Managing emotion encompasses two main groups of strategies: prevention and intervention.
As a way of prevention, we fill our life with all that makes us feel calm, relaxed, at peace, energized, alive and whole. That way, when life stress comes our way, we are so resilient that it takes a lot to get us agitated, irritated, or overwhelmed. To take inventory of your prevention activities, make a list of all of the things you do that bring your body back to a state of relaxation, that bring you happiness or joy, that are fun and make you feel like a kid again. For some of you, it might be tubing, riding your bike, or playing at the ocean. For others, it might be meditating, engaging in a yoga class, or going on a retreat. Eating healthy foods, getting plenty of water and enjoying sufficient sunlight are essential prevention activities for all of us, as is getting some form of exercise or movement daily, even if simply stretching each half hour during our sedentary work day. Poor nutrition, lack of sunlight or vitamin D3, and too much sugar in the body sets up the body to have the same physical symptoms as anxiety, anger and depression, and all of the talk therapy in the world will not help that.
For interventions, we need tools in our tool box that we can bring out and use when we do get stressed or overwhelmed, when our emotion runs high and we want to ratchet it down. The key to this strategy is to bring out the tool and use it when the emotion is still rather low (say 2-5 range out of a 0 to 10 scale). When we wait to use our tools after the emotion gets to say an 8, then it is harder to feel successful at managing the intense emotion because it is increasingly difficult the longer we hold out. Some tools, like avoidance, numbing or use of alcohol, are not a problem if used sparingly and judiciously. But they can lead to mental health disorders when overused and overgeneralized to much of life’s situations.
Here are a few of the most useful holistic and integrative intervention coping tools to manage painful emotions:
- Constructive self talk – Focus on “I can do ___”, “I am strong in this way ___” or in other words, focus on the various ways you are capable, adaptable, resilient, and so forth. Practice daily catching the belief system and self talk that scrutinizes on how you are still lacking or imperfect, and switching it over to the more constructive self talk that is specific to a situation rather than generalized to all times and places. I recommend that my clients take even 5 minutes every evening to reflect on the self talk in the day that was associated with upset, frustration, overwhelm, sadness, anxiety, fear or any other uncomfortable emotion; log the themes (e.g. all/nothing perfectionism, success/failure, good/bad, right/wrong, I can’t, I should, I have to, I’m not, etc.); and then write down more constructive self talk for each theme and situation as needed. Practice the new reframes daily so that they become your new neuroplastic normal way of thinking, because whatever we do repeatedly (including harmful self talk) we tend to become an Olympian at it!
- Constructive imagery – While you are observing and even logging your unconstructive self talk, notice too what you are seeing or imagining in your mind’s eye. We humans tend to scan for danger instead of safety, think of the worst possible catastrophe instead of the most likely or probable, and play such scenes over and over in our imagination. I recommend my clients use relaxing imagery (e.g. favorite vacation spots) to relax, scan for safety cues (e.g. people minding their own business) to reduce fears of danger, use spiritual imagery (e.g. involving spiritual figures) to transcend and heal, use colors to see love energy (e.g. love energy as green) and send it to areas in need of healing (e.g. certain organs in the body, or chaotic areas on the planet), etc. Imagery is more than visualization; it involves all of the senses. So hear the seagulls, taste the coconut, smell the salty ocean, feel the warm water, as well as see the sights.
- Tapping – There are many forms of tapping, which is a method used in energy psychology, and has its basis in eastern medicine and qigong. And unlike acupuncture, energy healing, or reflexology, tapping is free! Tapping on the acupressure points simply helps reset energy meridians or highways. For instance, when you are in panic (9 or 10 on scale of 0 to 10) and it happened so suddenly that you didn’t have a chance to catch the fear at a 3 or 5, you can tap. The panic is an activated state your body may have become an Olympian at doing repeatedly, and so it goes there really fast and efficiently for you. Such energy is like a tightly formed spiral, and the tapping breaks up or diffuses the energy pattern so that you can reset it. Many like to name the activated state, then name the state for the body to get to. “Even though I’m panicking about ___, I’m on my way to calm.” Or, “Even though I feel worthless, I’m on my way to accepting and loving myself unconditionally.” As you tap (e.g. inner eye brow, outer eye brow, cheekbone under the eye, above upper lip, crease above chin, collarbone points, “bra strap” points under the arms, under breast points, inner side of each finger at the base of the nail, around the edge of the ear, top of the head, bottoms of the feet), notice which points feel most relevant to the emotion you are tapping in the moment and do those points most. For example, it might feel that at the inner and outer eyebrow points your body went into chills. The key points will change from situation to situation, and mood to mood. As you go through all of the points, you may discover that you only need one or a few rounds to bring yourself back to a 0 or 1. Brad Yates has a number of EFT tapping videos you can download and watch at http://www.bradyates.net/videos.html.
