To Feel or Not to Feel?
One of the most common challenges many of my clients face is dealing with challenging emotions. Most of us go through our life trying to move on from difficult things that come our way. Why would we want to stay with our uncomfortable emotions any longer than we have to? It's not comfortable, right? Our culture teaches us to learn from it and then move on.
Unfortunately, this can leave some people with a bigger mess to deal with in the long run. Avoidance ultimately serves as a short term fix.
When we're just trying to survive and get through something very stressful or challenging, we're sometimes not able to connect and process through how we feel. Our brain can take us into an automatic "flight" response so that we can put our resources towards protecting ourselves and getting past the challenging situation that we're facing. Our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, can start to shut down, and our emotional brain, the limbic system takes over.
Typically though when we are out of the worst of it, there is a time when we can pause and take a moment to reflect inside, especially after something has upset us. This may involve feeling sadness around loss, connecting with the tension and fear of what we went through, or noticing the anger inside that needs to be acknowledged. If we avoid this process and continue to disconnect, it can catch up later in problems like anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness is the ability to observe our emotions, thoughts, and body sensations, without becoming over attached to them. When we can notice the emotion flowing through our body, and realize that it's just a state of mind, rather than an awful feeling we are going through again, we start to step out our avoidance response. We can notice a thought as just a thought, and a feeling as our body's way of telling us something is going on.
Try this: when you start to notice an emotion coming up that you'd rather not deal with, allow yourself to just gently notice it in your body with curiosity. Observe where you feel it inside, perhaps in your chest, stomach, shoulders? Now notice it as a state of mind that you can observe. If this gets too much, gently redirect your attention to something more neutral in your body, such as the feeling of your feet on the ground, or something in your body that feels more neutral or positive (ie- your hands or feet, or the feeling of your breathing). Then redirect your attention back to the emotion, and see what happens.
One key to mindfulness is letting go of the expectation that it's supposed to take away your negative emotions. When we can just observe our body and what it feels, we activate our medial prefrontal cortex which is responsible for reflection and self awareness. Over time this can help us to shift out of our fight, flight and freeze state (limbic system response), and help us to grow in our ability to tolerate emotions.
For some individuals with complex trauma histories, using something like mindfulness may trigger memories or sensations that can be too overwhelming to sit with by yourself. If this is the case, please seek help from a trained professional who can help you get in touch with your emotions and body in a way that is safe and tolerable.