Coping with emotions is some of the most powerful work we can do for ourselves, our relationships and our sense of happiness. Some would say that emotions are the epicentre of our behaviour, beliefs and thinking. They range from the subtle flutter of joy felt in the checks and stomach, to the rumbling warnings of anxiety that cause tremors throughout the body, right up to the roar of rage that rips through our core like a magnitude 8 earthquake. Neither are “bad” or “wrong”, but instead are important experiences that carry key information about our values, beliefs, perspectives, likes and dislikes.
Over the past decade or so, we have in the Western World, released some of the shackles of shame which have allowed us to share and discuss our feelings more. This has liberated us to talk about our darker moments, including our worries and sadness. Despite this, I believe we are still far from the pinnacle of this work.
With the soaring rates of anxiety and sadness in our communities, we are mastering the ability to notice how these particular feelings manifest in the body and in our thinking. However, there are so many other sensations and feelings that we need to become familiar with to truly understand ourselves. If not, we risk oversimplifying our experiences by putting everything into the anxiety or depression box, limiting the way we cope and move forward.
The Meaning of Emotions
Most of us will have some awareness of the meaning of certain emotions. Anxiety for instance is our bodies way of communicating threat and danger. With this, major parts of the brain and digestive system shut down to ensure we have the capacity to either fight or run. Sadness is a sign that we have lost something, resulting in a collapse which triggers healing, reflection and connection. Anger is a sign that something is wrong, unfair or unjust. It therefore gives us the courage and energy to fix or repair issues. But what about envy, jealousy, excitement, loneliness, boredom, or grief? What do these emotions mean for you and how do you know when they are around?
In order to cope with emotions effectively, we need to step back from the intensity of the experience before we can accurately name and understand what they mean. This is quite easily achieved with a non-judgemental curiosity. A noticing of what has changed in our bodies and those events or experiences that may have triggered an emotion. Now in order to do this, we need to make sure that the intensity of the emotion isn’t off the chart. In the trauma world, we would say that we need to be in, or only slightly outside, our window of tolerance.
If we go too far outside our safe zone, then major parts of our brains and bodies start to shut down or amp up. In extreme cases, we can structurally dissociate. This occurs when we feel completely overwhelmed, triggering very basic survival parts to become activated. Most of these parts are quite childlike and are purely designed to help us survive. It could be that our fight part gets activated, or that the part of us that just wants to run as far and as fast as possible comes online. Alternative we might just panic and freeze. Other survival parts include a propensity to submit like a good little girl or boy, or finally to become quite clingy and needy in a desperate attempt to attach.
The most important thing to remember with dissociation or extreme dysregulation is that we loose all access to the knowledge and insights we have when we feel safe. This means that all those lovely strategies we had and learnt go flying out the window and we are back to the basics. This means that we are quite vulnerable to re-traumatisation and further conflict or stress.
Strategies for Safe Emotion Regulation
When it comes to coping with emotions and learning to tolerate distress, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy offers a range of strategies, tips and skills. They are traditionally broken down into three broad approaches: Distraction, Improving the Moment and Self-Soothing. Now, when we get given the option of distraction, most of us think “yahoo… bring on Netflix, Candy Crush, Youtube and Facebook”. The issue with this is that we can forget to do the work, which is to eventually identify what triggered us, the feelings that got activated, and to consider any action points as a result. This being said, distraction is there for those moments when it is all just too much and you missed the early warning signs.
The next approach is called ‘improving the moment’. This might include Imagery or visualisation (i.e. imagining being in a safe or beautiful place), finding Meaning through meditation and prayer, Relaxation (i.e. breathing or having a hot bath), or planning (i.e. focus on one thing or one priority at a time).
The last approach to coping with emotions is ‘self-soothing’. This encourages us to focus on our five senses and choose activities that are relaxing and calming. Visually, this might include looking at photographs or images that make us feel content and relaxed. We might listening to our favourite song or sounds. Alternatively we could light a beautiful candle, use essential oils, or walk along the beach. We could make a lovely cup of tea or eat something that makes us feel calm or relaxed. Finally, we could use texture and touch to calm our nerves by putting on a favourite outfit or running our hands over a blanket or piece of fabric.
Finally, the practice of mindfulness is a powerful and important strategy to use when learning to regulate emotions. The best thing about this way of being is that it is purely about noticing and describing what you are experiencing without labelling or judging it. As talked about in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, this gives us the option to be wise outside of being purely logical or utterly emotional.
To support us in coping with emotions, there are some wonderful apps available that offer prompts and ideas that might resonate with you. Try the Virtual Hope Box or Calm to get you started. Otherwise, you can try more creative options like a vision board for your room or coping cards for your wallet.