Fort Worth Counseling and Intervention

Curiosity: A Powerful Tool for Processing Emotion

Woman staring out curiously

As we grow and develop as humans, we are taught many things that enhance our intellect and physical well-being. However, it seems intentional learning about emotional well-being is often neglected. This leaves us navigating the emotional world with little more than the primal instincts of flight, fight, or freeze. Although these primal instincts are extremely beneficial when being hunted by a saber-toothed tiger, they do not serve us quite as well in non-life-threatening situations, such as normal everyday life and minor relational conflicts. When emotion arises and the only tools at our disposal are to fight, escape and avoid, or become paralyzed, then we find ourselves causing and enduring unnecessary suffering. Most people are unconsciously reacting to emotion with no awareness that it is occurring. However, the good news is that we are able to learn emotional intelligence and grow in our abilities to mindfully process emotion.

The book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self, by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, teaches that when the mind thwarts the experience of emotion because of overwhelming or conflicting emotions, it creates psychological and physical distress. The resulting symptoms can include anxiety, depression, heart disease, gut problems, autoimmune disorders, and chronic pain, all of which are currently on the rise in the U.S. So, where do we start? How do we gain awareness of our emotions and learn to process emotion in ways that foster health and connection? It starts with curiosity. Curiosity implies that we remain open to the experience of emotion without judgment. As simple as that sounds, it takes practice for most of us because as children we learned to view certain emotions as positive or negative. In our “mind over matter” Western culture, we often grew up with messages that experiencing emotion is a sign of weakness. In reality, neurobiological research indicates that emotion originates from the limbic system, deep within the brain, and we have no conscious control over the activation of emotion. So, if we can release ourselves from the false perception that we can control emotional triggers, then we are free to simply be curious.

How to be curious about emotion:

Notice what is happening in your body.
Breathe deeply and attune to what is happening below your neck. Where are you feeling sensation in your body? What kind of sensation is it?
Name the emotion you are experiencing.
The more specifically you can describe and identify an emotion, the more quickly neurological integration occurs.
Be with the experience of the emotion in the here and now without judgment.
There are no positive/negative emotions. There are just emotions and they convey information.
Explore what the emotion is communicating to you.
Does it highlight a value that is important to you? Does it indicate an unmet need? Does it seem to be out of place to your present situation?
Be patient and compassionate with yourself.
It takes practice. Learning and changes in behavior do not happen overnight.

When emotion is processed in this way, the emotional intensity decreases and emotional regulation increases. In short, the emotion passes. The bonus is that we learn more about ourselves in the process. The entire exercise can take as little as two minutes and can save hours and days of rumination and/or regret. Many of us resist or avoid uncomfortable and conflicting emotions, because that’s what we were taught. It may feel strange or even scary at first to open up to emotion with curiosity. Yet, to heal the mind, we must learn to experience the emotions that accompany our narratives, and those are located in the body, here and now. Curiosity fosters holistic health by integrating mind, body, and emotion elements. When we learn to identify and process emotion, anxiety and depression decreases, and we feel better.

If you would like to learn more about this practice or need you help with processing your emotions, feel free to reach out to one of our counselors at Fort Worth Counseling and Intervention.

* Destin Brannon, LPC Associate is currently being supervised by Ryan D. Foster, PhD, LPC-S, CHST

Hendel, H. J. (2018). It’s not always depression: Working the change triangle to listen to the body, discover core emotions, and connect to your authentic self. Spiegel & Grau.

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