Love them or hate them, we all experience them. Constantly. Even when we don’t realize they’re there: Emotions are powerful forces in our lives, and all of us, from time to time, have a hard time navigating our relationship with them. Some of us have gotten really good at ignoring them, or using all sorts of activities and/or substances to numb them. Some of us get so swept up in them, that our lives are a sea of emotional chaos – volatile and out of control. So what’s the big deal about emotions, anyway? How can we use emotions to improve our circumstances?
The thing is, all emotions serve an important purpose. They’re our brains’ and bodies’ way of giving us valuable information about what’s going on in our lives. Our brains take in sensory information, and interpret it as either safe or pleasant, or unsafe/threatening or unpleasant. Our brains send the message through our nervous systems, changing the way we physically feel. This happens in order to motivate us to take some sort of action, the goal always being to try to better our situation or avoid pain or threat. In an ideal world, this process would work perfectly. Our brains would always interpret information accurately, and we’d respond to these emotional promptings thoughtfully, which would result in us making just the right decision in how to respond.
Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. We don’t enjoy experiencing painful emotions like fear, anger, guilt, loneliness or sadness. So we often either act out defensively, or try to shut down or numb our emotions. The problem is, when we do those things, the problems in our lives don’t go away. In fact, they tend to get worse.
The good news is that there are things we can learn and practice that will help us strengthen our ability to feel emotions, use them to reflect on our situation wisely, and respond in ways that can actually help improve our circumstances. These skills include:
- Grounding: (for people who tend to feel emotions very strongly) When emotional reactions are so intense that we become overwhelmed or “flooded,” it’s necessary to put some healthy distance between ourselves and them. Focusing outward on our immediate environment can help us achieve this. For example, shift your focus to noticing and mentally labeling everything you see around you, and try to note as much detail as possible. This is particularly effective for those who experience panic attacks.
- Body Scans: (especially for people who tend to say they “don’t feel anything” because they’ve learned to suppress emotion as a defense mechanism) The purpose of this step is to train yourself to notice emotional sensations in your body without judging them or immediately reacting. Starting at the top of your head and slowly working your way down to your feet, tune into the physical sensations you are experiencing in your body.
- Breathe Deep: It may sound trite or overly simplified, but science has proven that there is much benefit to practicing deep, slow belly breathing as one of the essential elements of managing strong emotion. Imagine this as the “key” that unlocks your brain and body’s ability to use emotions wisely.
- “Name it to tame it:” Research in neurobiology shows that we can help tame our emotions just by labeling them. So when you noticing your heart racing, your chest tightening, and your breathing speed up, try to put a label to the emotion connected to these sensations. Think about the event or thought that occurred just before you started feeling the sensations, and ask yourself, “How am I feeling about this? Am I angry? anxious? Jealous? hurt? (etc.) some combination of these?”
- Be Curious about, rather than judgmental of your emotions: Do not shame yourself for feeling a certain way, or try to tell yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling that way. Emotions can’t be dictated – they just are. Instead, reflect on what it is your brain and body are trying to tell you. You may find that your reaction was based on a negative assumption, an inaccurate belief or interpretation of someone else’s motives, etc. Knowing this about yourself can be incredibly useful, and once you gently but honestly acknowledge these things, you’re better prepared to choose the wisest response.
- Talk and/or write it out: Doing so helps us process and successfully integrate our experiences, evaluate our options, and achieve some clarity. Again, I know it sounds trite, but journaling has shown to be a powerful tool in helping us access the wise part of ourselves that exists behind the reactive, fear-based parts of ourselves. Some people say they dislike journaling because they just end up writing about how bad things are. It’s important to be intentional about using journaling to move through the pain, ask yourself questions, and be gentle/non-judgmental yet honest with yourself. This can be really challenging if you’re struggling to understand your feelings/have limited insight, or if the problem is very serious or complex. Perhaps you really need a trustworthy, objective individual who will meet you where you’re at, really listen to you, and help you sort through everything. Some of life’s problems really are too big for us to try to manage on our own. Friends and family members can be great sources of support and counsel. (Sometimes they get caught up in the drama, have trouble staying objective, or give you bad advice.)
If you’re finding that reaching out to the support people in your life isn’t sufficient, or you’d like to work on managing your emotions, maybe it’s time to enlist the help of a professional who can help you navigate this process. If that’s the case, we’re here and we’re happy to help you.