By Bruce Craig, Resident in Counseling in Northern Virginia
Emotions are here for a reason and every human will feel the full range of emotions at one point or another in their lives. This is to say that emotions are not something we should be afraid of or try to avoid in any way. We can’t necessarily control our emotions as much as we can choose how we are going to relate to them.
Without negative emotions, it would be impossible for us to enjoy positive emotions and this is why it is useful if we intentionally work to remove the connotations of “good” or “bad” from our descriptors of what we are feeling. When we deem something as bad, we instinctively believe it is something we should push away or avoid and with emotions this reaction can cause the difficult emotion to stay longer or become even more difficult.
Too Many Inputs
Historically emotions were here to warn us of impending danger, to trigger that fight or flight response that keeps us alive in times that our cognitive ability just wouldn’t be fast enough. We have all had those times where we are somewhat distracted or tuned out until you notice a feeling of dread or fear that makes you realize a potential danger and take action to get to a safer place. That was the historic use of emotions and still a useful way of using them today except now we are inundated with inputs that cause the same emotions at times when they are not useful.
News, stories from others, movies, and even our thoughts cause us to feel emotions such as anxiety, despair, fear, and all other emotions for things that are not a current danger to us. Things that are not in the “here and now”. This constant barrage of emotion causes us to tune out our gut reactions that are useful and sometimes live in a constant state of overwhelming emotion that we are unable to understand.
Remaining Grounded, Regulated, and Rational
A practice I will offer that can, over time, with consistency, rebuild this process into something more useful and manageable is tuning back into your gut reactions. By noticing our emotions early and before they have overwhelmed our mind, we can remember to take deeper, slower breaths to stay grounded and regulated. When we are grounded and regulated, we can think rationally, this gives us the space to notice and work with the thoughts that have led to these difficult emotions.
Like most other things for humans, the things we do consistently become automated and habitual, so over time these deep slow regulating breaths will become automatic when emotions arise. Eventually you will find yourself remaining calm and thinking clearly when faced with situations where you otherwise may have become overwhelmed and overreacted.
I want to emphasis that this practice takes time and consistency to see noticeable progress, but once the progress is gained it becomes your way of being and takes less intentionality. It is also important to mention that this practice is more difficult if not impossible to employ in times of intense emotions such as what often happens in some relationship dynamics or sudden and unexpected frustrations such as being cut off in traffic. It is most useful to start this practice in smaller frustrations where you can intentionally choose to breath deeper and slower instead of reacting to your emotion and as you make it a process in those times it will eventually happen for you automatically in some of the more difficult times.
An exercise for tuning back into your gut reactions
Because of the overwhelming amount of inputs our society has today, many people have tuned out their gut reactions, so this exercise to recognize what different emotions feel like in your gut can be useful as you decide to try this practice for yourself.
- First, I encourage you to sit or lay down in a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed.
- Next, close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths while you consider an emotion to start with. This exercise is the same with any emotion but for this example I will use despair.
- As you sit or lay there taking these deep, slow breaths, think of something sad. You don’t want it to be the saddest thing that has ever happened to you or something that is going to cause intense emotion but something that brings up this emotion in you. Maybe the loss of a loved pet from the past and as you imagine this sad event in your mind while continuing to breath deep and slow you tune into the feeling in your gut.
- Notice where you feel despair and sadness, notice what it feels like and in this moment realize that the thoughts you have intentionally brought up are what has caused this emotion in you now.
- Observe that you can intentionally open your eyes, change your thoughts, and allow this feeling to pass. Hopefully this helps you internalize the fact that thoughts are just thoughts, emotions are just emotions (all emotions pass), and you have a choice in how you relate to them and some ability to cultivate the ones that are most useful for you, but more on that in part 3.
Part One of Working With Our Emotions can be found HERE.
About Bruce Craig:
Bruce is a resident in counseling providing counseling services at our Fredericksburg location. Bruce is a recent graduate from Eastern Mennonite University with a MA in Counseling, following a B.S. in Social Psychology from Park University.
Bruce completed a rigorous internship working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Bruce also finds Mindfulness to be useful in helping clients be in the present moment. For clients who are receptive to it, he teaches them ways of controlling their thoughts instead of becoming anxious about things that might happen or focusing on aspects they cannot change.
He is currently in a course to become certified in the use of Mindfulness in therapy but already has experience and success applying Mindfulness with clients. Bruce provides a warm, empathetic, and non-judgmental space for all people to bring whatever issues they need to work through. To learn more about Bruce, visit here.