Do you need an emotional detox?
Hands up those of you who, after an overly indulgent weekend, have vowed to “go on a detox”. Some of you will have tried cutting out carbs, drinking litres of luke-warm lemon water or perhaps eating bowlfuls of cabbage soup, hoping to clean out stagnant residue and give your body a new lease of life.
Yet how many of you have given the same attention to spring-cleaning your emotions? Just as a glut of junk food, alcohol or drugs stagnates in the body, toxic emotions can keep you mentally stuck in the same place or suck you into a downward spiral. Is it possible to detox your mind and move towards a happier and healthier emotional state?
There is no such thing as a negative or unhealthy emotion. Every emotion has its place and can be good for you, as long as it is dealt with in the right way. Emotions may feel unpleasant but they’re not “good” or “bad”; it is only your attitude towards the emotion and what you do with the energy it generates that causes it to become toxic.
So what makes a healthy emotion turn toxic? Toxicity occurs when emotions are rejected, judged, suppressed or lied about. These behaviours create emotional mind states that eventually lead to the core psychological disorders of our time: depression, addiction and anxiety.
However, there are a number of specific emotions that commonly cause the most suffering when they are hidden or denied for long enough. The emotions that most often turn toxic include — but are not limited to — hurt, sadness, shame, hopelessness, fear, anger, hate, jealousy, pride, resentment, greed and guilt. Although some of these emotions are interconnected, each can cause its own uniquely catastrophic impact on physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Emotions that turn toxic
For some, even reading the words “fear”, “anger” or “hopelessness” can bring up uncomfortable feelings, memories or associations. From an early age, many of you may have been taught to repress, suppress, endure, deny or escape so-called “painful” emotions, the result being you grow up having learned to fear their expression. Many men have been taught that emotions in general are effeminate — women’s stuff — though women fare little better. They may be a little more comfortable with the idea of emotions in general but have been taught to endure them in silence. The majority of us believe we shouldn’t feel what we do.
In fact it is quite normal and healthy to express emotions such as anger or fear. It is only the extreme of an emotion that is unhealthy, particularly when it is repressed. Left unchecked, emotions can become toxic time bombs, draining energy and sabotaging happiness, success and health.
Toxic emotions don’t just affect your mental state; they are the root of many physical ailments and diseases and are therefore just as damaging to your health, if not more so, than actual toxic waste within the body. Ancient Ayurvedic texts describe disease as the final expression of toxic accumulations in the mind-body physiology. Similarly, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) identifies extremes of joy, anger, fear, anxiety, fright, pensiveness and grief as emotional states which, when repressed, wreak physiological havoc on particular organs of the body.
An excess of stored anger is said to damage the liver; an excess of fear to damage the kidneys; an excess of joy to damage the heart; an excess of grief to damage the lungs; and an excess of sympathy/pensiveness to damage the spleen.
Additionally, according to TCM theory, emotions do not just damage their related organ. Due to the relationships between the energy meridians (or channels) within the body, left long enough, the excess of any unexpressed emotion will inevitably lead to damage in the liver channel. The liver is ruler of emotions, balancing them and ensuring free circulation of qi or energy. When an emotion becomes “stuck” in an organ and the liver is unable to shift it, the liver becomes blocked and so the body loses balance.
In the 1960s, the modern-day mind-body medicine phenomenon finally validated the connection between emotions and illness that has been at the core of Ayurveda and TCM for centuries. The so-called “cancer personality” was studied; so was the Type-A personality which was linked to a higher risk of early heart attacks.
Today, despite advances in medication and acceptance of the mind-body medicine concept, toxic emotions are taking the same heavy toll as ever. All over the world, depression and anxiety have reached pandemic proportions. In her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair, psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan states that approximately 12 per cent of American adults have a diagnosable anxiety disorder and one in four will at some point seek help for anxiety issues. Greenspan believes it is western culture’s conditioned fear of emotional energy, or “emotion phobia”, that fuels disease within the body.
“When we compulsively and chronically disconnect from the dark emotions, disavowed dark emotional energy can become stuck in the body, producing toxic emotional states such as depression, anxiety, and psychic numbing as well as addiction and psychosomatic ailments,” says Greenspan. “It can also run amok in the form of explosive anger and violence.”
