This post is the seventh in a series of posts exploring the 9 key factors that Dr Kelly Turner PhD found were present in the recoveries from advanced cancer that she studied in her book Radical Remission. Those 9 factors were:
- Radically changing your diet (Part 1 here and Part 2 here)
- Taking control of your health (here)
- Following your intuition (here)
- Using herbs and supplements (here)
- Releasing suppressed emotions (here)
- Increasing positive emotions (here)
- Embracing social support (here)
- Deepening your spiritual connection (here)
- Having strong reasons for living (here).
Today we are going to explore releasing suppressed emotions: why it is essential for healing and how you can do it. I’m going to share a little about my experience of letting go of past hurts and resentments. I’m doing a slow reveal and it means this post is a little longer than normal. But you will be rewarded at the end with a guided meditation. To find out more about the book Radical Remission, go to the post “Being Radical – Introduction” here.
[Warning and trigger alert: this post contains a reference to childhood sexual abuse.]
Radical Remission is not the first cancer book to encourage people living with cancer to release suppressed emotions. That makes sense I suppose since it’s a book about what radical remission survivors do and have done in the past. But you will also find sections on healthy emotions in Dr Ian Gawler’s book, You Can Conquer Cancer.
Put simply, suppressed emotions are bad for our health. It may seem a bit airy fairy to make an assertion like this but it’s really quite logical really. I’ve written a post, Being Angry, on this very topic before. It’s been front and centre of my healing journey. Even before I knew I was on it.
What are suppressed emotions?
When we perceive a threat, real or imagined, our body turns on the stress response. There are usually 4 stages to this response (in humans and animals):
- perception of the threat,
- a change in the chemical balances in the body as it prepares to fight or flee,
- appropriate action and a defined end to the event,
- the body, assuming it has survived , restores itself to balance by turning on the relaxation response and releasing energy.
Have you ever noticed that after a fright, animals will tremble for a while? Or ducks, after fighting, will flap their wings before they settle down and get back to paddling? That is the way they release the energy that has accumulated in their bodies.
We humans are a little different. The stiff upper lip and all that. We can’t possibly let others know how we’ve been affected and we just get on with it. Usually, we don’t allow ourselves step 4. Instead we stuff the emotions down where they came from and hope they never see the light of day again. And it can get to a point where we fear them surfacing because we are convinced that if they do emerge, we will go insane.
Although we tend to bottle up mostly negative emotions, such as anger, grief, fear, sadness and trauma, we can also try to hang on to forms of happiness from the past, which prevent us from experiencing happiness in the present moment. And then there are the emotions that Collin Tipping in Radical Forgiveness calls repressed emotions. These are emotions that have been stored unconsciously so that we lose all awareness of them… until one day they explode on to the scene. This is often the case with trauma related emotions and can give rise to what we know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
When you think about it, the word emotion means movement. E-motion. When we don’t express them, the energy associated with all of these emotions has nowhere to go. And it turns against us. I’m simplifying this of course. I’m no professional in this area and this is a blog, not a peer reviewed paper. But when it comes to cancer and suppressed emotions, the phrase “eating away at me” comes to mind.
How do suppressed emotions affect our health?
We all know that stress can have long term effects on our body. It weakens the immune system because high levels of cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline remain in the body and it doesn’t have an opportunity to heal. And the Buddha was on to something when he said that with our thoughts we make the world. Because every time we have a negative thought about something or someone bothering us, we can trigger the stress response. If we go back to the 4 step process above, such thoughts are a perception of a threat, even though the threat may be imagined. And a body suffering from chronic repetitive stress syndrome usually suffers from high levels of inflammation, pain in the form of migraines, bad backs and sore shoulders, and eventually chronic disease. Suppressed emotions do the same thing. Depression is also thought to be caused by suppressed anger.
“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-suppressed anger. … The key is to express it and then let it go, so that it doesn’t fester, or build, or escalate out of control.”
Candace Pert, PhD, Molecules of Emotion
I released a lot in 2012 …
… shortly before my diagnosis.
