At the moment I think it’s fair to say that the world is dealing with some very difficult times and that is meaning that many people are feeling some very Acutely difficult emotions.
We are feeling frightened because there is a virus out there that could kill us or one of our loved ones?
We are feeling afraid that we won’t be able to cope financially because we have lost work or had our wages cut?
We are feeling uncertain as to how to act, in a situation that we have never experienced before.
We are feeling overwhelmed by news which is designed to trigger fear and spread panic (because the news media know that this sells).
We are feeling isolated because we have to distance ourselves from our loved ones even though we know we are doing it for the right reasons.
We are feeling disappointed that things we had been looking forward to have had to be cancelled. Weddings/Holidays/School/University/Work/Events.
I just want to say that all of these emotions are valid and we NEED to be allowing ourselves to feel them.
We seem to spend our lives trying to avoid negative emotions and trying to numb them or escape them or deny them but that won’t help us. What we need right now is a lesson on how to feel these negative emotions because they (like it or not) are just as important as positive emotions.
To have emotions is to be human, and that means all the positive emotions life has to offer (happiness, joy, pride, gratitude, excitement …) and all of the more negative or difficult emotions (grief, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, uncertainty). Humans evolved to have these complex physiological responses which we have come to call emotions/feelings.
They evolved in alignment with our main instinctual drives which are:
Self-preservation – the drive to preserve the body, our lives and the functions of the body. Which is linked to emotions such as fear, anxiety.
Sexual instinct – the drive connect with others to further the species. Which can be linked to emotions such as love, lust, passion.
Social instinct – the drive to get along with other people and form secure social relationships and bonds. Which can be linked to emotions such as: loneliness, grief, belonging.
Can you see how the scenarios facing us right now are like a perfect storm! We have a virus that could kill us (which will trigger our survival instincts and emotions) and we are being asked to isolate which goes against our social instinctual drives!!! No wonder we are all feeling so much right now!
When we say we feel afraid, what are we really describing?
We are describing certain physical feelings in our bodies which we have learnt to recognise as fear. These can vary from person to person but there tend to be very common traits that we can recognise as fear in ourselves and crucially in others as well! So for me, and most other people, fear tends to feel like… an increased heart rate, a feeling of tension in the stomach, a rush of adrenaline, a desire to run/get away from the situation/perceived danger (fight or flight).
Sadness/depression can be recognised by a heavy feeling in the heart/stomach region, a frown on the face, a slowing down of physical movement, tears…
Joy often feels like a lightness in the body, a smile, a rush of positive energy and positivity.
I could go on and on…
Feelings in themselves are harmless. They are just physiological responses which come and go and they pass through the body in waves. Grief for me, taught me this more than any other emotions. The intense feelings of grief would literally feel like giant waves that welled up inside of me and would overwhelm me but then they would pass through and I’d feel ok again until the next wave hit. This is true of all emotions though.
Nobody minds feeling positive emotions. In fact we all seem obsessed with feeling more positive emotion and less negative emotions but I have to tell you that this is not realistic. The human experience comes with both the positive and the negative and we need to be willing to feel both types.
What happens when we are NOT willing to feel something?
What if, right now, you are feeling anxious and afraid because of the corona virus but you didn’t want to (because hey, who would want to), what could you do to avoid this emotion?
You could, distract yourself with some activity, such as binge watching a series to literally divert your mind from the feelings. You could turn to eating or drinking, which is really common, because you get comfort from the feeling of having a full stomach or from the pleasure of eating chocolate or the numbing properties of alcohol. Yes, you could do these things (and most of us do) but what happens to the feeling of fear. Has it gone away after you have finished eating or after you wake up the next day with a hangover?
The answer is no. You have just put that feeling on hold and as soon as the thing you used to cover it up is gone it will resurface.
A nice analogy for this is thinking of your negative feelings being like a football and when you deny / avoid your negative feelings it’s like holding that football underwater. You can keep pressing down on it but at some point the air in that ball is going to force it to resurface and if you’ve done this before, that ball will explode out of the water. Avoiding feeling your negative emotions will not work as a long term strategy and will lead to much bigger problems as you chase them down the road.
So what am I supposed to do?
The answer is to acknowledge your emotions in the moment. That means, for example, when you feel your stomach tighten and your heart beat racing, you consciously recognise that you are feeling fear and then you allow yourself to feel those feelings in your body, knowing that they can’t harm you, they are just physiological sensations.
Next, and this is huge, you need to have compassion for yourself. Be kind and patient with yourself. Know that what you are feeling is a human response to something that feels threatening to your instinctual human drives. Of course you are scared of dying. Of course you are afraid of your loved ones getting sick. Of course you are afraid you won’t have enough money or food or work.
Next you need to breathe, slow down, let the feelings pass through your body and then try your best to carry on with your day.
I know this sounds simplistic and not at all easy, it isn’t easy at first but the more you do it, and the less you try to escape your negative feelings the better you will feel in the long run.
There are lots of memes out there saying things like “I’ll either come out of self isolation 3 stone heavier or 3 stone lighter 😂” which is of course saying, I’m going to avoid my negative emotions by over eating or starving myself and to me that is just poor emotional management.
I used to eat when I was bored (which for me is a very triggering negative emotion) so I learnt to acknowledge boredom as boredom and to allow myself some time to feel it (what am I feeling in my brain/body right now) instead of immediately heading to the fridge for something to eat, and then once I had recognised the emotion I would feel compelled to find something to relieve that boredom in a constructive way!
Some of these negative emotions are massively useful as they serve as warning signs that you need to do something/change something, so my boredom tells me I’m not being mentally stimulated enough and I need to find something more interesting.
So today I want you to feel compassionate for your body and mind for the negative emotions you are feeling right now.
What do you do when you are having too many negative emotions and are struggling to function?
As I’ve said, you do need to allow your emotions and to let them pass through you, but what do you do when those negative emotions don’t pass through, they seem to take root and you can’t shift them! Then, my friends, it’s time to do some thought work and I’m going to do a session (a follow up post) on thought and feelings tomorrow!
I hope you found this of some help today. If you would like to have a free coaching session with me I’m offering free sessions for the next month or so to help anyone who is really struggling. Now is the time to get our mindsets in a healthy place so we can face our negative situations and come out of this stronger / more resilient and more compassionate human beings.