Updated: Mar 9, 2020
Emotions. They turn up un-invited in so many forms. From elation to depression, anxiety to
disappointment, they are a constant in our lives. Some feel great, and we want them to last as long as possible, others, not so much.
The physical manifestation of an emotion can be very intense and uncomfortable and so we tend to look for the quickest way of getting rid of them. Alcohol, food, cigarettes, sex, they are all common, instant (short term) relief strategies. Basically we will use whatever it takes to alleviate the symptoms as quickly as possible and distract us from the bad feeling.
It's a super effective short-term strategy.
The feeling goes away with a wine or two, a cream donut, or a roll in the sheets. But these strategies can, for some, lead to an even more intense experience of the feeling you were trying to get rid of in the first place. Guilt, shame, hungover, bloated, unfulfilled and so on. Now, you've learned a great way of getting rid of this feeling that works, even if just for a while, and hence starts the habit of rinse and repeat or "cycle of addiction".
You feel stressed so you pour a wine. You feel relaxation wash over you ( often even before you've taken a sip). You drink and as you drink the feelings of stress lessen
Your brain and body learn that wine makes you feel better when you are stressed so each time you feel stressed it becomes your MO. Until potentially drinking wine becomes the main cause of the stress.
Some people can stop, enjoy a glass and repeat once in a while when the emotion pops up again. But what happens if the stress keeps coming ( which it often does) and the strategy becomes so engrained that every time you feel any semblance of stress or discomfort you drink? This is what happened to me.
Unfortunately I wasn't the type of person who could easily nip this negative coping strategy in the bud. And when the stress in my life became constant last year my strategy (wine) stopped working. In fact it created more stress, affecting family, friendships and my health! If you've read this far it's probably not working for you either.
So how do we break the cycle?
There are many tools we can learn to gain better control over our emotions. One of the best approaches I was taught at Damascas and in personal counselling is to make friends with all of my feelings, even, and perhaps especially, with the dodgy unpleasant ones.
Instead of looking at uncomfortable feelings as 'bad' or 'unpleasant', trying to push them away, avoid them or numb them, I was taught to try and see all of them as neutral. Good, bad, painful, excited, all of them.
I was asked to consider that these emotive 'friends' are just fleeting observers who are trying to look out for me. My heart racing tells me I might be in danger, the anxiety is there to try to keep me from being hurt, the stress tells me I need to stop and slow down, the depression is usually a fear of failure that fuels procrastination. Every feeling has a message of support, advice if you like, but it's up to you whether or not you choose to really listen to it or whether you react to the unpleasantness by finding a way of getting rid of it or numbing it out.
I'm not saying strong negative emotions can't be annoying & irritating, but over time I started to create a personality and face for each one. Like a series of personal emojis.
When something comes up, usually a tight feeling in my gut or at the front of my brain, I picture who it is calling. Then, I imagine I'm sitting with my emoji friend ( depression is a frequent one) and we have a chat. I listen to what 'she' has to say, I evaluate the reasoning and then, I decide if it's worth staying with them.
What I've found is that over time I can separate myself with more and more ease. I can even create a rather interesting dialogue, have a bit of a laugh, and, before I know it, they've piped down of their own accord. They just wanted to be heard.
In therapeutic circles this technique in it's essence is called 'Naming' and there's a great short video from Dan Siegel (Prof. of Psychiatry & mindfulness expert) on it called 'Name it to Tame It' ( this is aimed at kids but I liked it’s simplicity). You can also find it on the books and videos page.
It is in fact scientifically proven that naming an emotion takes the heat out of it. But you need to be present and open. Numbing emotions, which we all are inclined to do, has no long term benefit. It disconnects you and can get in the way of living a full and meaningful life. You may not feel pain, but then can you feel real joy? Where’s the fun in living in a grey area life?
As with most things that are good for you in the long term, taking control in this way is not quick & easy to master. For me I create a game out of it. Who’s here? What are they here for? What are they trying to tell me? It helps a lot to practice mindfulness and this is something you'll hear from me again and again. It is I believe the only way to truly get to know yourself and these odd little characters that we call emotions.
So next time something comes up that feels bad or unpleasant have a try at identifying the character and, rather than wrestling with them or shutting them up in whatever way you normally choose, have a listen and see what they really have a say. You'll probably find they don't hang around for nearly as long once they've been heard.