We are in a weird time with understanding mental health. The cool part is it is becoming more understood and less stigmatized. My nephew’s preschool is even incorporating yoga into the day to start the kids learning stress management early. I’ve seen several movements that show the extent of stress, depression, PTSD, and others. Many celebrities are sharing their stories with depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol use.
However, have we gone too far to the other side? It is not uncommon for change to swing to the complete opposite side before coming to a happy medium. Our culture doesn’t want people to feel sad or angry or stressed out. There is an increasing number of articles and information about mindfulness, self care, ways to get out of stress and depression. There is a great deal of focus on getting out of what we call “negative” emotions.
The reality is all emotions are necessary and serve a purpose. We classify emotions such as stress, sadness and anger as “negative” emotions. Emotions are not good or bad. They just are what they are. And they all serve a purpose.
By actively trying to prevent feeling what we are feeling, we are doing two things: first, we are invalidating ourselves. If you are really sad due to something happening (it doesn’t matter what that something is), and I say to you “Stop being sad” that would feel pretty rude and unhelpful. It may make you believe I am uncaring and you may feel defensive believing you have a right to feel sad after this event happening. So why would you do the same to yourself? Trying to distract yourself and find the happy all the time is you invalidating your own feelings.
Second, we are stuffing the feelings down, meaning we are not dealing with them or the situation that caused them. By doing this, we set ourselves up for exploding later on. The emotions are still there, just pushed away temporarily. Eventually it becomes too much and the body and brain need to let it out. Instead of crying and giving yourself time to be sad in the moment, it will come out later on more intensely.
Additionally, the more you stuff down, the more needs to come out. When it becomes too much to hold in any longer, a mix of emotions will likely come out. It is easier for most of us to feel anger than sadness, so when it comes out intensely, it is more likely to come out as anger than sadness.
I read an interesting article which I completely agree with which says the problem we have as a culture is not one of stress management, but an out of control world. We are told to do more with less and told that people just need to take care of themselves and they’ll be able to handle the demands. I have to admit I could not find that article again.
In my practice, I have seen people from 25-70 in various careers who are all burnt out. They are told to do stress management practices throughout the day and let things go at the end of the day. They are told that they are expendable and if they can’t do the work, someone else would gladly take their place. But they are not given the resources necessary to effectively do their job. And we tell them “this is life; you just need to learn to manage the stress.” Really?! That is completely invalidating. Whereas there is a truth to it based on where our culture is, stress management in the work force is not the problem.
So we are completely stressed out at work and bring that stress home. It affects our evenings and our families. It makes us want to go to work less and less. We end up doing less self care as we have no energy left to do the things we should. We then start beating ourselves up that we can’t do the work at work and we can’t do what society tells us we need to do (self care; get out of the feelings of stress, anger, etc).
I do not like feeling stressed, angry, sad, so why would I not want to push them away? (The good)
As I mentioned above, every feeling has a purpose. The purpose of fear is to alert us to danger (and thus keep us alive and safe). The purpose of sad is to find comfort and reflect on the situation. The purpose of anger is to protect and support (whether yourself, a loved one, an ideal, or otherwise). The purpose of happy is keeping us alive as we are more social, more in shape, and more energetic; all aspects that aid in longevity of life.
When we push feelings away, we are not able to learn from an event, we are not able to get support and encouragement to keep pushing through.
Physiologically, every intense emotion will do the same thing in the brain and body – it will put us in fight/flight. Fight/flight is a physiological response to an external stimulus. When it comes to panic attacks from an unknown cause, something in the environment set it off. We may not be consciously aware of what that stimulus was, but something in the external environment set it off.
With fight/flight, the first thing that happens is cortisol is released into the body. It is pumped out from the amygdala and passes through the frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for logical thought. As it passes through, it shuts off thinking because we are supposed to react when in danger. The time it takes to think can be the difference between life and death.
After going through the frontal cortex, the cortisol continues through the body, increasing the heart rate, increasing the blood pressure, shutting down the systems in the body not necessary for immediate survival (digestion for example), and providing the limbs with the energy they need to run or fight, whatever is necessary.
The amygdala does not distinguish between real, perceived, emotional, and physical dangers. It senses something intense in the environment and sets off the alarm. Then, and only then, will it communicate with the hippocampus which surveys the environment. If there is no danger, we figure this out near instantaneously, but the physiological response has already happened.
This physiological response happens whether the stimulus is positive or negative. This is why when something very exciting happens, we are “speechless” – logic is turned off. And whey we shake or cry.
When stimuli happen that cause this physiological response, the brain holds onto it tightly. It will hold negative stimuli stronger than positive stimuli, but both are held onto. When we don’t give ourselves the time or ability to process the stimuli, we do not give our brains the information it needs to make sense of it and file it away properly.
However, the opposite is also true. When we allow ourselves to feel the emotion, talk it through, learn from it, we allow our brains to make sense of the situation and file it away properly so it does not continue to cause stress.
Feeling the emotion – all emotions – and giving ourselves time to process it and talk it through will help our brains and bodies work more efficiently.
