How to release emotions from the body
- acknowledging your feelings.
- working through trauma.
- trying shadow work.
- making intentional movement.
- practicing stillness.
Somatic experiencing (SE) is a way to address any unprocessed tension or emotion that may be lingering in your body.
SE uses a body-first approach to address symptoms, with the idea that freeing unprocessed trauma can promote emotional healing.
One way to do this is through intentional movement, according to Vincent.
“When we intentionally move, we can create a sense of safety in our bodies that we may not have experienced before, especially individuals who have stored trauma,” Vincent says.
Examples of intentional movement include:
- martial arts
- qi gong
- tai chi
- meditative walking
- belly breathing exercises
Vincent notes that intentional movement releases any stored energy while helping the brain recognize the difference between tension and relaxation.
Being still allows us to be with our thoughts and feelings in a present state.
It taps into the brain’s default mode networkTrusted Source, which is when your brain briefly enters an idle state. This triggers what scientists call “self-generated cognition,” which includes things like daydreaming or letting your mind wander.
By momentarily disengaging from external stimuli, researchTrusted Source says people can better connect with their inner thoughts, emotions, and desires.
“We live in a world where stillness isn’t practiced enough, nor is it valued, but can be so nourishing to our minds and bodies,” Vincent says. “It also allows space for emotions to come into… consciousness.”
Some ways to practice stillness are:
- breathing exercises
- sitting in nature
- listening to calming music
- repeating affirmations
- progressive muscle relaxation
When an emotion is not fully processed, it may become “stuck” in the body.
However, it’s the limbic structures of the brain where emotional processing occurs. While some areas of your body undoubtedly hold tension or may be associated with an emotional experience, ultimately it’s the brain that’s reconstructing the emotion.
By using techniques to work through your emotions, like therapy, intentional movement, and shadow work, you can learn to move on from past traumas and release the associated bodily tension.
Benefits of shadow work can include:
- feeling whole or integrated as a person
- improved interactions with others
- healing generational trauma
- learning healthy ways to meet your needs
You may feel more whole
There isn’t peer-reviewed research on shadow work, but Short says it can give you a more holistic view of yourself.
“A lot of people talk about themselves in parts,” Short says. “When I do ‘parts’ work with clients, it’s to help them understand that they can become whole and always have been, but [it’s] life experiences that made them feel disjointed.”
It can help how you interact with others
As you gain more self-awareness, Short says you’ll learn to trust yourself more. And you can use that introspection in relationships.
For example, perhaps you were told not to “talk back” during childhood, and you have trouble standing up for yourself as an adult.
“You may develop boundaries and learn to speak your truth [by doing shadow work],” Short says.
You could heal generational trauma
Shadow work can heal wounds from childhood, often brought on by primary caregivers like a parent.
“You’re always doing the work of healing yourself, healing your parents, and healing the lineage, especially when you start to address generational traumas within the shadow experience,” Short says.
And it can also help you think about your approach to caregiving, should you have children.
“It helps you look at your family structure and makes you think, ‘Is this something I want to continue with my family?’” Short says.
You’ll meet your needs in healthier ways
Sweeton says our shadow self can cause destructive behaviors. For instance, people who were taught that wanting to be close with someone was “clingy” may have trouble in future relationships and cheat on a partner.
Exploring one’s shadow can help people find more constructive habits.
“When you’re hiding nothing from yourself and can see yourself fully, it’s a lot easier to be in control of yourself,” Sweeton says.
Keeping your shadow hidden is a form of repression, and experts share that it may have consequences.
“It’s like recognizing that you’re having an issue but aren’t allowing yourself to really deal with it,” Short says.
- self-soothe with drugs or alcohol
- talk negatively about themselves
- experience stress
- experience mental health difficulties, like depression and anxiety
“Instead of [confronting what’s hurting you], you take your pain out on yourself,” Short says.
Sweeton says repressing a shadow can lead people to live inauthentic lives.
“People have issues with self-identity and talking about what’s important to them and what they value,” she says. “That can lead them to the wrong careers or relationships, but they have a hard time seeing why.”
Before you begin shadow work, there are a few things to keep in mind.
What beginners should know
According to Sweeton, patients don’t simply start doing shadow work. It takes time, and beginners have to develop more awareness of emotions they might otherwise shrug off.
“You’re going to have to be intentional about noticing your own reactions,” Sweeton says. “Someone who’s been doing it for a long time is going to be more skilled at this.”
