Do you sometimes suddenly find yourself at the mercy of your feelings - like overwhelm, fear, dread, anger or anxiety? These kinds of emotions are often derailing, feeding downward spirals, and it can take some time to bounce back into a mindset where you feel centred again. Let me share with you three techniques that can better enable you to work with your emotions, to calm the ones that put you into a stressful situation, and help you to respond to life's events from a clear and more confident headspace.
Tawny Frogmouth Babies, Source:Shutterstock
Each morning on my walk I scan a particular area of trees that often provide a home for a Tawny Frogmouth, or even a family of Tawnies. Each time I see one of these owl-like creatures that aren't actually owls, I stop and watch them peacefully sleeping, and I lap up their Zen energy. Sometimes they'll sense my presence and open their big beautiful eyes and stare calmly down at me. Ah, pure happiness hit! One year I hit the jackpot and over many months watched a Tawny couple raise three babies. I named the whole family; Mama Tawny, Papa Tawny, Grunty Tawny (he often made cute grunting noises), George Costanza Tawny, and Elaine Tawny (I was going through a Seinfeld stage).
Some animals do seem to feel emotions - like it seems obvious when a dog is exuding happiness - but animals definitely don't appear to be as dominated, overwhelmed and driven by their emotions as we humans are. Today I'm highlighting some tools that you can use for honestly facing, being with and processing the full range of human emotions that are our reality. I've personally learned the hard way, that suppressing, resisting, avoiding or denying difficult emotions creates more complexity and life drama, more propensity to feeling numbness, and therefore as a consequence feeling less positive emotions.
It's human nature and an important survival mechanism to avoid pain or discomfort, and we often unconsciously apply this mechanism to painful or uncomfortable emotions, even though they aren't actually dangerous. There are many problems associated with never addressing these emotions. For example, they can unconsciously drive and greatly limit your behaviour, and therefore limit the quality of your life. Further to this, repressed or suppressed emotions lead to experiences of being stuck in grief, avoiding new things, avoiding love, feeling stuck or at an impasse, never acting on your dreams, anxiety, depression, low self-worth, having diminished capacity for true empathy for the suffering of others, being stuck in a stress loop, relationship problems, countless versions of numbing behaviours (excessive eating, shopping, drinking, taking drugs, gaming, gambling, bingeing, etc), and living a life half-lived. The more stuffed-down emotions we have, the more we are hovering perpetually in survival mode, and the more we are easily triggered into reaction and therefore stress.
Our emotions are linked directly to our survival systems, and as a consequence, many emotions are designed to stimulate us into acting or moving in some way. They, therefore, have a charge behind them. In our modern world, we regularly get triggered into a state of fight, flight or freeze, even though there is no 'real' threat to our immediate safety, and very often we don't ever get to use up the charge created by running away or fighting off the perceived threat. We need a number of strategies to be able to let go of built-up charge from emotions, and therefore stay healthy and be resilient. Here are three tools that I use personally and with my clients, and find very useful for processing, working with and moving through difficult emotional states.
Journaling or expressive writing helps so much with releasing some of the charges around strong emotions, and can therefore help in creating clarity and more calm around an issue. It simply involves finding a private space and time to write down, in a stream of consciousness, exactly how you feel now and/or have felt in the past about a certain issue. You have permission to and are encouraged to say exactly what you want, be brutally honest, and avoid editing yourself or holding back. You will find confidence for doing this by knowing that no one else will ever read these words (you can lock the journal away or destroy the pages you used after you've finished).
This is an opportunity to vent pent-up anger or other emotions, and also to tell your story of what happened. Write about what is immediately or repetitively bothering you, or Social Psychologist and Researcher James W. Pennebaker suggest that you, "Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.'' James' research has found that expressive writing about our stressful events or traumatic experiences leads to improved mental health and physical health. With my clients I find that releasing the charge from unexpressed or overwhelming feelings leads to feeling calmer, a sense of resolution, clarity for moving forward, and these feelings are less likely to interrupt sleep or healthy functioning in their daily life.
Your perspective is important with this process. You are not writing for the purpose of getting lost in your anger or despair or going further down a downward spiral. You are writing to express your truth, to tell your story, release and let go of your negative emotions (it's the held emotions that still have charge behind them that create havoc for us). Express the negative feelings and thoughts, however, don't then keep feeding them. Write until you feel 'empty' or until you feel a shift. You may find there are a number of layers to this issue and need to do more writing at a later time. Observe what you've written, have the intention of letting go of your difficult emotions, and if you are still feeling very caught up in them, reach out for professional support.