I am getting physical symptoms (headaches, stomachaches), my kids are acting out, I feel like a failure (The bad)
Remember how I said that all bodily systems that are not needed for immediate survival are turned off when cortisol goes through the body? When stress is a constant in our lives, the brain’s alarm system is set off, turned off, set off, turned off, set off so frequently that it “breaks” and just stays on. The amygdala constantly sends cortisol into the body shutting down the systems not needed for immediate survival. You may know that you are very stressed out, but you may not be able to tell what is happening inside the body.
When the amygdala stays active, and the bodily systems are turned off, those systems start to react. They are supposed to be on and working, but with consistent stress they cannot. It’s like a water wheel which cannot move despite water falling onto it. Eventually the weight of the water will cause the wheel to break. When our bodily systems stop working, they will cave under the pressure.
The first thing you may do is try to deal with it with at home meds (Advil/Tylenol, tums, OTC sleep medication, etc). When this isn’t enough, you may go to your doctor to deal with the physical symptoms and they diagnose you with IBS or high blood pressure and prescribe medication for you. It is a bandaid on a deep cut. The problem is still there. The bodily systems don’t start working again on their own, you are providing them an aid to do “a little bit.”
As for your kids, you bring them to therapy, or start them on medication for behavioral problems, but they are just reacting to the stress in the house. They feel the stress but don’t know what to do with it. Their bodies go into fight/flight also, causing many of these behavioral and emotional problems. The biggest problem with them is they don’t know what is going on. They don’t know why they act that way (and this is their truth; they are not lying to you).
Depending on their age, add to the household stress they’re dealing with their own biological and hormonal changes. And you expect that they’ll be calm angels?
The more that seems to be going wrong, the more we beat ourselves up. The more we beat ourselves up, the more we push the cortisol into the system. It is a vicious cycle. By not noticing, acknowledging and processing emotions, we are making those feelings (and our self thoughts) worse.
So What Do I Do About It? (The ugly)
It makes complete sense that you don’t want to feel angry, sad, stressed or any of the other “negative” emotions. Nobody likes those feelings. Those feelings indicate something isn’t right – whether within or without our physical bodies.
Where is the happy medium? Is there a happy medium? In a world that is so fast paced and a culture with so much pressure, can there be a happy medium?
Everybody is going to find their medium at different places. None of us are the same and we each have different needs.
We want to balance out the good with the bad when it comes to all emotions. We want to do the self care, but we don’t want to necessarily over do it either.
Here are a few tips to finding that balance:
- Allow yourself to feel the emotions – no matter what emotion you are feeling
Don’t forget that all feelings have a purpose. That feeling came up for a reason, even if you may not recognize that reason right away.
- Recognize the thought that goes with the emotion
Emotions always come with a thought. The thought comes first: “I’m in danger.” “I made a mistake” “This is perfect” but we don’t always notice the thought. There is no reason for fear if there’s no thought that you’re in danger.
- Try to remember the first time you felt that way and had a similar thought (it’s not fair, I can’t do it, I hate [whatever you dislike], etc).
Often we try to pretend we don’t feel a certain way. We try to ignore it. Have you ever thought about why you had that thought and feeling in the first place? Frequently it comes from our core beliefs about ourselves and/or the world that we started building at a very young age. See if you can go back and identify the first time you felt that way and had that thought. This is frequently a very enlightening experience.
- Ask yourself, “is this emotion and thought helpful to me right here, right now in this current situation”
Often feelings and thoughts are helpful. Other times we just believe they are helpful because our stress response got activated. For example, we feel defensive in a situation and believe that they feeling of defensiveness and thought “that person doesn’t understand me at all” is helpful. If you are not in an activated stress response right now, reading that quote, pretend that you believe that. Do you think your response would help the situation? Likely not. However, if you are in an activated stress response state, you may think your response will help the situation.
- If the answer is yes the thought and feeling are helpful, sit with the feeling and thought. Allow your body to feel it. Notice it. This will help you process it so it doesn’t come back to haunt you later. If the answer is no, ask yourself what the emotion and thought are trying to convey to you right now in this situation.
- Do what you need to do in the moment. That may be sitting with the feeling, it may be going for a walk, it may be a minute of breathing, it may be getting up and talking with someone, it may be a million other things.
Your response to the situation goes here. It can be a helpful or an unhelpful response. It can lead to feeling better or not feeling better.
This 6 step process will take a bit of time to learn and become second nature, but it will help you understand your feelings and thoughts as well as understand yourself. It will bring you to a place of better balance and response with your responses.
The important thing you want to take away from this blog is that all feelings have a purpose. You do not want to ignore the feelings. This will just make them come back to haunt you later. If the feeling isn’t helpful in the moment, it is still there for a reason. Sit with it to find out why it is there. Then give yourself permission to let it go by distraction or other means.
When you take the time to find out why a particular emotion has come up in a situation, you give your brain time to process that feeling and that situation. You give yourself time to understand you as well as allowing yourself to balance the emotions and not stuff them.
The process is a journey and may take some time. Don’t give up on it or yourself. If you need some support or guidance, give me a call 941-462-4807 or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to help at least get you started if not move you through the process so you can be the person you want to be, reacting in the way you want to react to situations.