So… how are you feeling?
Hold on! Before you answer that. I am talking about, you know, emotions.
Glad, sad, mad, scared, ashamed…?
These are some of the words therapists use to help get their clients started on identifying their feelings. You might be using these words, among many others, to identify your own feelings. If so, good for you! However, you might also find yourself to be not so comfortable in talking about your emotions. In fact, not always even sure of what emotions you are experiencing.
If being aware of your own emotions doesn’t come easily, and if talking about emotions is also hard for you, you are not alone. But having said that, emotions are part of being human. And being aware of our emotions, and being able to express feelings, enhances our overall wellness. As well as improving communication.
What Are You Doing With Your Feelings?
Pretending that you don’t have feelings, also referred to as swallowing your feelings, doesn’t make them go away. Doing this only causes pain to yourself and the people who care about you. As an instructor here at Excelsior University (Yes, University! Don’t you just love the sound of that?}, I often interact with my students about emotional issues.
We live in very challenging times. We are experiencing a lot of unrest in the world, while we are also trying to emerge from a global pandemic. As well as the many challenges we are facing in our own communities, our workplaces, our home life. My Excelsior students are trying to obtain an education in the midst of all of this. They are my heroes!
Here a few composite examples:
A single parent of three children is trying to balance work, childcare, and education, including caring for a child with a learning disability, while also tending to the needs of an aging parent. And completing a college degree which will mean more economic securing for the family.
A member of the Armed Forces is leaving for what may be a lengthy deployment and is concerned about completing their education so they can move to the next level in their military career. The student has fallen behind in two courses.
After losing family members to cancer as well as COVID-19, a student finds themselves overwhelmed by the need to provide various kinds of assistance as well as emotional support to family members, so much so that they have not had time to do their own grieving. They are falling behind in their schoolwork.
These are just a few examples of the challenges our students face. Others I have encountered have included loss of a home due to a natural disaster, domestic violence, and medical diagnoses. Again, among other challenges.
As you read through these examples, you may have thought about challenges you have encountered in your own life. Life’s challenges lead to stress, and the emotions that I identified at the beginning of this article. Stress that is not addressed can, over time, lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. What are you doing about your stress?
Now, on any given day, you may find yourself experience emotions that are all offer the place, especially during times when life seems to throw one curveball after another in your direction, or in the direction of someone for whom you are attempting to provide emotional support. Having emotions are just part of being human. So why do so many of us tend to hold our emotions in, or deny their existence, or refuse to talk about emotions with the people in our lives?
Well, I think we are all too often afraid of emotions, afraid they will overcome us, that we won’t be able to function if we give into them. But I am here to tell you, as a therapist, that acknowledging emotions, allowing ourselves to feel our feelings, is an important step toward emotional wellness.
Just how do you do that, you might be asking? Well, I just happen to have a few ideas.
In the Moment, Engage Your Rational Mind
Clients often say to me, “Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by feelings. They just run away with me. How can I keep that from happening? Here’s how:
Start by accepting that feelings are part of being human and own your feelings! Many of us were brought up in families where emotions were not okay. As a result, we learned to swallow our own feelings. If this was your experience, you may also have learned, perhaps the hard way, that unacknowledged feelings build up and find their way out, often at the wrong place and time and with a much greater intensity than the situation warrants, like blowing up all over the place over something pretty insignificant. So feel how you feel. And give yourself permission to tell other people how you are feeling, as feelings arise, not after you have been holding them back for a few days. This may take some practice. But if you do make it a habit of expressing your feelings on a regular basis, you will also feel less at risk for having your feelings fly out of control. In other words, let go of the assumption to automatically assume you don’t have a right to your feelings.
Letting those feelings out doesn’t mean you will lose control. Actually, it’s the opposite. Because feelings kept inside will build up over time. They have to go somewhere. They may cause internal stress, which can have a negative effect on your well-being, and even affect your health. Built-up emotions can lead to tension that never seems to away, which can result in high blood pressure, heart problems, stomach issues, among others. Or mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Take a step back when you need to. When you’re caught up in a situation, it’s really hard to not to get overwhelmed emotionally to the point where you become alarmed by the intensity of your feelings and possibly concerned over the impact of your feelings on other people. Often after it’s too late and your reactions have done damage to yourself and others. You may also be likely to feel overwhelmed and out of control if you feel your emotions are being ignored or disrespected by others. This is a good time to take a step back from the situation. It might mean holding up your hand and stating that you need a couple of minutes. It might also mean leaving the room for a brief period of time. The point here is to do what you need to do take care of yourself and your emotions. In the moment.
Breathe. You can use your breath to help you from becoming overwhelmed by your emotions. The technique is called diaphragmatic breathing. A slow deep breath in through your nose, all the way in until you belly sticks out. And then slowly release your breath out through your mouth. Do this a few times and you will be amazed at the results. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to give you sense of peace and calm. It also helps you to engage your rational mind so your emotions don’t run away with you.
