What To Do When Our Emotions Get the Best of Us: Practical Tools to Ground Us (Part One)
An excerpt from the book ‘The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes.’
By Beth Kurland.
As human beings on this planet, one of the many challenges that we face is learning how to deal with difficult emotions, such as anger, sadness, frustration, fear and disappointment, without these emotions overtaking us and sweeping us away, or, alternatively, without avoiding these emotions entirely by suppressing them. Learning how to accept, be with, and regulate difficult emotions is an important step in our journey toward greater well-being.
In my book, The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-being, I lay out an eight step path towards creating greater peace and well-being in our lives, through 64 short, daily practices. The following is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5, which specifically addresses step five on the journey: coping with challenging emotions.
Many of us have learned, directly or indirectly, to push our difficult emotions away when they surface. Some of this is cultural or learned behavior: You may have been told at a young age to “stop crying and pull yourself together”; or to “cut it out and go to your room” when you were upset; or “big kids don’t cry,” or some other similar message. This tendency to avoid uncomfortable feelings is also human nature; there is a natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is true not just for physical pain, but for emotional pain as well (which, by the way, can be experienced quite physically).
It doesn’t “feel good” to experience painful emotions, so we often avoid them, thinking this is a good thing for us.
The Cost of Avoiding Emotions
It turns out that avoiding our emotions can often do us more harm than good. Stuffing our feelings deep inside is a bit like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water. After a while, the pressure builds up and if it doesn’t have a way to be released, the water can spill over, causing a mess. When we don’t pay attention to our emotions, and push them away, they don’t actually disappear. They just find some other way to come out. Take a moment to think about a time you may have tried to ignore or push feelings away. It may work for a short while, but usually the emotions end up reappearing with strong force in some way, such as in the form of a meltdown or explosion, an anger outburst, or perhaps as anxiety, depression, or physical illness.
The field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy emphasizes that one of the biggest roadblocks we have to living a valued life is “experiential avoidance,” that is, doing everything we can to avoid feeling painful or uncomfortable emotions (Hayes & Smith, 2005). When we run up against uncomfortable feelings (stress, sadness, anxiety, pain), we often do everything in our power to get away from them, or to get rid of them.
This often takes the form of unhelpful behaviors. Sometimes we numb out by unhealthy eating, alcohol, other addictive behaviors, or we lash out in anger, or isolate ourselves and avoid going places where we might feel uncomfortable– to try to avoid experiencing our discomfort. When we do this, we often miss out on important parts of our lives and prevent ourselves from embracing the qualities that are most important to us, and doing the things that matter most.
When we are not avoiding our emotions in some form, many of us can experience being “hijacked” by our emotions, as they take over and spiral us out of control. Daniel Goleman coined this term “emotional hijacking” in his book Emotional Intelligence (1995), to refer to the process by which the more primitive and emotional part of our brain can take over and bypass communication to the higher “thinking” parts of our brain.
We have all probably experienced this in some form, perhaps when caught up in a moment of road rage, an argument, being stuck in traffic, being panicked or worried about something, or other situations where we are overtaken by the intensity of our emotions. When that occurs, it is difficult to think clearly, and often, reason and perspective go out the door. This loss of reason and perspective, in combination with the intensity of our emotions, can cause us to react in ways we later regret. There is a good explanation for this from a physiological perspective, and it is helpful to understand what is happening in our brains, so that we can understand what we are trying to “rewire”.
Here is a simplified explanation. As we go about our day we receive continual messages from the environment that get processed by a part of our brain called the thalamus. The thalamus sorts out these messages and sends them to both the limbic system, which is the emotional center of our brains, and to the cortex and neocortex, which are the higher thinking parts of our brains. The limbic system is constantly evaluating for perceived danger, through a small organ called the amygdala, and also through the help of the hippocampus. When information is interpreted as emotionally charged by the amygdala, it goes directly to the body’s alarm system responsible for turning on the “fight or flight” reaction, and to the brainstem, and, in essence bypasses the neocortex (which receives the information only after the alarm system is triggered).
Thus, the “fight or flight response” gets turned on and we prepare to handle this “emergency” before us (Goleman, 1995). Remember, the limbic system responds not only to life- threatening danger, but also to anything it perceives as danger (which could be a conversation that puts us on the defensive, a traffic jam that is preventing us from traveling where we need to be, a look from another person that we believe means they are thinking badly of us, etc.). This system works wonders in a true life-threatening emergency, when we don’t have the luxury of that split second that it takes the higher thinking part of our brain, the cortex, to process what is happening. If a car is coming at us, we simply jump out of the way. That extra split second that it would have taken us to discern the speed of the oncoming car and evaluate the situation more accurately could have cost us our life. However, that same split second that it takes for information to get to our cortex might be especially helpful when we are in an argument with someone. It could help us stop and evaluate the situation before becoming emotionally hijacked and blurting out something we later regret.
In Part Two of this post I will explore how mindfulness skills can help to create a pause in which we can learn to be with and ride the passing waves of our intense emotions. Stay tuned!
The following is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being, (reprinted with permission from Wellbridge Books, an imprint of Six Degrees Publishing Group).
Beth Kurland, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of the award winning book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being (awarded Finalist in the Health and Wellness category by Next Generation Indie Book Awards). She is also the author of three upcoming children’s books and accompanying games for each, designed to help children learn practical tools to manage difficult emotions, face challenges, and cultivate positivity. (These books and games are scheduled to be released at the end of 2017 through Childswork Childsplay.) In addition, she writes poetry to inspire mindfulness. Beth has been in clinical practice since 1994 and provides evidence- based treatment to people across the lifespan, with a focus on using mindfulness and mind-body strategies for whole person health and wellness. To enjoy free meditation videos and audios, visit https://BethKurland.com.