In Australia, the statistics are even more alarming. According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics report in 2007, 7.3 million Australians had, at some point in their lives, experienced anxiety, mood or substance-use disorders. That’s almost half the population. In the 1990s, it was US women’s health expert Dr Christiane Northrup who originally coined the term “toxic emotions” to describe the powerful and often unconsciously active emotions that help generate symptoms that keep illnesses in place.
Northrup believes that if you fail to work through your emotional distress — which includes damaging beliefs and strong, unexpressed emotions — you set your body up for physical distress. Emotional toxins are lodged and stored in the body’s muscles, organs and tissues, contributing to an overall weakening of the immune system.
The home of emotions
Emotions live in your body. They make you feel pain, cry, laugh, and make your heart beat faster. They can fill you with adrenalin or make you feel numb and lifeless. Like a physical abscess, an emotional abscess hurts and feels sore to touch. Left to fester, it can infect your whole emotional being. If you allow toxic emotions to accumulate, the emotional toxicity ultimately leads to physical toxicity.
Anger is particularly destructive to the body if suppressed. Those who continually suppress their anger may develop ulcers, high blood pressure, chronic headaches and other physical problems including constipation. Excessive anger makes it difficult for the body to digest food and, over time, the body becomes congested.
Repressed anger can also eat away at the body as cancer. According to Science News reports, a number of medical studies offer compelling evidence validating the role of repressed emotions in cancer. For instance, in a controlled study of women with breast lumps in the 1990s, women who had more difficulty expressing anger were more likely to have malignancies at breast biopsy. In contrast, women who vented their anger were less likely to have lesions. Emotional repression has also been found to influence survival and prevent patients from dealing with cancer diagnoses.
Hostility is an inflammatory emotion. When repressed, hostility can also cause physical inflammations, resulting in inflammatory cardiovascular episodes. Hostility is also linked to auto-immune disorders. Chronic criticism is said to lead to arthritis. The tension and stress that fear produces have been cited as a cause of ulcers, high blood pressure and even baldness.
Releasing toxic emotions
Toxic emotions can be lethal, but how can you begin to release them? To escape the discomfort associated with heightened emotional states, many turn to alcohol, food, cigarettes, gambling or drugs, or unconsciously choose destructive relationships. These addictions become dangerous emotional crutches and are just another even more extreme form of suppression.
Physician and mind-body medicine advocate Deepak Chopra understands that a fundamental change in thinking is essential to the emotional detox process. He has devised a simple step-by-step process to rid the mind and body of toxic emotions by giving them nowhere to hide.
Chopra’s approach begins by identifying the toxic emotion. Sure, you feel bad, but what is the actual emotion that’s making you feel that way? If there are too many to deal with and you feel overwhelmed, identify the one that has the most power in your life. Be it jealousy, rage or fear, this is the toxic emotion that most robs you of your self-confidence and self-esteem; the one that consistently keeps happiness and fulfilment out of reach.
After identifying your most toxic emotion, Chopra then advises witnessing the physical sensations in your body. Observe the feeling and allow your attention to embrace the sensation. By allowing yourself to experience the physical sensations, you’ll find that the emotional charge actually dissipates.
Now try to take responsibility for how you feel. One of the most important aspects of healing the emotional body is realising that you have the power to choose how you respond to and interpret your experiences. Don’t feel guilty about your feelings, either — accept that you feel bad and credit yourself with wanting to change.
Next, express the emotion by placing your hand on the part of your body where you sense that the feeling is located. Express audibly, saying, “It hurts here”. Alternatively, if you find it easier, write your feelings down on paper.
Following expression, release the emotion through physical ritual. Deep breathing, massage, exercise or dance — do whatever you feel will best allow your body to release the tension that is stored with the emotion. If you have written the emotion down, now is the time to burn the piece of paper.
When you feel calm, share the emotion without blame or trying to manipulate the person you share with for approval or pity.
Finally, Chopra says it’s important to celebrate the emotional detox process. Reward yourself with something nourishing that’s just for you: listen to your favourite music, buy yourself a gift or eat a delicious meal.
Seven steps to emotional detox
- Identify the emotion
- Observe the emotion
- Take responsibility without feeling guilt
- Express your emotion to yourself
- Release it through ritual (dance, meditation, massage, exercise)
- Share the emotion
- Celebrate the detox process
Let’s go back to point number five of Chopra’s emotional detox process: releasing emotions through physical ritual. There are many actions you can take to clear out unhealthy emotional residue. The most important thing is to remember that by taking action, no matter how small, you are taking responsibility for your toxicity — you’re already half way to cleansing.
