I used to think that I never got angry. People who knew me got so used to my easy-going demeanor that they would ask: “Do you ever get mad?” “Oh, no,” I would reassure them. “I mean, I hate some people, but I never get angry at them.”
[Ahem.] Ten plus years and many insights later, I now know that I got mad all the time, but was so uncomfortable with the idea of anger that I convinced myself I never felt it. I can only imagine how much subconscious effort it took to ignore all the signs of anger that must have arisen on a daily basis: the flushed cheeks, the sudden energy rising from my gut, the clenched teeth, the burning sensation spreading throughout my limbs. All emotions have an effect on the body, and when we don’t let ourselves feel them, they can get stuck there as agitated energy.
It was only when I began to recognize that I was not freakishly good-natured and that I did, in fact, get angry just like everybody else, that I began to notice the link between anger and sleep. Many times I would lie awake in bed, unable to drift off, and my thoughts would eventually land on some unpleasant interaction or experience during the day. At that point I might feel the slightest hint of ire, perhaps clenched teeth or a wound-up energy in my belly, that would clue me in to the fact that I was angry about something. Sometimes I had to imagine that I was a character in a movie and then generate theories like a detective in order to figure out why. Regardless, when I recognized what I was angry about, validated the feeling, and let myself feel it, letting it run its course, my whole body would relax and I would drift off to sleep.
It’s not just anger that can keep us awake: fear, grief, disappointment, sadness, jealousy, and all other emotions also have an effect on the body that can disrupt sleep if we’re not processing them. I had a client who started having trouble sleeping soon after receiving some very disturbing news about her family. Her sleep improved slightly with some small changes to her sleep hygiene, but it got a lot better only after months of sorting through and processing some of the intense emotions that the news brought up for her.
All emotions generate energy, and this energy can get stuck in the body until we become aware of it and let it run its course. It’s almost as if the heart has something to tell us through our feelings and won’t let us rest until we listen.
Emotions carry lots of important information for us. Fear can alert us to potential danger we need to address (by soothing ourselves if the danger is imagined or taking precautionary action if it’s real). Anger can help us learn what is important to us in any situation and can help us stand up for ourselves or find energy to take difficult action. Grief can confirm that we love and care about something or someone and helps us process and move past loss. Emotions are indicators of what we hold dear and what we need and want, which is tremendously useful information if we’re trying to design our lives to bring us joy and fulfillment. When we ignore emotions because they’re troubling, painful, or scary, we lose access to this important information.
The best way to make sure that our feelings aren’t getting stuck and gumming up the works is to check in with ourselves regularly throughout the day. Two questions I often have my clients stop and ask themselves are:
- What am I feeling right now? (This includes both emotions and body sensations.)
- What might that indicate about what I need and want?
When we become aware of an emotion, our first instinct is often to try to talk ourselves out of it. “I shouldn’t really be angry with him; I mean, it’s not like he meant to hurt me.” “I have no idea why I’m so sad about this; I never really liked this job anyway.” “How could I feel jealous? I would never want to have kids like hers.” The thing is, reason doesn’t make our feelings go away. We often have contradictory emotions and desires, and our feelings don’t have to be rational or make sense.
The best thing to do when we become aware of an emotion is to accept it, feel it, and see it as an opportunity to learn something useful. This starts with awareness: “Oh, I think I might be feeling sad.” Then comes acceptance: “Well, I don’t like a lot of things about this job, but I’ve accomplished a lot and there are some people here that I really like, so it makes sense that I would be sad about the idea of leaving it.” Then comes feeling. This is not a mental process so much as a physical one. We open ourselves to experiencing the feeling in our body, letting it move through. Sometimes this means letting ourselves feel the fire of anger so intensely that we feel like we’re going to explode (the good news is, we can be pretty sure we won’t). It could mean crying. It may mean staying with a heavy heart for longer than we’d like. The good news is, no emotion lasts forever, and all of them, even if they’re unpleasant, will eventually pass.
If we stop seeing emotions as unpleasant or unnecessary distractions, we can start to let them move through us. This means we don’t get as bound up with agitated energy, which removes one of the barriers that can get in the way of sleep. The icing on the cake is that when we pay more attention to our emotions and stop arguing with them, we start to learn from what they have to tell us.
It was in becoming aware of and accepting my own emotions late at night that I learned about the last, and probably most important thing that was keeping me awake. Read about what I found here.
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