Coping with emotions
In the first few entries of my blogs I’ll be describing some basic techniques that can be used to deal with feelings that may be overwhelming or frightening. I’ll get onto more specific topics in future blogs.
I don’t mean for you to try everything! Trying lots of new things at once can feel overwhelming and lead to frustration. You might wish to just try one or two things – if it doesn’t work, you can try something different, or if it does work you might want to add one or two more.
Can emotions be managed?
CBT therapists are fond of reminding us that we have a stone-age brain! For example, our “flight, fight or freeze” reaction is the same one that kept our ancestors alert in dangerous situations, around 100,000 years ago. Their bodies would be flooded with particular chemicals to help them to run away, fight off a threat, hide or “play dead”. Unfortunately, a threatening situation (such as a job interview) can trigger the same reaction that our ancestors needed to deal with an oncoming woolly mammoth, which isn’t always appropriate!
Luckily if we are aware of what’s happening, we can choose (to some extent at least), how we respond to our feelings.
There are a number of things that you can do with a feeling that’s troubling you.
- You can try to stay with the feeling.
- You can try to distract or divert yourself.
- You can try to soothe the feeling (self-soothing).
- You can try to challenge the thoughts that go with the feeling.
- You can talk to someone about it.
- You can express the feeling creatively.
That feels like a pretty good list, but if you can think of any other things to do with these feelings, please post them in the comments section below!
I’ll be looking at the pros and cons of each of these and discussing some techniques in future blogs.
Make friends with your feelings
Feelings can get magnified, misplaced, bottled up, stuck – all of which can lead to distress. Often people come to therapy because they are overwhelmed by a particular emotion and struggling to express or contain it.
However, let’s start with the premise that feelings are, in themselves, neither good nor bad. As I said at the start of this article, human beings have evolved a spectrum of feelings to help us to live in our physical and social environment.
We tend to label feelings as “negative” or “positive”, but I would argue against this. For example:
- Anger can let us know that we have not been treated well, and prompt us to assert our needs.
- Grief, although painful, can be accompanied by a deep sense of caring and connection with someone or something we have lost.
- Guilt can help us to realise that we have fallen short of our standards in some way, and prompt us to make amends and restore damagedrelationships.
- Anxiety can alert us to a threatening situation.
So I suggest that people don’t come to therapy because they don’t want to feel, but rather because they want to make sense of their feelings, get their feelings in balance, or be able to manage the more “difficult” feelings better.
Feelings and the body
Take a moment to think about where you experience different feelings in your body. Here’s a list of mine. You might experience these feelings very differently, which is completely okay.
- Panic can feel like a gripping sensation in the centre of my chest, almost like a fist.
- Sadness can feel like a deep tugging in the pit of my stomach.
- Anger can feel like a burning hot pressure behind my eyes.
- Anxiety can feel like a whirlpool spiralling out of the top of my head – often leaving my body feeling quite empty or disconnected.
- Contentment can feel like a kind of pleasant heaviness in the core of my body, like a sort of internal hug.
Also note, I say they “can” feel a particular way, because every emotion has different “flavours” and “levels” that manifest differently. For example there’s a whole range of emotions in the anger spectrum, and “annoyed” feels very different from “enraged”.
Is there are word for the feeling you are experiencing right now?
Take a moment to check in with yourself – it might help to close your eyes for a second, or shut out any distractions such as music, TV, Facebook, etc. What is your body telling you? What emotions are just on the edge of awareness?
Tuning into your feelings can be the first step to understanding yourself a bit better. Noticing how you are feeling, and where in the body you experience it, can take practice, so if this is difficult, don’t panic!
It can help to remember that “numb” also is a feeling, and so is “blank”, “disconnected”, “overwhelmed” or “confused”. Perhaps you’re feeling tired, or burnt out. Try to be compassionate with yourself if you are feeling this way, and approach the sensation gently and with curiosity and kindness. Whatever you’re feeling is okay.
Also remember if it starts to feel scary it’s absolutely okay to stop, distract yourself, make a cup of tea and so on. Taking care of yourself is paramount and these are just suggestions – everyone’s route to well-being is different.
I should also mention that this blog isn’t a substitute for seeking professional help if you need it! There are lots of sources of support, including these crisis links if you need them.
Emotions and culture
You might find that some emotions are easier to tap into and tolerate than others. Part of this may relate to your personal history and your position in society.
Like many gay men, I was verbally bullied growing up, and I learned that if I got angry I was ridiculed, so I stopped expressing it for a long time. It was only as an adult, during my therapy training, that I started to “reclaim” my anger, and find health ways to express it.
In every culture (and indeed very family, social group, or workplace), there are different emotions that are more or less acceptable to express. It can also depend on your position in society. Boys are often told not to cry, and so grow up feeling ashamed of vulnerability. However, a man who expresses frustration in a meeting might be labelled as “assertive” or “no-nonsense”, whereas a woman (particularly a woman of colour), might be labelled “aggressive”.
Unravelling the ways which society has taught us to feel, and recognising feelings as valid, can take time and effort – and we also have to be careful not to expect people to express themselves according to our stereotypes and preconceptions.
Next week, I’ll be writing more about how to stay with your feelings.