Try simply getting out into nature. Going for a brisk walk in the morning sun or standing on the beach and watching the ocean will boost your endorphins and make you appreciate the beauty of our planet. You don’t need to go far to find solace in the healing power of nature; even gardening can have a great impact on releasing unhealthy emotions.
Think of your regular walk in nature as a healing ceremony and congratulate yourself for taking the time to give to yourself. If you can’t make it outside, toxic emotions can also be released by a journey to imaginary places that remind you of times of love, peace, contentment and joy through a guided imagery meditation or hypnosis.
Meditation works wonders in the battle against toxicity as you are effectively de-cluttering the mind. However, the benefits of meditation are physical, too. In 2009, a $3.8 million US study funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute found that patients with coronary heart disease who practised the stress-reducing Transcendental Meditation technique (TM) had an almost 50 per cent lower rate of heart attack, stroke and death compared to a matched group that didn’t meditate. Meditation is a truly holistic way to detox.
Of course, with the overwhelmingly speedy nature of modern life, you may find it difficult to find the time to meditate. It is important to think of it as an essential component of your day; after all, you always find the time to brush your teeth or have a shower and five to 10 minutes a day is all that’s needed.
Begin by focusing on the breath. Give it your full attention and if you find your mind begins to wander or focuses on painful feelings that are stemming from the toxic emotion, simply note this and then gently bring your thoughts back to your breath. As with any exercise, the more you practise, the more your stamina will increase.
Focusing on your breath helps you stay in the present moment rather than worrying about the future and the past. We can do little about what’s already been done or prepare for a future that will never come. Yoga is wonderful for the body but is also an incredible workout for the mind. The focus on the breath used in yoga practice is also credited with promoting immune function. How often have you found yourself holding your breath when feeling angry or stressed? By raising the brain’s oxygen intake, deep regular breathing can help release worry, anger and resentment.
We are all guilty of taking life too seriously, so lighten up. Laughter is wonderfully contagious and helps you harness the energy bound up in toxic emotions and channel it in a positive way so that happiness and the security that comes with it are possible. It can create bonds, uplift your spirits, diffuse conflict and increase your feeling of being connected to others. Many businesses are bringing laughter therapists into the office environment to help lift company morale. However, the great thing about laughter is that it doesn’t have to cost a cent and a good giggle can really put problems into perspective.
Alternatively, find your voice by turning the music up and having a good sing. Singing exercises major muscle groups and increases oxygenated blood flow. Psychologically, singing allows you to express and release a range of emotions. Contemporary physiological studies on the effects of group singing or vocal performance have found that these fun activities actually significantly decrease the amount of cortisol, a measure of stress, within the body.
If you are uncomfortable with vocalising your feelings, try writing about your upsetting emotional experiences instead. Studies have shown that journaling can improve immune function, as well as helping you gain clarity and insight. Label your toxic emotion: is it anger, fear guilt, or depression? Writing in detail about your experience of the emotion gives you back control. The toxic emotion that led to the event loses its energy and therefore becomes easier to release.
The first step is always the hardest. Whatever emotionally cleansing action you choose to take, as with physical cleansing, you may experience some detoxifying effects, including headaches, nausea, chills and flu-like symptoms. Take good care of yourself during this time and trust the process.
- Do yoga
- Listen to music
Getting it in perspective
Emotional cleansing isn’t easy. At times we are all likely to be subject to emotional extremes — that’s just life. People close to us die and we become grief stricken. Friends, family and colleagues can make us furious. Unfamiliar situations can invoke fear. However, it is worth persevering. Detoxing the emotions makes as much sense as cleansing your body. Emotional detoxing focuses on finding love and safety from within and can leave you feeling lighter, clearer, energised and ready to make overdue changes to both your personal and professional life.
Remember, either your toxic emotions are using you, or you’re going to use them. You can either allow your suppressed emotions to explode and wreak havoc in your life or you can take back control and harness the inherent energy and vitality of your emotions.
An emotional detox will help you start every day with a fresh outlook, a deep connection to your mind and body, an abundance of personal energy and the ability to let your emotions flow, as well as the tools you need to let them go.
Rebecca Cavalôt is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She can be contacted through her website www.rcavalot.squarespace.com or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.