Learning How to Feel Again
By Betty Hughes, Ph.D., LMHC
We all started out knowing how we feel at any given point in time. However, things can happen that interrupt that process. For example, after a trauma, it is difficult to cope with the feelings that ensue. Fear and anxiety are common, as are flashbacks and avoidance behaviors.
Some people have learned primarily to feel numb after a trauma. What is a feeling of numb? It is the absence of feeling, especially when the underlying feelings are too intense to tolerate. It protects the psyche from being overwhelmed. It is similar to a shot of Novocain before a painful dental procedure; both the Novocain and the emotional numbing are used for protection. They help people to survive. The difference is that after the dental procedure, the numbing gets replaced by healthy feelings. Numbing after a trauma can become a way of life.
Learning how to feel again is a major component of recovery. Let’s start with the basics: How do you feel now? How do you know that you feel a certain way? Do you understand the causes and effects of feelings? The answer to these questions can provide a wealth of knowledge about who you are and some of the choices you can make. Suggested readings at the end of this article can help to guide your way.
Feelings and emotions can add spice to our lives; they can also drain us to the point of depletion.
Feelings are normal and healthy . . . except when they are not. Actually the feelings themselves remain normal and healthy; it is the misinterpretation of them that causes confusion and distress. Misinterpretation can come from a variety of experiences, especially abuse and neglect in childhood and adolescence.
What are you feeling now and why is it important to know that? Feelings are physical body experiences. Feelings are important because they communicate instantly your reaction to whatever is going on at the time, whether it is a thought or an experience. Your mind can then decide what to do about a particular event.
Emotions are similar to feelings and the words are often used interchangeably. However, emotions refer to the mental state whereas feelings represent the body’s response. The body responds instantly; but if your mind has been programmed to go numb then it is difficult to decipher what it is telling you.
If you have a history of trauma, it is important to work with a psychotherapist who can help you to work through the issues related to the experience. When you are ready to regain your feelings, the following exercises may be useful to overcome the feeling of being numb:
1. Choose a spot that you pass several times per day. Each time you pass that spot, ask yourself what you are feeling. It may take some practice to realize what you are feeling. The intent is to simply become aware. Depending on what you are doing at the time, you may choose to process the feeling or you may just mentally reward yourself for noticing you are not numb. If all you feel is numb, accept that as well.
2. Focus on the body first, and then develop the emotional words that go along with that feeling. Take your time. Remind yourself that it is okay to not know immediately.
3. When you are relaxed, ask yourself how you know that; how does it differ from being tense? Where in your body do you receive that information? Remember that all feelings come and go unless there is something that makes them stay. Be gentle with yourself. The goal is to simply notice.
4. When a negative feeling gets triggered, wait ninety seconds for the physical response to dissipate then decide how you want to react (Taylor, 2009). You can learn any number of choices such as deliberately thinking about something positive or writing about your feelings.
5. Affirmations: Write short positive statements to help you regain your feelings. Then speak them aloud or silently in your mind. Read books on affirmations such as those written by Louise Hay and others. You can also make up your own affirmations. Some examples are:
“I have a right to my feelings.” “I love my body; I am learning how it feels.” “It is safe to feel.” “I am learning how to feel things spontaneously.” “I am learning to trust my feelings.”
6. Practice certain feelings. For example, when you are happy, notice how that feels in your body. Is it a relaxed feeling or a light feeling or something else? Can you change your thoughts so that your emotional reaction is happy? Again, affirmations might be helpful. Try,
“I am happy when I think about my pet.” “I am happy when I (fill in the blank).”
7. When you are sad, notice how that feels in your body. Do the same thing with positive feelings. Keep noticing the physical feelings as they come and go.
8. Begin to love your body and its feelings. If you cannot love it just yet, then begin to appreciate it. After all, your body is the house you reside in.
9. Read about feelings and emotions so that you begin to understand what a powerful information system you have in your body.
In conclusion, feelings and emotions are important feedback systems which greatly enhance your ability to navigate the stream of life. Thoughts alone are not adequate to supply sufficient information for the best decision making. With professional help and your own determination, you can regain your capacity to be fully present in each moment to enjoy your life. You deserve to heal. You deserve to feel. Be gentle with yourself as you learn to feel again.
Burns, David D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.
Gift From Within - PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers: http://www.giftfromwithin.org/html/FAQ-Professionals-PTSD-Treatment-for-Emotional-Numbing.html
Hicks, Esther and Hicks, Jerry (2007). The astonishing power of emotions: Let your feelings be your guide. Hay House, Inc., Carlsbad, CA.
Taylor, Jill Bolte (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, Viking, New York, NY.
Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight | Video on TED.com
Louise Hay Official Website: http://www.louisehay.com/
Matsakis, Aphrodite (1992). I can’t get over it: A handbook for trauma survivors. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Napier, Nancy J. (1993) Getting through the day: Strategies for adults hurt as children. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
National Institute of Mental Health: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Go to website at: www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/what-is-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-or-ptsd.shtml
Rosenbloom, Dena and Williams, Mary Beth; with Watkins, Barbara E. (1999). Life after trauma: A workbook for healing. New York: The Guilford Press.