it could look like ignoring your own needs, or tip-toeing around people to avoid setting them off. For others in a similar situation, it could also look like giving someone the silent treatment, or slamming doors or furniture – it all just depends on how you’ve adapted to your environment. Different people may adapt differently to the same or, similar, environments.
If you start dating, you might subconsciously seek types of relationships that reproduce old patterns because they feel familiar. When you feel like your partner(s) aren’t meeting your needs, you might react the same way you used to react as a kid when your caregiver(s) didn’t meet your needs. This happens because your body has learned to react this way over time, and is trying to protect the little kid inside of you that was hurt from not having their needs met in the past.
Try to remember that you can’t expect others to know what you need if you aren’t aware of what that is, or if you haven’t shared that with them before.
This is also why learning how to communicate your needs is so important!

P.S. Sometimes, caregiver(s) with good intentions don't have the resources or skills to validate their kid's emotions. And while they probably didn’t intend to affect you this way, the experiences your caregiver(s) went through play a major role in shaping their mental health, too. Learning about these things can make you more aware of where your own emotional reactions and coping mechanisms may come from.

Intergenerational Trauma

Sometimes, trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. Your family members or caregiver(s) may have experienced poverty, war, colonization, slavery, forced displacement, and other experiences that can last more than one generation. This may have shaped their beliefs, ability to identify or express their emotions, cope with challenging situations, and their overall mental health. This can get unintentionally passed on to you as examples of what relationship dynamics look like, how to communicate or react in difficult situations, or how to cope with your own life challenges.

For example, lots of Indigenous folks feel the real, ongoing impacts of colonialism in their everyday lives. Many people have someone in their family or know someone who was a survivor of the residential schooling system. These “schools” were a violent institution that forced Indigenous peoples into the European settlers’ culture, religion, language, forms of governance, and much more, stripping Indigenous peoples and their ancestors of their traditions, culture, language, beliefs, and ways of life. Those who survived this system may experience some difficult mental health conditions as they cope with the aftermath of this trauma.  

Not having the supports or resources to address these needs mean that intergenerational trauma may have shaped how you were brought up, which then affects how you learn to care for your own difficult emotions and experiences. Having role models in your community to look up to, reconnecting with your culture, and learning more about your traditional practices and language can all be ways to begin healing intergenerational trauma. More on that here.

Collective Trauma

Sometimes difficult experiences don’t just affect an individual person or family, but an entire group of people. For example, systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia can all be forms of collective trauma because these experiences are shared by a group of people who have been and continue to be, discriminated against in society. For example, African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities experience systemic racism that shows up as violence, colourism, prejudice, and socioeconomic inequities. Similarly, people living with HIV experience serophobia because HIV continues to be stigmatized in society. Other forms of collective trauma can also include ableism and xenophobia.

When some people experience trauma stemming from discrimination, they might disconnect with the parts of their identity that were used against them. This can look like changing how you look, speaking differently, ignoring feelings you’ve been having about your gender identity or sexuality, or trying to distance yourself from your interests or culture. Sometimes, people do these things (and more) without even realizing it! But it’s not your identity that hurt you – it’s the experience of having parts of your identity used against you to make you feel less-than, different, or excluded.

Distancing yourself from parts of your identity that others used against you can be a coping mechanism that temporarily protects you, because you’re putting space between yourself and the part of you that was hurt. But distancing yourself from your identity hides the parts of you that make you unique, and connects you to your community! ✨ Feeling like you need to change fundamental parts of who you are is also why folks who experience prejudice or discrimination based on their identities are more likely to experience difficult mental health conditions and think more about self-harm or suicide. If this is something that you’ve been thinking about more lately, remember that there is support out there – check out some options here.

Your Healing Journey

Regardless of what your past experiences are, know that the challenges you’ve gone through along your journey don’t define you. Your worth has nothing to do with your past, the harm(s) you’ve experienced, or how you feel about yourself. You are worthy of love, care and compassion as you are, right now, and at every point throughout your personal journey of healing and self-discovery.  

Beginning to explore what healing looks like for you can help you understand the root causes of your hurt, and the patterns of thinking or behaviours that might intensify this pain. Like anything else in life, take it at your own pace, when you feel ready. 💞
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