05 Jul Emotional Regulation: the things you wish you had always known!
Emotions are tricky; let’s start by stating the truth, especially if you live with something like long term health issues which can add all sorts of extra challenges that a lot of people don’t have to experience or even think about. It can be easy to find yourself feeling emotionally dysregulated where you feel overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, chronically stressed or like your emotions regularly feel a bit out of control or “too big”.
Today I want to share some of the most interesting and helpful aspects of emotions and regulation that you will wish you would have always known so that you feel more empowered around your “mental health”, which for most of us can be a challenging and a grey area in relation to our understanding and coping skills. I hope you find them as helpful as I did when I first learnt about emotions.
You are not failing or weak because you can’t talk yourself less stressed/happier/calmer etc. Previous psychological understanding would have us believe that by talking about our emotions or being strong willed enough to “deal with” our emotions would get our emotions and ‘mental health’ under control. Modern brain and body testing shows us that actually emotions are primal body responses to our environment and not ‘mental’ at all; the mid part of our brain that assesses & labels this external information is not under the control of the pre-frontal cortex which is where our rational thinking comes from.
When emotions arise, they are a bodily response from your autonomic nervous system (which is automatic, not under your conscious control) based on your past and present experiences. Rational talk or willpower will not control your emotions therefore you are not weak or failing if you have strong emotions and feel that they are “out of control’.
We are not our emotions. We feel emotions but we do not have to be consumed by them, as they are a passing physical state that we have to get us to change something in our environment.
Humans most important instinct is to survive, and emotions exist for if we sense something that is an immediate threat or perceived threat to our survival. Think about the emotion of fear; we experience the emotion of fear when our sharply tuned nervous and sensory systems pick up information that we could be in physical or psychological danger. As cave dwellers or hunter/gatherers that danger could have been a fierce storm, an invading tribe or a wild animal; nowadays it is more likely to be financial stress, an upsetting work/social interaction or a worrying health symptom, but our senses and brain don’t differentiate – they are all potential threats to our safety or wellbeing. So our emotions are not “who I am”; it is not that “I am afraid”, but “I feel afraid”. Our emotions are messages to us, not who we are, nor are they permanent, but they probably mean that we need to reframe, resource ourselves or change something in our life.
Your “mental health” is not understood by many health professionals. This may be a bit of a surprise to some of you, and I am not by any means saying this to look down upon doctors. There are many wonderful medical professionals out there, however GP’s and medical speciality teams do not have adequate training on mental health issues nor the up to date research, and even psychologists and therapists often do not understand the bodies role in emotions and how cognitive or behavioural therapies do not give complete solutions to emotional regulation or mental health issues. Psychologists domain is the mind and the common tools they use are talk based, with cognitive and behavioural education. Your doctors for your particular health concern will often have no psychobiological understanding of your emotions and feelings, and what will often be diagnosed as ADHD, depression or anxiety are actually often symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system due to a chronic form of PTSD related to living with chronic illness.
The diagnosis is only half the picture – it is the nervous system and bodymind that need to be worked with to gently unwind the trauma that is dysregulating your emotions and causing symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress or ADHD.
We can hold more than one emotion at a time. The emotions of frustration, grief, hopelessness or anger can feel totally consuming, but actually they are not. What I mean is, as humans we are beautifully complex and so are our emotions compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. When we feel intense emotions like sadness or fear, we can’t seem to notice any other emotion that might also be present in us, but here is one of the keys to emotional regulation: by shifting our inner awareness, we can tune into other feelings that co-exist with that sadness or fear, allowing us to regulate our intense emotions, or reduce their impact on us.
There are a couple of ways we can do this – firstly noticing how our sadness or fear physically feels in us in that moment eg. Tightness in our chest or shoulders, heavy heart, contraction in our outer hips, etc… and then using our inner awareness to find a place in our body that feels soft, warm, at ease, calm. We may also notice that the emotion at this place of ease in our physical body has a contrasting emotion either of emotional neutrality or expansiveness, serenity, safety or peacefulness.
Sensing and feeling other sensations and emotions that we hold within us at the same time as the uncomfortable or intense emotion is one of the great ways to regulate ourselves and reduce the intensity of the overwhelming emotion.
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