Maintaining Emotional Balance
A Healthy Emotional Response
Chapter Nine explained the nature of emotions and how they are affected by the stress response. Emotions are simply part of the human experience. They are natural events that take place in our bodies – we literally “feel” our emotions. The first step in a healthy emotional response is to acknowledge and accept what we are feeling and to allow ourselves to experience that emotion. The second step is to clarify the emotion and make a decision how best to proceed. This chapter describes the process of acknowledging, accepting, and clarifying emotions without building up additional tension that contributes to the stress response.
Letting Go of Tension
Emotions pass naturally if we do not interfere with them. Unfortunately, many of us try to stop our emotions because they either make us uncomfortable or interfere with a mistaken belief that emotion is a sign of weakness. We stop feeling by tensing our muscles and holding our breath. We are often not aware of this response to emotion because it is such a long-standing habit. Letting go of the tension allows emotion to run its course. Emotions can make us cry either if there is a certain level of intensity to the situation or if there is a build-up of tension from holding back previous emotion. Crying is a natural mechanism for releasing emotional tension. Trying to stop ourselves from crying creates additional tension, which interferes with maintaining emotional balance. Natural Rhythmic Breathing (described in Chapter Eleven) and grounding (described in Chapter Twelve) are both very helpful in helping us deal with emotion in a healthy way. Natural Rhythmic Breathing stops tension from building up; grounding helps us to be more aware of our body and how we might be tensing in response to our emotional experience. The most common pattern of tension when someone is trying to avoid an emotional experience involves tensing the chest, raising the shoulders, holding the jaw closed and furrowing the forehead. Taking a few slow breaths, pressing our feet into the ground, and letting those muscles relax allows the feeling to pass.
Accept and Acknowledge
Allowing ourselves to breathe and relax during an emotional experience requires us to accept and acknowledge our emotions. If we believe we “shouldn’t be feeling this way,” we will tend to create tension that will inhibit the emotion. Emotions appear to be controlled not by the logical, rational part of our brain (the cerebral cortex) but by a much more primitive area called the limbic system. This means that emotions are not necessarily logical. I have never found it helpful to try to explain “why” someone is feeling something, although it is helpful to understand and clarify “how” they are affected by their experience. Reminding ourselves that emotions are normal experiences, while recognizing that they can be uncomfortable but are temporary, allows us to relax and tolerate them.
It can also be helpful to identify or name the emotion. Finding the word that best describes what we are feeling makes it easier to connect with that emotion. It is very common for a client to be on the edge of tears and then finally let go when they find the right word to describe what they are feeling. This establishes the connection which helps them let go of the resistance. The emotion is freed to move on and does so.
Distinguishing Thoughts and Sensations from Emotions
It is easy to confuse emotions with thoughts and sensations because of the language we use in describing these experiences. For example, saying “I feel like going outside” is not a description of an emotion. I may be thinking about going outside or I may have a sense that some fresh air or exercise would be good for me right now, but these are sensations and thoughts rather than emotional experiences. Likewise, saying “I feel that this is right” is also not an emotional statement. It is rather a thought or judgment. We may sense or think that something fits our situation, but this is not an emotional experience either.
It is important to distinguish sensations and thoughts from emotions because of how we deal with them. It is healthy to allow our emotions to “move” and let ourselves fully experience them when that is appropriate to the situation. Emotions are temporary when we allow ourselves to feel them. However, thoughts and sensations are not necessarily temporary. Focusing on a thought or sensation can amplify or expand it. This is especially true of wants and desires. Going with what we want or “feel” about some things may or may not be helpful at all and could lead to disaster. Saying “I feel like the stock market will go up” is probably not a good reason to invest all our money in stocks. In general, whenever we say something that begins with “I feel that…” or “I feel like…,” we are talking about thoughts or sensations rather than emotions.
Thoughts get confused with emotions in more subtle ways, too. Examples are guilt and hatred. We often think of these as emotions, but in fact they are primarily mental constructs. We may experience emotions when we think about these concepts, but they need to be distinguished from true emotions because they require a different response. Guilt does involve a feeling or emotion of sadness or hurt about something we have done, but it is more a process of thinking about our offense and regretting it. There is emotion mixed in with guilt, but the primary experience involves thinking about what we did. Allowing ourselves to experience guilt as if it were an emotion tends to feed and expand it.
Similarly, hatred adds thoughts of animosity and revenge to emotions of hurt, frustration, or anger. Clearly, allowing ourselves to “feel” hatred and to let it “move” is not a healthy thing.
Focusing on thoughts and sensations is a very different experience from feeling our emotions. For example, a client who comes in with a lot of emotional tension may say they “feel that” something is unfair or they “feel like” someone is being insensitive to them. This rarely helps them let go of tension but rather seems to build it up. When they finally acknowledge a true emotion, for example, that they “feel hurt and sad,” then the tension starts to let go. They usually have a good cry and then we are able to clarify what is unfair or unjust and what they can do about it.
Thoughts Feed Emotions
Chapter Nine described how emotions are a response to our perceptions at the moment. It is very easy for thoughts to dominate our perceptions. Thinking about a loss can make us feel sad. Dwelling on the loss continues our sadness. It is normal to think about intense emotional experiences. But when our thoughts get stuck there, our emotions just keep going. The result is emotional recycling. Chapters Eight and Thirteen described how our mind seems to be drawn to areas of tension in our lives. If we are tensing to prevent experiencing our emotions, it is possible to create a vicious circle where thoughts and emotion each stimulate more intensity in the other. Our thoughts are drawn to our emotions and our emotions stimulate more intense thoughts. This, in turn, stimulates stronger emotions which increase the force of our thoughts. The solution is to relax and to redirect our thoughts. The approaches described in the previous three chapters help us to do this.
