Holding in emotions is like holding our breath – Pain implications

June 1, 2020

I want you to picture what it feels like to hold your breath with your mouth closed and your fingers holding your nose so you can’t breathe any air. Few of us can go very long before we have to let go with a huge exhale and deep breath. From the moment we hold our breath until we exhale, we can feel the build-up of tension, which for many people is unsettling because the feeling of not breathing is horrible. Something similar happens to us when we hold onto our emotions.

When we hold onto emotions, we eventually reach a breaking point when they come flooding out, sometimes, maybe too often, in the form of verbally lashing out or a health issue. For some people it is in the form of panic attacks, or more serious, a heart attack or a stroke. For those of us who live with chronic health conditions, like I do with dystonia where we have involuntary movements and pain, holding in emotions can increase those symptoms, which we certainly want to avoid. In short, an improper expression of feelings/emotions creates internal stress which has a physically damaging impact…no matter who you are. That is the focus of this article.

In one single 24-hour day, we all go through many emotions; too many to count. They often change from moment to moment. Some are fun and some are not so fun; quite painful for many to be more accurate. The fun ones are easy to express via laughter and jovial conversation and other expressions. The painful ones are far more difficult to express for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost it is not comfortable, so we might deny or avoid them; we may not want others around us to see how we are really feeling, as there can be shame and embarrassment, or a feeling of “less than” when we are having a tough time. As difficult as it can be for a lot of people, it is important that we purge ourselves of these feelings privately or to a trusted individual, which is no different than letting out a breath after holding it in for too long.

The problem that many of us run into is that we don’t regularly express our feelings, so they build up. Another problem many of us run into is that we resist what we do not like or what does not feel good, so we do all we can to not express painful feelings/emotions. This is human nature and we all go through it. However, I think we would all agree that this is not the healthiest way to live.

Anytime we experience something in our lives that creates an emotion it leaves an imprint. If every time we think about it and allow ourselves to have an emotional response to it again, it increases the imprint on our brain. Over time, this makes us react to anything related to that stressful event as if we were experiencing the event again in real time. This is why these things are called a “trigger.” When this happens, it creates muscle tension and other physical ailments, which is why it’s so important to process emotions and not keep reliving them.

Embrace how you feel, no matter what it is, and then let it out. When we resist, it stays with us. I can’t stress enough how important it is to make sure that we do not resist any of the feelings we have and then let them go with yelling, crying, sulking, complaining, etc., and you do not need to be around anyone else to express these things. It can be done in the privacy of your own home. Allow yourself to feel the feeling. Sit with it. Don’t label it or judge it. It simply is what it is. Let it just be that. For as long as you need to sit with it, do so, and then let it go just like a breath and let more calming feelings enter. The key thing is that you don’t force positivity if you do not feel positive. Please click here to see my other article called, If you’re in pain, don’t “be positive.” Be honest.

All of this is far more difficult than I am making it sound. It is HARD to deal with painful emotions when they hit is. If we go through that pain in the moment rather than masking it, hiding it, pushing it away, doing replacement behaviors, etc., we make it easier for ourselves in the long run because we will process it more quickly. It’s like dirty laundry. If we have a load and do it until it’s finished, it’s over. But if we let it pile up, it becomes so overwhelming we don’t know where to start. If we just breathe in and exhale the moment, it will pass faster. It’s easier to be an exerciseaholic, a workaholic, a cleanaholic, etc., than it is to deal with stuff, all of which is re-enforced by society, but is it healthy? Of course we all know the answer to this question.

If a pilot were to change the computer settings from its original flight course by one degree, or if a sailing vessel were to change it’s course settings by 1 degree, this does not seem like a lot, but the destination will be completely different than the one intended. Just one small tweak is all it takes for us to make changes in our lives that can often be rather significant. We don’t need to conquer it all at once. Just change things by 1 degree or 1 percent, and see where it takes you.

Going back to the very beginning, imagine your emotions being like your breath. We inhale and we exhale. The breath comes in, the breath leaves. When we hold it, we can’t breathe and our nervous system and organs can’t properly function. The same thing happens with emotions. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel them, it is like holding our breath, and we carry those emotions around with us, hidden below the surface. These feelings/emotions get stored in the tissues of our body. It is called somatic memory which I discuss in more detail in Chapter 8 of my book. What this eventually does is create pain, and if we are already in pain, it creates more pain. It initiates what is called the Freeze Response, which is part of the Fight/Flight stress response. You can read a blog I wrote about it by clicking here, and also consult my book for some additional information, specifically as it that applies to those of us in pain.

When we are able to express our emotions in a healthy way and really put this into practice on a regular basis, it helps us flow better with everything, which will bring us closer to that healthy balance we are seeking. I strongly encourage you to read about the freeze response in the Stress and Stress Management chapter of my book. I also encourage you to research the work that trauma experts are doing with regard to the freeze response, which is a part of the fight or flight response located in the sympathetic nervous system. Our goal is to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming, restful side where we find peace. Please also see the great video below by Dr. Joe Dispenza… and please remember to exhale your breath AND your emotions.










Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and the author of 2 books: Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey (2015and Beyond Pain and Suffering: Adapting to Adversity and Life Challenges (2021). He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, volunteer for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers NetworkThe MightyPatient Worthy, and The Wellness Universe. To learn more about Tom, get a copy of his books (also on Amazon), or schedule a free life coaching consult, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.


4 responses to “Holding in emotions is like holding our breath – Pain implications”

  1. Griselle Barbosa says:

    Thank you so much Tom for this article. It made me realize a lot about the way I live my life and do certain things in a way that I do not even notice.

    I love the video that talks about the subconscious mind. It gives us a lot to think about.

    • Tom Seaman says:

      I am pleased to hear you found this article helpful and that the video resonated with you. I am a big fan of Dr. Dispenza.

  2. Amy Brinson says:

    THIS!!! Wow, what a timely article. I am an empath and some days are almost unbearable. Thank you, Tom for your words of wisdom and encouragement. I certainly will study on this word and inhale.

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