To be human is to experience a wide array of emotional feelings. Emotions help us to navigate and understand situations in our lives. They help motivate us to take action. When we are faced with something dangerous we have the ability to feel anxiety, which produces a range of biological changes as a result of nervous system activation. The bodily physical changes can then help motivate us into action to aid our survival. Actions can be in the form of fight, flight or freeze response.
When we are faced with loss or disappointment we can experience feelings of sadness accompanied by physical symptoms such as fatigue and feel the urge to withdraw from people, places and things. This can lead to depression if feelings and behaviour continue for some time.
Anger is another basic emotion, which can be felt when we perceive an injustice or unfairness. We experience a range of physical symptoms, which energise our body spurring us into action.
The potential to experience emotions is hardwired in all of us. Our basic emotions have evolved from primitive times and have been designed to be functional and to protect us.
It is natural that we want to move away from uncomfortable states. Such as when we are hungry we desire to eat. When we feel pain we want to move away from the source or reduce our level of pain. But this can backfire when applied to human emotions. We cannot control or stop emotions and studies into the role of emotions suggest that unprocessed, suppressed or denied emotions can cause problems for us in the longer term.
Most of us are familiar with at least one of the following strategies to stuff feelings down or run away from them; over-eating, drinking excess alcohol, avoiding talking about difficult topics, excessive cleaning, watching hours of TV, excessive exercise, trying to control our environment, etc.
When we become distressed if we have the tendency to interpret the related physical sensations negatively and block or push them away this can intensify our distress. This can lead us into a vicious cycle such as this fear of fear cycle below:
Dr Russ Harris, author of the Happiness Trap, describes this as the struggle switch. You can access videos of this here.
Although we cannot control or stop emotions we can arm ourselves with a number of helpful strategies and skills to manage our reactions to emotions.
So what can we do?
There are two general approaches to emotions. One is to accept emotions and the other to change. This article is going to focus on the former with a follow up blog article focusing on emotional regulation skills aimed at soothing and changing emotional states.
In our fast paced society of quick fixes we may be prone to choose methods in order to change emotions. In some cases it may be helpful to find ways to soothe or change our emotional states (known as emotional regulation) but if we frequently choose these methods as a means to run away or block out difficult feelings we can experience greater problems in the long term.
Consider the analogy of a beach ball containing all of our emotions. If we hold it down under water, we can only do so for a short time before our arms will tire and the beach ball with rise to the surface with great force and possibly hit us up the face with greater force. This symbolises emotions in that when we push them down unprocessed then they tend to always rise up again and sometimes with greater force compared to if we had dealt with them when they first surfaced.
So understanding and acceptance is the first step in effectively managing emotions. Accepting emotions allow us to stand back and allow the distress to rise and naturally fall, as emotion states tend to do. With a non-judgmental and curious attitude towards our emotions we are inclined to get less caught up with our emotions and recognise that we are not our emotions. A lot of this information originates from theories of Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Step 1 – Learn about our emotional reactions
To understand our patterns of emotions and reactions it is helpful to first monitor this information. It can help to ask the following questions: What painful thoughts/feelings/sensations/memories showed up today?
What did I do to escape, avoid, get rid of them, or distract myself from them?
What did that cost me in terms of health, vitality, relationship issues, getting stuck, increasing pain, wasted time/money/energy etc.?
From answering these questions we can learn what we typically do when met with difficult symptoms when they arise within us. This can help to gain awareness of the costs of some of these behaviours and responses we utilise in order to control our emotional states.
Step 2 – Develop a curious and non-judgemental stance
To gain greater connection with our emotions we need to develop willingness to allow difficult emotions to show up and be able to sit with them. This helps deepen our understanding and reduce our struggle or resistance of emotions.
When an emotion shows up it is helpful to label the emotion and describe the qualities of it.
Mindfulness is a helpful practice to develop our skills to observe emotions non-judgmentally. Here is a helpful mindfulness of emotion script taken from the Centre of Clinical Interventions' website.
Step 3 – Remember that emotions are impermanent and move.
It is important to recognise that we are not our emotions. Rather we are a human vessel that emotions show up within and come, go, move and change constantly.
In this step it is helpful to practice diffusion strategies. This allows us to disentangle from difficult thoughts and emotions. In this way we don’t get pulled in or caught up in the “story” our thoughts or emotions are selling us. Helpful analogies can help us with this step. We can let our thoughts and feelings come and go like passing cars without having to jump into each one.
We can also think of our distress like a non-step express train, in that it would be impossible and very dangerous to stop the train in order to get on board. Instead we can just watch our emotions pass by like that express train until it is safely through the station.
Others like to imagine their emotions as clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream. We can’t stop the emotions but we can imagine each cloud or leaf as our emotions, which we can just watch floating by us in their own time, eventually passing out of sight.
Step 4 – Develop expansion
Expansion is a practice of opening up and making room for difficult feelings, urges and sensations, allowing them to flow through us without struggling. We may not like or want these feelings. The idea that is even though they are unpleasant, we are making room for them and allowing them to be there without resisting or struggling. The benefit of this practice is that when difficult feelings resurface we can make room for them allowing them to flow on by so that we can invest our time and energy in doing meaningful life-enhancing activities.
It can really help to practice this at least once daily by breathing into and making room for difficult feelings and sensations.
Step 5 – Foster self-compassion
It is important to remember our shared humanity. We are all born with the capacity for suffering. We did not choose our brains, the environments we were born into or our earlier experiences. It can be helpful to ensure that we are bringing qualities of compassion to our internal experiences. This means making a commitment to bring kindness and empathy for ourselves in times of suffering.
I hope this article has helped to understand that it is OK to feel what we are feeling and by taking time to listen, understand and sit with our feelings can aid growth, development and resilience.
If you are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings and would find it helpful to speak with someone for support or to discover more techniques from CBT and psychotherapy then please get in touch.