“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving, we get stronger and more resilient.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
There is a lot in life that knocks us down. The breakup, business failure, health challenge, hurtful remark. Not to mention things like the growing incidence of natural disasters and larger scale problems.
How do we not get beaten down by these?
I deal with this a lot in my work as a psychotherapist, so it was especially nice sitting with a client recently and hearing how much more resilient she has become. The major life blows just keep coming for Maggie (not her real name), but she is not being overwhelmed by them as she used to be.
I think the primary difference is that Maggie has learned to process the feelings that come up in these situations. Rather than use alcohol or drugs, overwork, dissociation, or any of the other defenses people commonly use, she has learned to more skillfully work with the energy.
This takes a fair amount of skill. It is easy to become flooded by emotions and have them take you down, which is not what we want. The goal is rather to release emotions and become stronger for having experienced them.
Here are 10 tips for working with big emotions:
1. Split your attention. Emotions are overwhelming when they have completely absorbed your attention. If you can keep some of your awareness on another channel (such as sensing or thinking) it will help dilute the powerful emotions and leave you feeling more control. Another variation on this is to stay as much as possible in the more conscious adult part of you and, from here, hold the part of you that is overwhelmed (usually a younger self). This creates a kind of dual awareness that gives you the same buffer and helps keep you from collapsing into the feeling. Practicing witness consciousness does a similar thing.
2. Pause. When you react immediately to a trigger, that reaction is more likely to come from that triggered space. Better if you can take time to let your body come back to a more neutral, non-activated state. A client recently told me that what works for her is to focus on her inbreath and outbreath being equal lengths. There are many methods for helping the body settle.
3. Use your body as an anchor. When you can, stay anchored in your body. Sense your arms and legs or any areas of your body that feel neutral or good or are easy to stay in. Often with major trauma, this is the last place that feels safe, so don’t push it if it feels like too much.
4. Anchor in the present moment by connecting with your immediate environment. Tune into sight, sounds, smells, touch; especially focus on things you find pleasant. Holding a pet or having contact with a supportive person may be part of this.
5. Oscillate attention. Leaving something even momentarily will help decrease its pull on you. It is like pausing the movie just as it is getting really scary. How different it would be if you left the movie ten times rather than sat through the whole thing spellbound. This is true with internal experience as well. Give yourself breaks, utilizing distractions and pleasurable activities. You want to get out of the bath of stress chemicals elicited by upsetting events.
6. Give yourself permission to have your feelings, even if you’ve been shamed for them in the past. Try not to judge them. Avoiding feelings contributes to the build-up of activation in the nervous system.
7. Find safe ways to express the basic energy of your emotions, whether through movement, sound, art, writing, or whatever works for you. If you can stay in close touch with yourself, you’ll find what is natural. Sometimes we need to just let it move through as energy, without worrying about the content or articulating anything. You can shake it out, shout it out, paint it out, or whatever works and causes no harm. There are also subtle energy techniques where you might do something like send unwanted energy out through your feet into the earth to be transmuted.
8. Learn to communicate feelings in a healthy way. The catharsis described above is completely different than acting out feelings, when you slam doors, kick the cat, snark at your spouse or other behaviors that reveal your emotions without owning them. When you own your emotions with another, you can name them in a way that shows you are holding them yourself, as in saying, “That behavior really triggered me, and I am quite angry right now.” The trick is to express this in a non-blaming way, not denigrating the other, not threatening, yet letting them in on what is going on inside you. Less skillful communication escalates conflicts and creates more stress.
9. Be mindful of your thoughts. Learn to identify and sidestep thoughts that are part of old, habitual patterns. Many of these thoughts are toxic and just plain wrong. If you get involved with them, you will feel bad, when you don’t otherwise need to. Rather than allow frightened thoughts to run wild or get ensnared in thoughts that reinforce a victim identity, practice a thought like, “Whatever happens, I can survive” or “I can handle this.”
10. Reassure yourself. Practice your nurturing voice by saying to yourself what would feel really good if someone else said it to you. Remind yourself of your strengths or what is going well.
Another thing that contributed to my client Maggie’s greater resilience was that she had worked through a load of previous trauma, so her nervous system is less on hair-trigger than it used to be.
Trauma has a cumulative effect, so it is important to not let the pile get too big but to decrease the load by safely releasing and resolving what you can. My book Healing From Trauma may be a resource.
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