“Talking About” and Expressing Our Feelings
Talking about our emotions with a person who is understanding and supportive often helps us to feel better. However, it is important to clarify when this is helpful and when it can lead to the emotional recycling described above. We generally feel better when we sense that we are understood and supported. Part of understanding and supporting another person involves recognizing what they are feeling. Talking about emotions can help us to get in touch with our feelings. This is a healthy experience if we then allow ourselves to experience the emotion and let it go. However, if we tense against the emotion, talking about it without letting it go increases our tension. Talking about emotional events stimulates new emotions and is only helpful to the extent that it helps us clarify what we are feeling and facilitates letting go of emotional tension. Talking about our feelings leads to emotional recycling if we build tension by holding back some of the emotion or if we continue to go over the same events again and again without finding resolution.
Physically expressing emotions is not necessary and, in some cases, not appropriate. Shouting or hitting a punching bag may tire us out, but it rarely relieves specific areas of tension that result from built-up anger. There are very precise exercises that have been designed to release tension in specific areas of the body where it tends to build up in response to holding on to anger or frustration, but these need to be practiced with proper training or supervision and are beyond the scope of this book. What is most important is to identify and experience our emotions. In many cases, this can be done quietly without a lot of noisy expression. Talking about or expressing our emotions is helpful only to the extent that it helps us get in touch with and then let go of our feelings.
Anger: A Unique Emotion
Anger is different from other emotions in two ways. First, it is not a primary emotion. Anger always comes from another emotion. Any time we are angry, there is another emotion that came first. Anger tends to overpower the other emotion because it is so much stronger. Yet, if we take time to look at it, the underlying emotion is always apparent. I may feel angry when someone cuts me off on the highway, but the primary feeling was fear. I may feel angry when someone makes a joke at my expense, but the primary feeling is hurt or embarrassment. I may feel angry about a loss of something important to me, but the primary feeling is sadness.
Second, the function of anger is to push others away from us. This works in the animal kingdom. When an angry dog growls, we back away. Sharing emotions with someone who understands our experience creates a bond or connection. People who have shared a frightening experience or a major loss often feel closer afterwards. Not so with anger. Since anger pushes people away, it tends to damage relationships.
Anger always stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and sends energy to our muscles so that we are ready to attack if needed. The most helpful thing to do when we begin to feel angry is to take slow, even breaths that rhythmically move the diaphragm (Chapter Eleven), shift into a more grounded position (Chapter Twelve), and then step back and clarify the primary emotion. It is much easier to work out a situation where there is frustration, fear, hurt, or embarrassment than it is to deal with anger. Anger needs to be defused. It is not productive unless we are in a life-threatening situation, and even then, only if it serves the purpose of keeping the source of danger away from us. We tend to “lose our head” when we are angry. We give in to impulses without considering the consequences. Anger either builds tension or causes destruction.
Anger and stress tend to feed each other, since both involve the build-up of tension. We are more likely to lose our temper as we become more stressed. We are also more likely to become stressed as we get more angry. Balance is the key, in my experience, to helping people who have problems with anger. Getting into balance reduces the tension that intensifies the anger, and allows enough space for us to accept and clarify what’s happening and to see what we can do about it.
Not accepting an emotion can compound its effects. For example, if I begin to feel embarrassed and then start to worry about what others will think if I look embarrassed, I become even more embarrassed. Becoming embarrassed about being embarrassed compounds our embarrassment. This is particularly true with anxiety; it is a common source of panic attacks. We begin to feel anxious and then to worry about the fact that we’re anxious. This makes us still more anxious. If we tense up to try to control our anxiety, things get even worse. The same is true with being afraid of being afraid or being frustrated about being frustrated. The problem lies in thinking that we shouldn’t be experiencing a particular emotion. If we simply allow ourselves to feel a little embarrassed and let it pass, we soon become interested in what is going on and are no longer embarrassed.
Emotions are natural human responses. We may not like some of them, but they are part of our lives. To the extent that we deny our emotions, we deny life and create tension which keeps us from also experiencing pleasure, joy, and love.
Many emotions can be linked to concepts, beliefs, or perceptions that can often be clarified to reveal choices about dealing with recurrent or troublesome feelings. For example, frustration is linked to an expectation. We only become frustrated to the extent that an outcome is unexpected. If we experience a lot of frustration, it can be helpful to evaluate how realistic or helpful our expectations may be.
Feeling confused is usually linked with a lack of information or a perspective that does not fit the information we have. Clarifying available information or exploring other perspectives can lead either to dispelling the confusion or to accepting that further clarification is not available at the time.
Embarrassment commonly involves a certain context as well as a belief about how people are viewing us. Clarifying the context and belief can help us understand the implications of the situation, possibly reduce our embarrassment, and likely help us to learn from the experience.
Feeling afraid is linked to some kind of a threat. Clarifying the nature and severity of the threat, along with its likely consequences can help us either let go of the fear or face it with better preparation.
Discovering links in emotions is a process of, first, accepting and allowing ourselves to feel the emotion, and, second, asking questions about the nature, source, context, beliefs, attitudes, or expectations that are associated with that emotion. It is rather like looking around the emotion to see what may be related to it. In many cases we can change or learn from these relationships.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.