- Nutrition therapies – Have your doctor test you for the key nutrients that may be lacking and causing some of your symptoms. For instance, fatigue may be a sign of low vitamin D3 or iron; poor memory may be because of insufficient of the B vitamins and omega 3s. Get advice from those knowledgeable in nutrition who can recommend which foods to favor and which to avoid or minimize, who can know how to prescribe supplements so that nutrients are in systemic balance, and who can rule out conditions like hypoglycemia, thyroid or other issues.
- Biofeedback or neurofeedback – This is feedback you can measure in the moment, whether how sweaty your skin is becoming during panic thoughts, or how your brain wave patterns are changing with your practice of constructive self talk and other forms of meditation. Though not every practitioner is created equal, any more than any other doctor, these methods can help especially those who need something more tangible as feedback on how they are progressing. For my clients with symptoms so ingrained that they have effected their personality in a strongly disordered way, neurofeedback has usually helped to some degree, even if family and friends notice the changes before my client does. It has also helped clients with concussions and other brain injuries that are resistant to many other forms of therapies.
- Body-based or somatic awareness – My clients with obsessive-compulsive disorder tend to love this one, particularly “mindfulness of the feet”. In feet mindfulness, you are bringing your destructive mind chatter to a focus on the feet and to any of the sensations you can observe there. Scan the feet for signs of warmth, groundedness, spaciousness, movement, comfort, relaxation, etc. You will likely discover that you can’t think about the imperfections on your face, or the office politics, and the sensations of your feet at the same time. Also, the feet are not usually tainted with anything else, unlike a focus on the breath, which for anxious clients can make them then worry about how imperfectly or shallow they are breathing. Yet breathing into the hip area tends to work, or noticing how the air feels as it enters the nostrils upon inhalation. Heart mindfulness is wonderful for those who don’t have heart issues, but may want to notice which things makes their heart feel expansive rather than contracted.
- Values – In our society, most of us are surrounded by others whose values differ from our own. Yet we try to copy their life choices, and wonder why we don’t feel good when we do so. I recommend that you think of your energy as currency, and reassess how to spend it on what you value most. If you value freedom and exploring others’ cultures, then don’t expect to feel wonderful stuck in a cubicle job more suited to those who value having a set of rules and procedures to follow all day long. If you value spreading love and helpfulness around the planet, then don’t be surprised when you feel drained because you are spending 14-hour days competing against others who value power. Ask yourself what you value. Is it money and prestige no matter the cost? power and leadership? learning and education? service to those less skilled than most? family and friends? Align your energies with your highest values and you will feel abundant in your emotional life.
One more suggestion. Don’t think of painful emotions as negative. For all emotion is useful, even the ones that don’t feel good at the time. Emotion is there for a reason, and it is trying to tell you that you are facing something that is more like you or less like you. If the something is more like you, the emotion will tend to feel pleasant and expanding. If it is less like you, it will feel some measure of pressure, stress, tension, contraction, pain or trauma. Don’t numb to it or ignore it (at least for too long), notice it instead…..when it is mild and just a hint of something wrong. Make the correction that is being called for, deep within your soul. And use your body awareness, especially heart awareness, as your compass. That is the path toward feeling authentic and congruent in your life (the outer self matching or resonating with the inner), and the root of sustained happiness. For instance, if you regularly notice tension at your workplace, and it is on its way to becoming an overwhelming stressor, then give yourself some time to think about the job and what it is that is creating harmful stress. Are you in a field your soul would want for you? If not, perhaps it is time to develop a plan for transitioning into your soul work. Is it just the particular job or position? If so, perhaps the position doesn’t match your skills very well, and it is time for a change. Is your self talk and imagery creating fiction stories about your co-workers that may in fact not be true? Are you assuming and taking things personally? If this is the case, it may be that with a little mental discipline, you can heal the situation. Catch yourself in any emotional perfectionism as well. Some people who have numbed or dissociated from emotion for way too long hold the false belief that negative emotion is bad or weak, and no one is ever supposed to feel a negative emotion ever. Wow, that is a lot of unconstructive self talk! The fact is that being human includes both feel-good and feel-bad emotions because the emotions are the compass that helps you choose that which is consistent with your life path and core energies. Being healthy requires that we have access to the full range of emotion, and feel emotions that are appropriate to a given situation. So remember, prevention in your life is essential. Design your life to be full of a variety of activities that are congruent with who you feel you are deep inside. Choose to be authentic with your innermost self as often as you can to be in balance. Be with others who share your values and life fun. Then for intervention, use your coping tools (sooner rather than later) to deal with life, which for all of us is a test of our choices and values, and therefore the struggle and imperfection of it all. Forgive yourself for mistakes, allow yourself to learn, and discipline your mental energy. That is how you will cultivate resilience and strength, and successfully navigate all swells and storms in the waters that are our emotions.