Sweeton suggests people who are new to shadow work keep a running log of times they have a strong emotion and what triggered it. She says signs include feeling like you had a “gut punch” or felt your chest tightening.
“The shadow is most apparent in strong emotions,” she says. “Being able to log what those emotions… and sensations are that you noticed can help you see patterns.”
Keep a running log of when you have a strong emotion, what triggered it, and any accompanying sensations.
A general guide to shadow work
Short likens shadow work to peeling back the layers of an onion.
“Think about the times when you feel something bubbling inside of you, and you’re wondering why you’re so upset,” Short says. “You’re upset because there’s been a part of you that’s been hiding out for a long time… and wants to come out.”
Sweeton says it’s important to step back and reflect on these moments rather than taking them at face value and moving forward.
“A lot of times, we’ll hear about something or see it, automatically judge it, and shut it off,” Sweeton says. “If you judge yourself, you distance yourself from yourself. Then, the analysis stops, and we move on with life. I encourage people to notice strong reactions and sit with that.”
Short provides a list of five questions to ask yourself before starting shadow work:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- What do I have to let go of to get the things I desire?
- Who do I have to become to receive those things?
- How do I want to show up?
Here are some exercises that can help you build on your shadow work in or out of the therapy room.
Evaluate times when you overdo it
Short says exploring areas of your life where you overdo it, such as working late hours, shows you how you engage with yourself and others.
“This also provides you with a rough blueprint as to what areas you may need to explore more and work on,” Short says.
- Ask yourself: What do I overdo?
- List your responses.
- Think about why. What are you trying to accomplish? What void are you trying to fill?
- List these responses.
Depletes vs. elevates
Short says this exercise can help you better understand how your daily experiences impact you.
- Grab a blank piece of paper and make two columns.
- Column A is “Depletes Me.” Column B is “Elevates Me.”
- Think of interactions that hold you back. List them in column A.
- Think of interactions that fulfill you. List them in column B.
Say it out loud
Sweeton says acknowledging shadow parts to a loved one or therapist can aid in self-acceptance and reduce shame.
- Identify potential shadow parts.
- Discuss the shadow part and how it may have originated with a friend or therapist. “For example, you might say, ‘It’s that I want to feel protected, and I’ve been taught that’s weak,’” Sweeton says.
- Discuss how this truth impacts your life and explore ways to manage those parts.
Flip the script
Sweeton says shadow parts often carry a negative connotation — but they shouldn’t.
“All traits and parts, even shadow parts, have an upside,” she says. “When you can identify your shadow parts, explore what the benefits of the shadow part might be.”
- Identify potential shadow parts, such as imposter syndrome.
- Think about and list ways in which your shadow parts help you. “With a shadow part that fears being incompetent, the upside to this may be that you’re detail-oriented, self-aware and conscientious,” Sweeton says.
- Remind yourself of these positive qualities, especially when the perceived negative qualities arise.
Shadow parts can be distressing, but they can also reveal our values, Sweeton explains.
- List shadow parts.
- Consider what these parts tell you about your values.
- Think about ways to live by your values.
Want to go deep in your shadow work? There are professionals who can help.
What to expect
Though it’s possible to do shadow work yourself, Sweeton suggests doing it in therapy.
“It can be overwhelming because you have to confront your primary caregivers, and a lot of people have loyalty,” she says. “You come to the realization that things weren’t what you thought they were.”
A therapist can help you work through those feelings constructively. But shadow work takes time to start, and a client and therapist need to establish a trusting relationship. Once it’s there, they can begin.
Sweeton naturally integrates shadow work into sessions. “I’m looking for times when clients have a reaction to something, and they’re probably not comfortable with it,” Sweeton says.
Sweeton will then explore the root of the reaction.
“I ask, ‘Is this an old feeling?” Sweeton says. “Almost always, you will hear that it is… and sometimes, you can get to the root of it when exploring whether they’ve experienced these sensations in the past.”
How long does shadow work take?
Like many aspects of working on your mental health, shadow work can take time. Every person is different.
“If there’s been childhood [trauma], it’s going to be more difficult and might be a couple of years before we can get to the shadow part in therapy,” Sweeton says. “If someone comes in and has a pretty trauma-free history, but maybe they have some depression or anxiety, it may be a few months before you start addressing and resolving it.”
Even after one part of your past is addressed and resolved, Short says shadow work is a never-ending journey.
“You learn to incorporate the aspects of processing it throughout your life,” she says.
How to find a therapist
Short says she recommends people look through directories for therapists who specialize in shadow work.