Emotions – What About Them?
By Cecilia Rodriguez, MA
A major reason we come to therapy is when we become troubled by emotions that surprise us with their intensity and prevent us from functioning the way we need to. We yell at our kids, or say nasty things to our partners or co-workers that we later regret.
Typically we believe there are only two ways to deal with emotional energy; repress/deny them, or express them. Repressed emotions however, are like balloons we try to keep submerged under water. They stew inside us, making us grumpy and distracted. Eventually they will slip out of our control and bob to the surface. The intensity of expressed emotions are often way out of proportion with the actual situation because they are launched from repressed emotions that we are unaware of.
At times, stress or exhaustion will cause us to over-react, because we are acting while blinded by our own needs. Other times our expressed emotions are tied to projection or blame shifting, i.e. we defend ourselves against our own memories or unpleasant impulses by denying their existence and choosing to blame others “he makes me feel stupid” or “she makes me angry.”
So how do we begin to deal with our emotions?
- We cultivate “pre-awareness” by feeling the physiological changes in our body that are related to emotion. Anger, sadness, fear, bring with them physical symptoms like a quicker heartbeat, heat, shakiness, a tight throat, etc.
- We connect the emotion to a story running in the mind. We can be so overwhelmed by the emotion that we don’t even remember what we are thinking. Our thoughts, however, have a great deal to do with how intense the emotion is, and how long we hang onto it. Usually these thoughts are distorted, but it’s important to identify them first.
- Then we must use mental control to not let it come out to the next step. This is a great skill and a huge step. We have to just ride the energy at this point. Come back to the body, breathe it, relax tensions, work it. We must get out of our heads/stories and stay in our bodies. Work it and breathe, work it and breathe. When the emotion finally subsides there will still be chemical residue (increased heart rate, shaking, have to pee, tiredness, etc). There may also still be a story running about what we should have done or said, etc… but focus your attention on the breath, relax muscular tension, and slow everything down. This is suppression, not repression.
When we suppress emotions, we will still have the emotional experience. But we are not going to do anything to change it, not going to hang on to it longer by “being with it”, not going to willy-nilly express it or be so engrossed that you actually begin looping on the story/energy.
It is very hard for us to separate thought/emotion energy. Thought/emotion might be milliseconds before body. But the body is our most powerful entry into managing our emotions. We have to work in the depths of the body or else there is not real change. How do you calm yourself? You distract yourself, you move, you put cold water on your face or walk into a different room, you breathe and stretch, etc. When our body engages with reality it yanks us out of our head and into the real world.
Successfully managing your emotions requires you to become an astute observer of your emotional process and your mind. This is a skill you need to cultivate, and a good reason to come to therapy in order to learn how to do it.