In the second half of 2012, I had a nervous break-through. I was tired (someone who met me at that time said I was simply exhausted), running on empty, constantly sick. I had no resilience. For about 20 years, I’d had a vague recollection of being sexually abused as a child. But because my memory was vague, I had swung backwards and forwards between believing myself and denial. Confronting the possibility of it having occurred terrified me to my core. Strangely, my new year’s resolution in 2012 was to “back myself”. Little did I know what that would come to mean.
After years of trying to put the jigsaw together and then pulling it apart, someone close to me handed me a central piece. My denial fell down around me and I was left raw and vulnerable. Now, I had no choice but to back myself. I had to accept that it was true. I became hysterical. There were days I just cried and cried. I had moments of being paralysed, frozen and simply petrified. All symptoms of PTSD. The lid on Pandora’s box had been lifted.
A close friend compassionately suggested I try the Hoffman Process. Actually, she had suggested it before but this time I was open. I didn’t have much choice but to go down the tunnel and hope there was light at the other end.
The Hoffman Process is an 8 day self-development process. Work begins before you go. You start by identifying and labelling the patterns of behaviour that no longer serve you. You locate the origins of those patterns, usually our primary role models and carers (read parents). One of the principles of the Process, the Negative Love Syndrome, is that we copy our parents’ behaviour in the belief that if we are more like them, we make ourselves more loveable, even if that means adopting their negative patterns. Or we may hate our parents’ conduct, so we rebel, and do the opposite. This preliminary work alone was eye-opening. I was more like my parents than I had ever wanted to admit.
The Process uses a number of different tools to enable you to look squarely at your life issues and to find solutions. There are meditations, role-plays, group work and one-on-one sessions with the facilitators. We did a lot of writing and tapping into the subconscious mind to find answers that were not immediately apparent.
But most relevantly, it introduced me to somatic therapy and anger work, or energy release work. The bottom line is that to release emotions we have to feel them and sometimes express them. Only then can they pass away. Many of us are just too afraid to feel our emotions. So somatic therapy involves becoming aware of emotions at the level of feeling in the body – the felt-sense. And because it focuses on the felt-sense, it does not necessarily require a rehash of the traumatic experience. It is enough that the emotions are allowed to arise, and in their own time, are expressed or released. The story becomes irrelevant. It is the same when we can mindfully observe our emotions and just allow them to be.
“If we allow ourselves to acknowledge these thoughts and sensations using the felt sense and let them have their natural flow, they will peak, then begin to diminish and resolve. As this process occurs, we may experience trembling, shaking, vibration, waves of warmth, fullness of breath, slowed heart rate, warm sweating, relaxation of the muscles, and an overall feeling of relief, comfort and safety.”
Peter A. Levine, Waking the Tiger
Anger work is simply about finding a way to move the energy, just surrendering to it. It can be bashing pillows, swinging baseball bats (plastic of course), dancing or shaking and, since many of us need to find our voice, and have blockages in our throats, vocalising. And when I say vocalising, I mean letting it rip!
One of the Hoffman facilitators demonstrated the anger work we would be doing. She stood there, plastic baseball bat in hand. Strong and focussed. And then without warning, she lifted the bat and started yelling, bringing the bat down with a huge thwack on to a pillow. I froze. All I could see was violence and conflict. I started trembling. And crying hysterically.
Another facilitator gently guided me out of the room, put a bat in my hand and told me I could let it all go now. I lifted the bat and brought it down, timidly poking the pillow. She told me I needed to find more. I stood there, collecting my strength. The fear left and I felt rage coming up out of my belly. I screamed. A primordial scream. No words. Just the sound of a woman’s anguish and pain that had never been heard. And I started to beat the s*** out of that pillow.
“Everything arises to pass away”
We did bashing over two nights. One focussing on patterns we had acquired from our mothers and the next, patterns from our fathers. I didn’t hold back. I screamed, I yelled, I swore my heart out. I frightened others in the group with my intensity. There was nothing ladylike about me. There was sweat and there were tears. There was so much movement and stirring up of stale, stagnant, acrid anger and resentment that I threw up. Putrid gunk from the depths of my body. I don’t know where it came from but it was black. For some reason, I felt like I was fighting for my life. As it turns out, I was.
We bashed until we found a sense of resolution and calm. The anger dissolved. I had reclaimed my power. I was the strongest I had ever felt. I felt alive. It’s fair to say though that it didn’t last. Other parts of the Process brought back my vulnerabilities.
