Do you process your emotions in a healthy way? Not me, I’m a bottler…

I’ve downed tools for this post in order to do more processing myself and in order to ensure I practice what I preach – so this post is more personal than previous ones. I hope you’re able to relate to it on a personal level and that it doesn’t come across as egotistical. My aim to encourage openness, conversation and sharing – rather than ego – it’s not meant to be all about me – I hope I manage to achieve that. So I’ve put all of the books away, the kindle, audio books, articles and am writing this based on what I’m actually experiencing at the moment.

I started seeing a therapist last August because I was stuck in a cycle of stress, anxiety, headaches, sadness and withdrawal from my social circles. This had been going on for years. I’m a social person and human connection is really important to me so it was causing me considerable emotional, psychological and physical pain.  I finally acknowledged that this wasn’t going to just resolve itself and that I needed to tackle it head-on. To start with I just read about psychology, neuroscience and spirituality but then realised I needed help – real help – from another person. Since seeing a therapist I’ve been feeling so much better; more supported. And this has enabled me to find the courage to face my shadow self, my demons. The need to feel supported wasn’t necessarily because my family and friends are unable or unwilling to support me but rather – I don’t actually ask for help and I rarely show my real, authentic self to anyone so how can I expect anyone to support me? You could argue those around me could also reach out but if I’m the one who needs support then I have to take responsibility for asking for it be it directly or through showing my real feelings. I now understand how important this is for my well being. I need the kind of relationships where I can truly be myself; warts and all. I can’t pretend to be positive all the time anymore – I need permission to be happy, joyful, content, ecstatic, sad, angry, frustrated, irritable, disappointed, doubtful, anxious, down etc. And all without judgement. Well society isn’t going to hand this to me on a plate so I’m taking it for myself. I’m going to be authentic, genuine, truly myself at home, at work, in my community and with my friends. Tough shit if you don’t like it. And if you can’t handle it – that’s OK – I won’t take it personally. How I respond to how you respond to me is also my responsibility.

I hereby give myself permission to be ME. Wholly and wholeheartedly me.

My therapist has helped me to realise that I’ve been avoiding pretty much all negative emotion and instead of feeling negative emotions I bury them, suppress them, avoid them, deny them. And even when I choose to engage with them I think about them rather than feel them. I intellectualise them, rationalise them, theorise about them. I’m even quite good at talking about them but somehow I still manage to do so without actually feeling them. OMG – how is that possible?!?!

I’ve been doing meditation for about five years and yoga daily for two but still somehow have been managing to hold on to those emotions rather than simply seeing them, feeling them and letting them go. It’s not that I never process them now – I am learning to but I still often get lost in thoughts and feelings that trigger more thoughts and feelings – generating stress that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It doesn’t exist outside me it’s all inside me – all within my control. Before I would have been completely unaware of this going on and would at some point have told myself to get it together; suppressing it all and distracting myself through some activity or other. It’s a journey to be sure but it’s an interesting, challenging and at times incredibly satisfying one. I know that I’m learning an important skill because I can feel it and once mastered I also know it’s one that will help me to stay psychologically, emotionally and even physically well.

The stress I’ve been causing myself began to show itself in my body a few years ago and since having my son – it got so much worse. Yoga and walking alleviated it some but never got rid of it completely. My therapist mentioned the concept of holding emotion in the body and so I looked into it and it made sense so I started using my meditation training and yoga practice to focus on releasing emotion from my hips. The result is at times surprising. I groan, I almost cry, I actually cry: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot and sometimes the flood gates open and it seems it’ll never stop. In the beginning it felt dramatic – that I was allowing myself to indulge in something that was over the top; melodramatic or that my life was just downright awful (I knew this wasn’t actually true) but then I’d feel the release, the relief and I knew it had to be the right thing to be doing simply because it felt right. My intuition – my authentic self is telling me it’s real –  it’s good for me and that there’s no shame in it – there’s no shame in being vulnerable and real.

Some helpful resources on how to process emotion

Here are a few resources that I’ve found really helpful in learning to engage with and process my own emotions. There are many many tools around to help with this so this list is by no means exhaustive but is a good start.

