Emotional Discomfort Is Your Problematic Friend
Perhaps the most consistent issue I deal with early in therapy sessions with new clients, in almost 20 years of experience, is that people will run as fast as they can from any kind of emotional discomfort. This is especially true if the feeling relates to “I did something that challenges my view of myself”. And that’s why I’m writing this now.
Big Feelings Are Not Your Enemy
I know you didn’t want to hear that. You wanted to believe that “normal” people don’t feel the same big feelings you feel, and that your feelings make you different and wrong somehow. Because big feelings are hard.
Think of those big feelings as a “helpful” toddler within you that doesn’t realize that they aren’t helping. Treat those feelings the same way you would have wanted to be treated as a toddler — with compassion and patience.
The good news is that you can manage big feelings so that they don’t overwhelm you. And you can learn to do this consistently. Really. The first thing to do is to separate the event from your feelings about the event. In this context, the sensations in your body are counted as a part of your feelings.
When You Stop Resisting Emotions, They Get Unstuck
When you feel big emotions, they’re not “just in your head”. Your heart rate changes, and probably your breathing. It is likely that you tense your muscles in various parts of your body. Blood rushes to your extremities and away from your brain, preparing you for “flight or fight”.
The first step in dealing with these emotions is recognizing that the feelings they create in your body are not dangerous. This can be tricky because the purpose of those changes in our body is to warn us of danger. Way back when our ancestors were roaming the African savannah, when we were in danger, it was usually physical, immediate danger that involved running, fighting, hiding, or being eaten.
The dangers we face in the modern world are different from those we evolved to handle. Today’s dangers almost always involve needing to use our brains, rather than our feet, hands, and lungs, to survive. So the panic our body evolved to feel is counterproductive.
Wrest Your Body Back From Panic
When you start to feel that familiar hammering in your heart and your breathing becomes ragged, when you realize you’re clenching your fist or jaw or tightening your shoulders or neck, it’s time to act. Relaxation is action. Consciously listen to your heartbeat and try to slow your breathing. Spend time investigating the muscles in your body to figure out which ones you have clenched or tightened, and relax them. Take the time you need. It’ll pay off later.
Once your heart rate and breathing are more or less back to normal and you have relaxed your body somewhat, it’s time to decide what to do next.
Emotional discomfort is often a warning that you are existing (living or working or playing) in a physically and/or emotionally unsafe environment. Sometimes the realization that you are unsafe can feel even more unsafe than the situation itself, because with that realization comes the realization that you’re not sure how to make yourself safe.
The first step in this situation is to begin making a safety plan. Do you need to build some resources to escape a situation? Do you need to learn new skills? Do you need to limit or end interactions with someone temporarily or permanently?
Leaving unsafe situations often comes with a significant cost, so be sure you weight that into your plans. Your goal is to minimize your risk in the short run while you plan for long term safety.
And What If It’s You, Not The Situation, That Is Unsafe?
It happens sometimes that the thing making you most unsafe is your own learned behaviors or your body chemistry. And in those situations, you can’t make plans to leave. Instead, you need to make plans to improve your skills and/or body chemistry.
See a therapist if you have the means. If you don’t, consciously and carefully seek out some of the many self-help resources out there, including this website. If your body chemistry can be managed by diet and exercise and you have the ability to form and maintain a habit that will keep your body chemistry managed, do that. And/or seek out a medical doctor (it might need to be a psychiatrist, but in the US many general practitioners will prescribe anti-depressants and non-benzo anti-anxiety medications).
Build a community of people that make you feel good about yourself and your interactions with them, one at a time, being as picky as you need to be. Lurk and/or participate in friendly, compassionate online communities.
Discomfort Can Mean A Lot Of Things
It can be anything from “my life has problems I can’t solve (right now)” to “I fundamentally don’t like myself and want to change, but don’t have faith that I can”. And knowing what your discomfort means can start you on the path to getting better. Good luck in your journey.
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