After that we did a lot of compassion work and inquiry, based on the simple fact that our parents, from whom we acquired our behaviours, had simply learned their patterns from their parents. And so we had been locked in an inter-generational dance.
“Everyone is guilty, but no one is to blame”
There was also a lot of fun. And we were sent home with a bundle of tools to take into our daily lives.
I felt lighter, freer and more empowered than I had ever felt. I was connected to every part of me – physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. And I finally had a taste of self-love and self-cherishing.
And so when a month or so later, I received my diagnosis (which you can read about here), I knew that the tumours in my body, in my stomach, the seat of personal power (the third chakra) and my throat, my voice, (the fifth chakra) were a symptom of all that blocked energy. It had been eating away at me. And I knew, deep down, that healing, real healing, had already begun. I was coming to the other end of the tunnel. The light was brilliant.
So I’ve continued to do this type of work since. I have my anger management kit – a red plastic baseball bat and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers Album, Blood Sugar Sex Magic. But I use it sparingly. Anger work of this type can be addictive but is only part of the process. Once the energy has been released, it needs to be channelled positively and constructively. Drawing and writing are useful. It is best to do this work with a professional, particularly if there is trauma involved.
Anger work is only one way to release suppressed emotions …
Other useful techniques are:
- dancing. Something I’ve done a bit of since my diagnosis is Chakradance. Lucky for me, a girlfriend trained as a facilitator and used me as a guinea pig. Chakradance allows you to move with your eyes closed to music that has been designed to resonate with each of the chakras, the 7 energy centres down the midline of our bodies. When we don’t release our emotions, it is thought that these chakras become blocked. Chakradance helps to open those centres and bring us back into balance. To find out more, you can go to the Chakradance website here or my girlfriend’s website here.
- shaking, which is sort of like dancing but without an effort to control the movement. It just means allowing the energy to express itself. I wrote more about shaking here.
- writing a letter to people you are angry at, expressing all your rage and emotion without hesitation. Just don’t send it. Maybe burn it.
- feeling the emotions as they arise and using them as a meditation, like in the video below. Observe them compassionately and try not to engage in the story of where they came from. Don’t grasp them or try to push them away. Allow them to leave in their own time. But if the emotions are just too overwhelming, you might need to do something else or try to think of a positive emotion or something that makes you happy.
- the techniques that Dr Kelly Turner lists in Radical Remission and those that can be found in You Can Conquer Cancer. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again … if you want good health and peace of mind, these books belong on your bookshelf, cancer or not
Practice being mindful of emotions by watching this video
Releasing emotions is not the end of the story
Forgiveness and compassion have a role to play in healing from negative emotions as well. As do the setting of boundaries, if appropriate. If people have hurt us, it’s rarely personal. It may feel that way at times, but I truly believe that it is very rare for someone to set out consciously to hurt another. It is simply something they do in the belief that it will make themselves feel better, or get them what they want or they just don’t think at all. It’s all about them and comes from their own suffering.
By coming to see their conduct differently, we might be able to release any guilt and shame we might have about our part in what happened and find peace deep within ourselves. We might even be able to find some good, some teaching or other gift, that has come from the experience. See my post about this here.
“Anger work is ‘holy’ work because by going through it you are
brought closer to love for yourself and for others”
Tim Laurence, The Hoffman Process
At the end of the day, freeing ourselves of those suppressed emotions is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. It really is like emerging from a prison. And I lost my fear of loving others because I came to love myself. I met my essential self. And learned how to BE with her. And thus Essentially Being was born. That was the gift of this process, to me and, hopefully, to you.
How do you release suppressed emotions? How did you find the meditation? Share your experience in the comments section. I’d love to read about it.
Be happy. Be well.
And so be it.
Resources other than Radical Remission
Molecules of Emotion: Candace Pert PhD (1997)
Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma: Peter A. Levine (1997)
The Hoffman Process: Tim Laurence (2003) and the Hoffman Website here
Peace of Mind: Dr Ian Gawler (2002)
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill: Matthieu Ricard (2003)
The Power of Now: Eckhart Tolle (2004)
Radical Forgiveness: Colin Tipping (2009)
You Can Conquer Cancer: Ian Gawler (2013)