Alain de Botton – founder of the School of Life has created this short and easy to understand video about processing emotions

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U&vl=en

Viktor Frankl’s stimulus – response model

This model is referred to by many professionals in the psychology and coaching fields. Frankl was a psychiatrist who developed this model whilst in a concentration camp living in appalling conditions having survived torture and the loss of most of his family. Frankl is credited with saying the following:

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

In case this needs further explanation –  it means that whatever we perceive in our environment – if we manage to stay aware of what’s going on inside us – we can create whatever space we need in order to see what’s happening inside us as it happens and to make a conscious choice about how we respond. Most, if not all, of us develop automatic patterns of behaviour as coping strategies to new and difficult experiences in life and unless we’re in the moment in this way we respond automatically which can feel like a loss of control and can result in unnecessary stress, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, regret, losing face and so on.

Stephen Covey’s stimulus – response model

Stephen Covey was a personal and professional coach for twenty years and he described the stimulus and response model in the following way:

covey-stimulus-response

Covey talks about response-ability by which he means the ability to choose how to respond but also the necessity to recognise that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; that we can not blame our feelings or conditions for our behaviour and actions.

Jason Satterfield’s Appraisals worksheet

Jason Satterfield is a psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy where he aims to help people like me to recognise and engage with patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. In order to do this he developed an appraisals worksheet. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us create the necessary space (as mentioned above in the stimulus – response model) to consciously correct existing patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that the next time automatic patterns are triggered we are better prepared in advance to replace those old patterns or neural pathways with new and improved ones.

A five-step tool for understanding emotions

The image below is from psychologist Phil Meek’s website where he’s published a really nice concise and easy overview of simple and complex emotions including images showing where we feel them in the body as well as a diagram that shows both simple and complex emotions and how they relate to one another. He also goes into detail about each of the five steps. It worth reading.

processing-emotions-image

From psychologist Phil Meek’s website

Meditation and yoga

Meditation and yoga are two more ways of creating the space we need in order to process our emotions. Taking time out of our busy lives and focussing on this work are essential. Personally I think the benefit is felt from doing this regularly – it really needs to become part of our routine to have an impact. I find meditation and yoga most effective if I do it daily and in the morning. I find it much easier to motivate myself and create new habits in the morning – the day is just too busy – and then in the evening my motivation wanes considerably. When I miss a couple of days or more – I really feel it: two weeks and I’m back to stressed out and preoccupied. Once I’ve done my routine in the morning – even if I felt grumpy, stiff and sorry for myself when I woke up – even if I haven’t slept well – I feel good, positive and ready tackle the day head-on.

A few resources for yoga and meditation:

Meditation

Headspace app (I love this app – it’s an accessible and yet high quality route in to meditation)

Music for healing and meditation

Guided (spoken meditation)

I love guided meditation. Sometimes if I feel totally overwhelmed – I just lie down and let someone else do the work for me and FOR FREE! Then I can just focus on working out what’s going on, getting back to normal, relaxing, healing, getting to sleep etc. The people who lead these guided meditations have such a knack for making their listeners feel loved and supported. They also make me feel more connected to my spiritual side: nature, the world, the universe. It’s really worth giving it a try.

Yoga

  • Yoga Studio app
  • Gaia app online

Why striving to always be positive is a negative

For a long time I’ve avoided negative feelings and emotions sensing that I should always be positive – that positivity is what people want – as if being positive means it’s more likely I’ll be liked, accepted. In doing this I’ve either denied or dwelled on those emotions with the unconscious belief that they were something that I shouldn’t feel. After all I had no reason to complain, to be worried or stressed, sad or anxious and therefore feeling bad brought with it a added sense of shame.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to realise how damaging this is. And perhaps even more importantly that I’m not alone.

Society has a tendency towards positivity – rejecting negativity with no in between. Whist I appreciate that it’s possible to be too negative and people who are overly negative are annoying and bring everyone down with them but there has to be a middle ground between the two where we can be authentic when we feel both positive and negative. As long as we strive to be positive all the time we unwittingly diminish the value of being authentic: simply being honest with ourselves as well as with those around us about how we’re feeling and being comfortable with not always being positive – it’s exhausting, it’s counterproductive and it’s making us ill.

