Emotions can be difficult to navigate and many of us are not naturally good at it. Even with the most emotionally intelligent upbringing, you may experience challenges regulating and managing painful or overwhelming feelings. Many of the women I work with in my therapy practice in Portland Maine have some excellent skills and one or two areas where they get stuck. Knowing what works best for you in different situations can be the key to controlling your emotions versus being controlled by them.
Escape versus Experiencing
Feelings are like food in that they need to be broken down and digested. And just like when we eat something that doesn’t agree with us, the ripple effects of unprocessed emotions can be felt throughout the body. But there are times when we can’t sit with a feeling. At work, while needing to concentrate on an important task, when interacting with others in social situations. There are healthy ways to contain and escape from something upsetting until you have the appropriate time and space to tend to it.
Numbing versus Containment
We all have strategies for numbing, if you didn’t, you’d be eaten alive by painful emotions. Numbing is not a bad thing. The question is are you numbing when you ought to be feeling and are you numbing in healthy ways. Healthy numbing is called containment or distraction. Containment and distraction are what you use when you can’t tend to something right now. Have you ever been at work or with the people you love and so distracted be something upsetting that you are missing something really important? I know I have.
This brings us to what to actually do to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
One of the best examples I’ve seen of how to do this is the Soften-Soothe-Allow meditation by Dr. Kristin Neff. This 15-minute meditation asks you to think of something moderately uncomfortable and not to start with something too vulnerable. She teaches how just like with a physical injury, the body can stiffen around a painful emotion. By identifying where we experience emotions in our body we can intentionally soften the body and soothe the emotion. Because of the way emotions work in our brain, it’s important to feel rather than think through an emotional state. If you find that you are not connected to your body when processing emotions, there may be several reasons for that and I recommend talking to your therapist, especially if you have a trauma history. Sometimes numbing happens unintentionally as the psyche’s defense against something you might not be ready for yet.
Self-soothing is similar to how we soothe infants. Infants do not have the brain development be talked down from what is causing them to cry. We rock, shush, sing, and hold, to calm them down. Identify and practice self-soothing strategies by thinking about what appeals to any of your five senses. Much of our emotional brain is highly connected to the processing of the five senses. This is why a hot shower or bath, a cup of tea, a favorite blanket, or things that smell nice can be calming. Like any good toolbox, the more choices you have, the easier it is to get the job done. Write down 5 self-soothing strategies for times of intense emotional upset and keep this list on you. This way you don’t have to think about it too much if you need to call on those skills. Tape them to your wall, create a list in your phone, save a picture of the list as your home screen, tell someone you love and trust what skills you are practicing and they can prompt you to use them.
Emotions are like waves, some are tsunamis, some are barely ripples and self-soothing is your surfboard. I work with women in psychotherapy to identify and practice these skills as well as examining what set the emotional wave into motion to begin with. If you are interested in one on one individualized support to work these things out for yourself, contact me today to set up a free phone consultation.