3 Simple Exercises To Process Buried Emotions & Heal Unresolved Trauma
While working through trauma is crucial for mind-body healing, we'd argue it's more important than ever: After all, when you face a crisis or feel out of control (like, you know, during a pandemic), that unresolved trauma can start to bubble up, even if you've kept it under lock and key for years. Take it from spiritual teacher and New York Times bestselling author Gabby Bernstein: "Any feeling of being unsafe [can] activate a small-T trauma or a big-T trauma," she says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
So her newest title, Happy Days: The Guided Path From Trauma to Profound Freedom and Inner Peace, has come at the perfect time. In it, Bernstein compiles the therapeutic processes that helped her work through her own past trauma: "They were almost like an angelic force in my life that really helped me heal," she notes. While it's always best to consult a therapist or trained professional to deep-dive into the inner work, these real-time methods can start to undo those thought patterns:
"Rage on the page" practice.
This technique calls on EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a therapeutic practice that helps you tap into your subconscious and allow your brain to reprocess buried emotions. Generally, Bernstein recommends working with an EMDR therapist to get to the root of your trauma. However: "Even without an EMDR therapist, you can have an experience of it," she says.
First, a little more information on EMDR: "It's bilateral brain stimulation," says Bernstein. "So you're either listening to a song that has a tone in the right ear, and then a tone in the left ear, or you have buzzers in either hand, or you're looking back and forth. The thesis is that if your eyes are going back and forth, or you have a stimulus in either ear, it's opening up your brain's capacity to reprocess old storylines, and in the present moment, undo that story."
Bernstein takes this concept a step further by tacking it onto a "rage on the page" journaling technique. Follow along below:
- Put on headphones and turn on the binaural EMDR music (here's a playlist). "It immediately starts to soothe your system, because it's just so relaxing," Bernstein says.
- Then for 20 minutes, just write. Spill all of your emotions onto the page, whatever you're feeling in that moment. "It doesn't have to be about the original trauma," she notes. "It can just be about where you are today… In that space of relaxation and having that stimulus in your brain, you begin to open up what's called the 'window of tolerance' to process your feelings."
- After those 20 minutes are up, put down your pen and meditate for 20 minutes after that. Lie on your back, and press your right hand on your heart and your left hand on your belly. "That's a heart hold that is so soothing to your nervous system," says Bernstein. Then breathe: "Deeply inhale and exhale completely, and again—inhale deeply and exhale completely, and just allow your body to settle in the presence of that hold."
"EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is similar to EMDR in that you tap on different energy meridians on your upper back," says Bernstein. "And while you're tapping, you're talking about an emotional disturbance that you want to work out." The theory is that putting pressure on certain points of the body while thinking about that emotional disturbance can provide quick relief. In fact, preliminary studies show that it can be effective at decreasing anxiousness and psychological distress1. "Those energy meridians stimulate parts of your nervous system to settle while you're addressing that root cause condition," Bernstein continues.
Here, Bernstein offers a quick EFT practice:
- "If you're feeling anxious, stressed out, or afraid, tap between your ring finger and your middle finger," she says. "Tap right there on that meaty part of your skin."
- While you're tapping, say to yourself: I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. "That's extremely settling to the system, to repeat that affirmation while tapping that point," she says. She even calls it the "holy shit" point for whenever you're feeling uneasy.
- Remember to breathe deeply and completely, and keep reminding yourself: I am safe. I am safe.
Get to know your fears.
Processing buried emotions and working through trauma is important, but we'll be honest: It takes time and patience to tap into your subconscious. However, Bernstein does have a quick tip to develop a direct line to your true self, even if you only have five minutes in your busy schedule. She suggests getting to know your fears:
- "Spend five minutes a day checking in with the fearful thoughts that are running the show," she explains. First and foremost, notice them: Acknowledge when those fears crop up and call them out.
- Next, take a moment to reflect on what you know about those fears: When do they tend to make their appearance, what's their origin, how do they physically feel in your body?
- Finally, ask them what they need. How can you react in a way that honors your true self? "We spend so much time pushing past these thoughts and fears and trudging forward. But what if we just spent five minutes a day getting to know them and listening?" Bernstein poses.
Working through past trauma ultimately takes, well, work, but these techniques can kick-start the process and help those emotions become easier to identify. Just don't get discouraged if you don't automatically feel better the very first time you practice these methods—it does take a few sessions to help release those buried emotions, especially if they've been unresolved for some time.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.