As Brene Brown says what we seek in others in order to connect with them – is authenticity – being human – warts and all. Seeing others being authentic validates how we feel inside. Failing to be authentic causes others to withdraw from us which results in a sense of rejection, of disconnection from other people and human connection is one of the most important – if not the most important – aspects contributing to our sense of well being.

Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerabilit

Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly

According to today’s psychologists our emotions are our body’s way of directing our attention toward something – perhaps a threat in our environment – or loss such as losing our home, livelihood or a loved one. Susan David suggests that we interpret our negative emotions as pieces of information that we can learn from and act on, essential pieces of information that help us to improve our situations somehow. And Jason Satterfield says that emotions are neither true nor false but rather helpful or harmful. It’s us who decide whether they’re helpful or harmful – it’s all about how we interpret them – and then how we respond.

Susan David’s book Emotional Agility

Susan David’s TED talk

Jason Satterfield’s Great Courses book on Cognitive Behavioural Psychology

Jason Satterfield talk on cognitive behavioural stress-reduction

The problem is that part of our brain hijacks the rest of the brain, and body, into an automatic fight, flight or freeze response (aka the stress response). According to Melanie Greenberg this involves anxious thoughts, brain chemicals and stress hormones and waves of emotion. And in order to effectively manage stress we need to calm the stress response and process those negative emotions. The challenge is that the purpose of the stress response is to alert us to threat in our environment, a danger that could be life threatening but short-lived. However the threats that we often perceive in modern life are multiple and ongoing such as losing our home or job, struggling financially and so on. This can result in a chronically active stress response that can leave us feeling burnt out at best and suffering from illnesses such as anxiety and depression disorders or heart disease.

According to Buddhist philosophy we seek or hold onto positive feelings and experiences in the hope that they’ll never end. In doing this we cause ourselves to suffer unnecessarily because when we avoid negative emotions such as sadness and pain we are denying the impact of natural and inevitable parts of life such aging, illness and death. This results in a double whammy of suffering because not only are we suffering from the life event itself but then we inflict further suffering on ourselves because instead of accepting this inevitable pain we try to avoid it and resist it. Buddha describes this self-inflicted suffering as being shot with two arrows. The first arrow we’re shot with is the illness or stressful situation we’re facing and the second is the arrow we shoot into our own foot because we hold on to emotion or avoid it completely rather than processing it. Melanie Greenberg says when we directly face and accept negative experiences, they move through us rather than getting stuck.

A few days ago I realised that negative emotions have always felt dramatic to me. I’ve been stuck in a cycle of ‘stress’ that builds up over time until I have a mini burn-out with migraines, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to cope, and sadness. This normally lasts a few days. I think this happens because my brain and body have to force me to stop, rest and take notice of what I’m feeling both physically and mentally because I ignore it for so long. As the popular philosopher and co-founder of the School of Life, Alan de Botton says in the following video – failing to acknowledge emotion causes us to feel depressed about everything when we should be feeling sad about a something.  In her book Emotional Agility – Susan David says denying and avoiding emotion causes its amplification rather than disappearance. I think I can relate to that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U

I am now firmly focussed on looking inside and on seeing and feeling the emotions that arise (I’ve been keeping an emotions diary for the last two weeks) and it doesn’t feel so dramatic.  I’m crying more often and feeling that it’s OK, in fact that it’s a good thing because I’m processing emotions and I although I sometimes feel drained I always feel better for it.

Mindfulness, meditation and yoga help me no end with all of this. There is now a lot of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience that shows the benefits as well as an ever growing database of empirical research. Personally, I’ve discovered the value of sitting and doing nothing (or lying down if that’s how I feel) for as short a time as a minute (the Headspace app does a 1 minute SOS guided meditation) to a couple of hours. I no longer rush from one thing to the next, my pace has slowed, nor do I feel that I have to be out and about all the time or have the TV on in order to distract from the mass of accumulating thoughts and feelings. Instead I enjoy quiet time with myself and my feelings or thoughts or guided meditation or relaxation if I feel like it. I don’t get caught up in my thoughts, daydreams or ruminations anymore. I feel happier and more present and in control of my thoughts, feelings and behaviour which is very empowering. Rather than the niggling self doubt I felt a few years ago – I genuinely believe anything is possible – with a bit of work and some true introspection.

 

So why are we so stressed out?

