Updated: Oct 8, 2020
It’s been nearly impossible to remain untouched by the intensity and uncertainty that this year has delivered. The social isolation and other dynamics posed by the pandemic have been challenging enough, but when you consider the myriad of other issues we have faced this year including social injustice, political divisions, natural disasters and economic insecurity, it’s easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. Over these last few months I have experienced periods of fear, anger, sadness, and hopelessness interwoven with pockets of peace, contentment and even joy that all seem to interchange so quickly it has been hard to find an emotional foot hold.
So many of us simply do not feel like ourselves lately. It may show up as increased irritability, trouble focusing, struggling to connect with others or struggling to get a good nights sleep. Whatever you are experiencing emotionally right now, is OK. We are living through a very intense time in history. The very best thing we can all do is extend ourselves some self-compassion and work to bolster our emotional wellness toolbox.
Experience Your Feelings
“Every feeling fully felt is bliss.” - Joseph Campbell
In our Western culture we are often taught to suppress our emotions or we judge certain emotions as “bad”, “negative” or “weak”. When emotions like worry, anger, fear, sadness or guilt arise we tend to try to deny, resist or suppress the feeling, but emotions are information and they can be a valuable guide. For instance, when the emotion of worry passes through the body it can encourages us to examine issues in depth and problem solve solutions. When we experience sadness, we can tune in to where we are perceiving loss or where we may have needs that are unmet. When we tune into anger it can illuminate where boundaries may be required or it may be a way of expressing another emotion like grief.
The suppression of emotions can be a way to adapt to stress, but long term can lead us to feeling deadened inside. You can’t numb out the so-called negative emotions, without also numbing out our joy. To feel most fully alive is to accept and experience all of our emotions. Therefore, one important aspect of emotional health is allowing yourself to acknowledge and express your feelings in a healthy way. Start by simply asking “what am I feeling” when you notice an emotional reaction, or develop a consistent emotional check-in at the end of each day. You can use this feelings list to guide you. There is no need to judge your emotions as good or bad, only what is right now. Try to check in with yourself emotionally from a place of curiosity, understanding that this experience is only temporary and is simply passing through you. See if you can ask the emotion what it is here to show you and listen to what comes up. It may help to write this in a journal .
Question Your Thoughts
“Don't believe everything you think.” - Byron Katie
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I had the incredible realization that just because I thought something, didn’t make it true. That seems like a simple notion but it was revolutionary to me at the time. When we start by noticing our feelings we can usually trace the emotion back to a thought. When we think the same thoughts over extended periods of time, it becomes a belief and can shape our world view. We often mistake our thoughts and beliefs for reality, but this is not always true. When we can create a little space between the thoughts passing through the mind and our awareness of the thoughts, we become empowered. We start by noticing that we are having a thought. If this thought brings us any discomfort then it is a thought worth questioning. When the mind no longer automatically controls our experience, we suffer less.
Working with a therapist that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy is one common approach to changing damaging thought patterns. Another valuable resource I use to help stay alert to stressful thoughts and question them, can be found in The Work of Byron Katie. The free resources on The Work website can show you how to identify and question the thoughts that contribute to an experience of sadness, anger or frustration, and is a simple yet powerful practice to help dismantle emotional suffering. Here is a two hour video intensive guiding you through the process.
Moving the Issues Out of Your Tissues
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk
When we have had a prolonged experience with difficult emotions or thoughts it can be easy to disconnect from the body, just like we may numb our feeling as a way to cope. When we really allow ourselves to tune in, it becomes very apparent that mental and emotional stress impacts the physical body. It may show up as tightness in the shoulders or pressure in the chest, or it could manifest as heat flushes in the face or intermittent abdominal pain. The relationship between emotional energy and your physical body is another important aspect that must be considered if we want to experience health overall.
Start by seeing if you can identify the physical sensations that you associated with tension and difficult emotions. Next see if you can notice sensations associated with relaxation. Developing an awareness of tense and relaxed states in your body can clue you in to when stress is rising and allow you to intervene early on with relaxation tools and strategies.
Healing modalities like massage, myofascial release, acupuncture and reiki can help mobilize stuck energy in the body and provide relief of physical symptoms. Sometimes it helps to run, punch a punching bag, scream into a pillow or have a good cry. You can also use practices like yoga, tai chi and qi gong to help you move emotional energy through the body. Here is a 1 hour long kundalini yoga practice focused on releasing emotions, but if you want a shorter routine to try first check out this shorter but powerful beginner session.
“The body follows the mind and the mind follows the breath.” - Yogi Bhajan
The subtle force of breath gives us life. Our breath is a powerful tool that is always with us, yet it is easy to take it for granted because it is normally an automatic process.
It is well documented that we can use our breath to have immediate, positive effects on our emotional well-being. There are a variety of breathing techniques that can be utilized to activate the calming side of the nervous system. One gentle type of breathing exercise, known as alternate nostril breathing, can be used to quickly calm the mind. Want to give it a try? In this video our own Dr. Miller demonstrates this technique.
Remember that we are all traveling unfamiliar roads right now. If you are finding yourself struggling, you are not alone. Whenever possible try to meet yourself with compassion and grace. Continue to reach for the tools that can help you find your way back to peace. If you need additional support to optimize your mental, emotional and physical health, please call us at 470-266-1380.
Rabia Vaughns, MMS, PA-C is a certified physician assistant who specializes in functional medicine, integrative medicine and lifestyle medicine, helping people overcome chronic illness using a personalized approach to healing. She is also a co-owner of Elevate Functional Medicine.