We probably all have memories of feeling really down, and a well meaning adult telling us to ‘cheer up’. If you cast your mind back, do you remember how that made you feel? My guess is probably not better. Simply being told to change your feelings doesn’t work – although it can increase irritation!
Our feelings are so powerful, so overwhelming, that they easily override our thinking. In fact, it is really hard to think clearly when in a highly emotional state, regardless of whether the emotion is ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. It can be helpful to view this on a spectrum…
In order to make good decisions, it is important to be somewhere on the thinking side of this spectrum. The catch here is it can be hard to tell how emotional you are when you are in the middle of it. This is where having some acute body awareness can be very helpful, in terms of developing better emotional self regulation.
One of the most popular activities I do with my groups is around body awareness. We begin by tracing out a willing student onto mural paper (it helps that I am also an art teacher). We list off several emotions and assign each a colour, for example:
Sad – blue
Happy – yellow
Angry – red
Calm – green
Everyone takes a marker of the same emotion (sadness-blue) and we draw/write onto our life sized image what happens to our bodies when we experience the given emotion. It is important to note that not everyone shares every feature here, but there tends to be a great deal of overlap. For example:
Stress – orange
Rapid or irregular breathing
Avoiding eye contact/rapid eye movement
Too much energy – need to fidget, twitch or pace
Once we have gone through each of the emotions, we actually act out the different physicality’s. When students are physically simulating ‘sad’, with shoulders slouched, slow dragging steps, and downcast eyes, I ask them how they feel emotionally given the state of their bodies. Most kids report feeling a drop in energy. When we move from simulating sad to simulating happy, shoulder come back, spines straighten, eyes come up to observe surroundings and pace picks up, and the lungs can more easily take in air. When asked to emotionally check in at this point, most students report an increase in energy.
The reason for this is that our minds and bodies are connected. Our bodies respond to our feelings (and can exacerbate them). This also means that we can ‘manipulate’ our bodies to send signals back to our minds, which does have an impact on our emotional states. So there is something to that old adage ‘fake it until you make it’.
The week following this activity, students are challenged to pay attention to their emotional state, by paying attention to what their bodies are doing ; Am I slouching and avoiding eye contact? How energetic do I feel? If they decide that they do not want to be in this particular state, they are to ‘simulate’ a more positive emotion with their posture, breathing, eye contact, and to note whether it made a difference.
There are a couple of side benefits here. This exercise serves to pull students further towards the thinking end of the spectrum (helpful at school), and to exert more control over the body language messages they are sending to others. Like anything else, it takes practice. When we are in the midst of a negative emotion, it can be hard to find the motivation to do anything about it. Having a ‘stress buddy’ to help cue can be helpful here.
What Can You Do?
Ask your child where they are on the thinking-feeling spectrum or get them to draw it out/point to a drawing
Ask them what their bodies are doing right now (how is your posture, breathing, eye contact)
Ask them what they can do physically to simulate feeling good (yes, this sounds really weird)