We have a nervous system that has not evolved alongside modern life and it’s causing us all to suffer but worry not – there is plenty we can do to lessen the impact of stress

The ‘stress response’ is why also known as the fight or flight response. A physiological response that enables us to quickly assess a situation in order to decide whether to stay and fight or to flee imminent physical danger and seek safety. The system is designed to be active for short bursts of time and should be followed by a return to a relaxed state. Back in the days when we were hunters and gatherers this system served us well however for modern life – it’s flawed.

The stress response kicks in not only when we’re faced with a threat but a perceived threat, that is, when we face situations where we feel we are not equipped to cope (NB. The word ‘perceive’ is key here!). All situations that trigger the stress response are called stressors. Previously stressors would have been short lived and and as a result of life or death situations however modern life stressors whilst not usually a threat to life they are numerous and often prolonged.

Some stressors are life changing events such as losing a loved one, the end of a long term relationship or losing our home and others are smaller but more frequent or ongoing daily stressors such as difficult relationships at work or at home, jobs we don’t like, bills we need to pay, complex family lives we have to manage and so on. Many of these stressors last not just minutes or hours but days, weeks or even years.

The complexity of modern day life means that the brain may be telling the nervous system to flood the body with stress hormones not just on a regular basis but long term. This can have a detrimental effect not only on our mental health but also on our physical health. We need to regulate the nervous system and maintain a relaxed state most of the time in order to have good physical and mental health.

Stress and mental health

When triggered frequently or long term the stress response leaves us feeling stressed and burnt out. It can also interfere with our sleep patterns and lead to a cycle of lack of sleep and feeling increasingly stressed out and miserable. Long term it can even lead to depression as well as obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorders.

Stress and physical health

A chronically active stress response can impact our physical health as well as our mental health. It suppresses the immune system which can lead to an increase in minor illnesses such as colds and headaches but is also believed to lead to more serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, sexual dysfunction, ulcers and more.

And what can we do about it?

The following is a list (not exhaustive) of techniques that are effective tools for reducing stress and anxiety that can result from an overactive stress response. Breathing techniques are probably the most accessible form of stress relief because breathing is natural to us and focussing on breathing immediately calms the nervous system. In addition you can focus on breathing anytime and anywhere and those around you wouldn’t even know you’re doing it. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness also calm the nervous system and research has shown that brain function during meditation is similar to that of sleep.

Breathing

There are numerous simple breathing techniques that focus on the in breath and/or the out breath. Some techniques simply focus on the breath itself and others on counting on the in and/or out breath and others use visualisations for the in and/or out breath.

Breathing techniques/exercises

Pranayama breathing

Pranayama is from the yoga tradition and some are similar to the techniques above.

Relaxation

This technique involves focusing on specific areas of the body one by one in order to relax all of the muscles in the body. This can be done when sitting, standing or lying down to reduce stress as well as to induce sleep when lying down.

Guided meditation/relaxation

Here are some videos/tracks on Youtube that are either guided by speech or sound. These are just three examples of a huge variety of tracks available online and for free. Youtube is a fantastic resource for this – a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag – it’s pretty much bottomless!

 

Music for meditation/relaxation

Meditation and mindfulness

 

To my mind there’s a fine line between meditation and relaxation and I see the main difference in mediation being a more active exercise for example where we observe thoughts and feelings as a way of understanding what we are thinking and feeling and perhaps as a means of then letting go and done in a seated position whereas relaxation is often more passive and is more often done lying down and even as a means of getting off to sleep.

Yoga

Yoga is great for flexibility and strength as well as for calming the mind and body. It’s also a great way of stretching out and relaxing the muscles before sitting still for a while to meditate as it reduces the likelihood of the mind being distracted by aches and pains. It’s probably safer to learn yoga in a class from a professional teacher before practising alone to ensure we don’t injure ourselves through doing it wrong. Another advantage of going to a class is that social interaction is another effective way of combating stress, anxiety, low mood etc and increasing well being.

There are plenty of websites/apps such as Gaia as well as apps for smartphone and tablet such as Yoga Studio.

Exercise

In fact any kind of exercise is good for relieving stress from walking to cycling to the gym to workout videos at home. There are even smartphone apps for that such as 7 Minute Workout which is good for both cardio and strength.