Emotional health and the integration of our experiences



Whilst kayaking on the river the other day I was really taking note of the movement of the water. I was about half a kilometre off shore and observed the large body of water that surrounded me. There were picture book conditions: a bright blue luminous sky coupled with a still surface. Yet there were constant small movements of this enormous amount of water I was hovering on. Suddenly waves came seemingly out of no-where. Surprised I looked around for the source of the waves, yet to my astonishment I could not see any boat, jet ski or the like. During the rest of my paddling this happened again a couple times. Intrigued I started to think about the flow of water. What happens at one end of any body of water, even a large one, effects other parts even if they are so far away that they are out of sight.

This was a visual reminder for me how our entire body system is connected to and affected by our emotions.

Emotions have always been likened to water. And our bodies are made up of about 70 % of water. Watching the flow of water in a river or the ocean is a good reminder of how everything in our bodies flows as well – our entire internal body communication system relies on the flow of energy.

Speaking of flow, our brain is also the flow of energy. It flows whether you like it or not. There are basically two states of flow:

–       an integrated flow

–       a disintegrated flow

Our emotional health – and our physical wellbeing – is dependent on an integrated flow.

An integrated flow goes hand in hand with positive emotion.

Negative emotion is a signpost for a disintegrated flow.

Many physiological processes happen on autopilot; whether they are integrated or disintegrated, they will go unnoticed by the conscious mind.

Now, a mindset is a process that regulates the flow of energy and information. This means that the way you look at something, your perspective, influences whether the flow is integrated or disintegrated.

Neurobiofeedback is the capacity of the brain to take a thinking process and to change the body.

Your thoughts literally change your body.

We all have disintegrated brain sequences, based on our life-long experiences. But here is the good news:

Our brains are plastic!

This means that our brains can change, in particular the neural pathways can change and new pathways can be created. Our brain is not set in stone. It can be altered.

There are 100 billion neurons in the brain. The brain has the capacity to create new neural pathways quickly. It does this on the basis of experience and repetition. The more a thought is repeated, the stronger the neural pathway becomes.

This also works the other way: if you don’t use your neural pathway, you lose it. That is to say if a particular skill or way of thinking benefits you, or you simply like it, it will wither away if you neglect it. The neural pathway will shrink.

Because our brains are plastic, disintegrated experiences and brain sequences can be re-integrated.

Our emotional health depends upon this integration.

You cannot pretend an emotion into oblivion. It affects not only your awareness and mood, but also your physical health and the functioning of your entire body system, including digestion, blood flow to your organs, including your brain and therefore your ability to reason, etc.

You cannot resist an emotion away. But you can allow it to be – in other words to feel it – and it will dissipate.

Kayaking is a visual example of this. When I first got onto my kayak, which isn’t stable in choppy waters (it glides smoothly and fast through calm waters though), even small waves really rocked my boat. Head-on waves were alright, but when they come from the side – a bit like emotions coming out of left field taking us by surprise – they are very challenging. Initially I got worried. It was an unpleasant feeling. Then I learned to loosen the hips and to allow the kayak to go with the flow of the waves. To let myself be rocked from side to side. Voila, the waves were no longer scary, no longer a threat of toppling me over. (I’m going kayaking on the river, although a tidal river, not to be compared with ocean waves). Sure, the waves slow me down; in fact, if they are strong I need to stop until they have disappeared. But I have recently developed an attitude whereby I enjoy whatever comes my way during kayaking. Mostly anyway. The other day I got a bit frustrated with all the waves made by skiboats, especially if the boats come pretty close. However, shortly afterwards I was rewarded with some magic: three dolphins surfaced very close to me. Two of them proceeded to dive right under my kayak. Wow.

Kayaking is a good reminder to go with the flow. You cannot stop the flow anyway, in the same way that you can’t stop waves, but you can have a mindset that allows the flow to integrate, thereby supporting contentment and a thriving life. Equally you can stop the flow from integrating, thereby harming your emotional and physical wellbeing. You cannot control everything, but you can develop a mindset that supports your wellbeing, that allows your emotions to be, to come and go like the waves instead of locking them into your cells through suppression.

May you develop this new muscle of going with the flow – it’s like riding a bike, you won’t enter the Tour de France overnight, but hey, you are getting better and better with practice. Perhaps 2013 could be the year of going with the flow.


Katrin Den Elzen

Recovery, Renewal & Reflection

Making sense of change