Emotional Stress Release (ESR) is another wonderful technique for releasing charge around and calming re-triggered or current strong emotions. ESR is a commonly used technique by Kinesiology-trained practitioners, incorporating acupressure points on the forehead. To use this simple technique, you hold the palm of your hand on your forehead, and take some deep breaths, as you think about and process the triggering thoughts and emotions that are in your current awareness.
Gentle holding of these two points on the frontal eminences of the forehead help to bring blood back away from the lizard survival brain and to the Frontal Cortex - the part of the brain responsible for executive control and therefore impulse control, focused attention and achieving goals. Within minutes you can experience better focus and attention, and feel calmer. While holding your forehead, think about the true reality of what is upsetting you. In a nutshell, mentally sum up what is really going on for you, acknowledge how you feel and what your reality is, and in holding the points it will help you in accepting your reality in this moment, and being able to take steps towards creative solutions or simply letting go of what can't be changed. We often can't shift into a better space unless we have accepted where we are currently at.
Michele McDonald is a Meditation Teacher who first coined the acronym RAIN, which accompanies a technique used to help a person be present and help let go of difficult, distressing or negative emotions that have been triggered. It involves skills for and choosing to be present to what you are feeling (rather than consciously or unconsciously immediately finding distraction from them). When we are not present, this inevitably leads to racing through our day, lost in our thoughts, being on autopilot, and being disconnected from our body and from our heart. We are 'somewhere else', allowing our unconscious fears, triggers, conditioning and beliefs to drive and override us.
Being present to how we are feeling is important for allowing feelings to pass through our system without contributing to the common problems I listed above.
I've adapted Michele's work, and created my own technique PALM (a blend of mindfulness and Neuro-Linguistic Programming - NLP) to help with being present to difficult or negative emotions, and eventually transforming them. Without awareness of this kind of skill, being present for what you are feeling will likely feel too overwhelming or even distressing, and you'll naturally seek out any kind of distraction on hand.
Here's a simple breakdown of my technique, PALM;
P - Pause: Bring yourself into the awareness of the present moment, to acknowledge what or how you are actually feeling. Notice the experience of it within your body, connect with your body. Name the feeling (for example 'this is anxiety') to help bring some charge out of it, and notice where you feel it in your body. Choose to avoid focusing on the backstory that your mind is probably spinning.
A - Allow: Choose to allow the feeling, the body sensation, the charge, the discomfort, the agitation, the breathlessness, the feeling of heavy dread - whatever it is - to be there. Allowing means choosing to not distract yourself from the feeling or trying to change it. You are simply observing the sensation and experience of it, and seeing that it's ok to allow it to be there for now. Allowing also often requires self-compassion for how difficult the feeling is.
L - Let go: Let go of any thoughts and/or the story that goes along with the feelings. Let go, by transferring your attention to the area of your heart. Feeding or entertaining the thoughts or story that your mind is running feels natural and easy, but it will also feed the charge behind the emotions and is the opposite of letting the charge go. Letting go of the charge is the main goal so that the unacknowledged emotions don't keep returning to derail you or drive your behaviour. If you feel an overwhelming need to engage mentally with the story behind the strong emotions, and perhaps make more sense of something or find a creative solution for an issue, journaling and ESR are perfect for this.
M - Move: Help to move the charge through and out of your body by moving in some way. You can do this simply by breathing deeply, as you continue to focus on your heart. If the charge is very strong, move your body by stretching, going for a walk, a run, or a swim perhaps. Or do something creative with your hands, all the while still breathing into your heart space, and observing and choosing to let go of the story or thoughts behind the charge. Moving through the many strong waves of grief, for example, can become more bearable by channeling the charge into a creative outlet that you love
Life sometimes presents us with moments of pure happiness (like witnessing a family of Tawny Frogmouths sleeping soundly in a feathery bundle), and then some things seem way too unbearable to fully open up to and experience. It definitely takes courage, a little bit of skill and practice, and gentle compassion for oneself to be able to face up to or gently allow painful or difficult emotions. Take it slowly, allow these emotions for as long as you can - you get to choose. The motivator is that choosing to work through your feelings, acknowledging them and paying attention to the message that they have for you, is healing and freeing and in time it opens more space in your heart for recognising and experiencing more simple moments of calm, a sense of stability and more inner peace.