By Katie Cardner
Let’s try a little experiment. Think about someone you have unconditional love for; this could be a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend, a significant other – anyone. Pick just one person. Now think about all of the things you love about this individual. Think of him or her experiencing pure joy. Think of him or her laughing uncontrollably. Think of him or her feeling love and happiness. Now, focus your attention back to your physical self for a moment:
Where do you feel this sensation of admiration for your loved one? Most people will feel emotional sensations of admiration and love in their head and their heart. This is not a coincidence! Studies show that these things we call feelings are just that: feelings in our body! Depending on what emotion we experience, we feel different sensations in different parts of our bodies. This phenomenon is known as emotional mapping, and it can help us understand so much about our emotional health.
Scientists in Finland explored emotional mapping with hundreds of participants. When triggering each emotion (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, neutral, anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame, envy), participants experienced similar physical sensations across the board. These participants came from different countries and continents of the world, which proves that universally, our emotions have the same effect in all of us.
Our emotions have physiological effects on our bodies. For example, if you were to feel anger in a situation, you would feel the emotional sensations strongly in your head, chest, and arms. The expression of having “butterflies in your stomach” can be explained through emotional mapping, as well. People usually experience this sensation when anxious (nervous), disgusted, or fearful. These emotions have an effect on our digestive system, which leads to that sensation. One of the strongest emotions a human can feel is joy/happiness. The beautiful thing about this emotion is that it triggers sensations in the entire body! Many emotions trigger sensations in specific body parts, but pure joy is radiated all throughout.
Another wonderful thing discovered in this study is that we have the ability to control or change our emotions. Body language is a huge indicator of how one is feeling in a situation. For example, someone with arms crossed is sending the signal that he or she is putting a barrier between his or herself and with whomever they are communicating. They are closing themselves off physically to represent they are closed off emotionally. Body language works both ways within the individual; we can feel an emotion and use body language to express it, or we can use body language to change the way we feel.
One of my favorite examples of this is the super hero pose. Harvard scientists found that standing in a “power pose” – feet apart, hands on your hips, chest up – can increase levels of testosterone, which is known as the dominance hormone. It also reduces levels of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Smiling for no reason is also known to increase happiness. Darwin hypothesized this back in the 19th century: he said that facial expressions don’t just reflect emotions, but can cause them as well. Don’t believe me, give it a try!
So what can we take away from this discovery? By increasing our awareness of our emotions, we are better able to regulate them. When the Dalai Lama spoke with researcher Paul Ekman, he said, “When we wanted to get to the new world, we needed a map to get there. Could you make a map of emotions so we could get to a calmer state of mind?”
Having awareness of our own emotional state can allow one to manage daily stress in a healthier manner. For example, we know that fear can trigger the fight-or-flight response. When the fight-or-flight response is activated, there is an increase in the production of the stress hormone cortisol. With more cortisol roaming through the body, many bodily functions can experience negative effects, such as an increase in blood sugar levels, weight gain, interference with immune function, cardiovascular function, thyroid function, and insomnia. Instead of feeling fear and letting cortisol go nuts inside of us, we can recognize our emotion and consciously work towards getting ourselves back to a stable emotional state.
We can start controlling our emotions instead of letting them control us, both physically and mentally.