A Few Additional Thoughts About Anger
I think it is safe to say that, for better or worse, we live in a culture of anger. It seems to me that it has become okay to blow up, to express angry thought, angry words, to take angry actions against other people. So I think that a discussion about mental health needs to include words about anger.
Sure, getting angry is part of being human. Keep in mind that anger is a primary emotion. When someone treats you or someone you care about in a disrespectful or aggressive manner, it’s only human to get mad. Nature has wired us to get angry. Where the complications arise is what we choose to do with all that anger. Emphasis on choose!
However, anger is also what therapists call a covering emotion. In other words, we may have an underlying emotion, like fear, or disappointment, or sadness, going on. If we are avoiding acknowledging or experiencing that emotion, we may find ourselves veering into anger instead. And keep in mind that anger may feel more comfortable at the moment, and more acceptable than the feelings the anger may be covering. For example, have ever felt deeply sad or disappointed, and found yourself on the edge of blowing up at someone? If so, you were using your anger to cover another feeling.
And let’s face it, anger can sure feel better than whatever emotions it’s covering up. Sadness can feel like one long heartache that seems to hang over you like a dark cloud. Fear conjures up lots of “what ifs,” and reminds us that not only are we not in control of whatever situation is causing the fear, we might also be helpless to stop it from happening. Disappointment is just plain old crushing. And so it’s human nature to latch on to anger to cover it all up and, at least temporarily, make it go away.
Anger can feel energizing, purposeful. Blowing up all over the place can make us feel like, at least temporarily, we are actually doing something. Not just sitting with sadness or fear or disappointment. The problem is that our anger is generally not aimed toward constructive action. Anger is all too often a destructive force, doing great damage to our wellness and our relationships. Wouldn’t be a better idea to acknowledge the emotions we are trying to cover up with all that anger, and learn some creative ways to cope?
In the moment of anger, take a step back. Do whatever it takes to engage your rational mind, whether it’s taking a few deep, calming breaths, or leaving the room for a moment to regroup, or whatever else you can do to help you think before you react. Get back in touch with what’s pushing that anger button. This will help to get a handle on that urge to go from zero to sixty.
Don’t let yourself hide behind blowing up. Sometimes you’re mad because you’re mad. But other times, anger is not anger at all. Instead it’s sadness or fear that you don’t want to admit to, and so you cover those feelings up by blowing up. And if you’re feeling helpless in some way, anger is often the go-to response. What to do about that? Ask yourself: Am I really mad about something? Or is it too hard for me to admit how I really feel? It might help to sit down and sort your feelings out with someone who can listen. And remember, anger puts a wedge between you and the people around you, at a time when you could use some support.
And be ready to apologize. You’re dealing with a lot, and you’re doing the best you can. As are your loved ones. If your anger got the best of you, admit it. Resolve to do better next time. Ask for help.
Start the Day Being Aware of Your Emotions
Here’s a way to get on top of your emotions proactively:
Each morning, do an inventory of your emotions. Ask yourself: How am I feeling today? Glad? Great! Or sad? Scared? Frustrated? Just plain old mad? Ask yourself what’s causing you to feel that way. Most likely you can identify thoughts or recent events that are bring up all those feelings. If you’re angry, ask yourself why. And if you can’t come up with an answer, cast a wider net for other feelings that may be behind all that anger.
Take a look at what you can and can’t control. Taking a moment to acknowledge your level of control, or lack thereof, can help you to maintain your perspective. Is it time to recite the serenity prayer, and accept what you can’t control? Or is it time to take some action to address an issue you have been pushing aside?
Know what you need to do to stay in a mentally healthy place. Again, be proactive. If you start the day with feelings that are hard to sit with, like sadness or frustration or fear, then consider what you can do help yourself cope. Is there someone you can call for a pep talk? Do you need to take time for a walk? Maybe some meditation? A break with some calming music? Or a maybe a religious or spiritual practice? I always recommend to clients that they have a tool box of coping skills they can pull from as needed.
Maintain self-awareness. It’s only human to feel overwhelmed when something happens that presses a button. So how do you stop that from happening? The key is to be aware of yourself, each and every moment of the day. That means knowing when you are might be feeling especially vulnerable. Being your authentic self can enhance your wellness. Doing your morning emotional inventory will kick start your self-awareness for the rest of the day.
Make Your Home a Safe Space for Emotions
Help your family members to feel comfortable talking about feelings. This will have an incredibly positive impact on the emotional wellness of everyone in your household:
Practice using feeling words. My clients have said to me that they’re afraid that if they talked about how they’re feeling, the roof might come crashing down on them. I can pretty much guarantee that won’t happen. So give it a try. Start with something about how your day went: “I felt frustrated at work today when…” Or, “When I saw that traffic was backed up, I was worried that…” Wow, you just expressed a feeling. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
And don’t assume your loved ones can’t listen to how you feel. One of the biggest excuses I hear for holding in emotions is protecting other people. In the first place, they can see your feelings all over your face so, chances are, you’re not fooling anybody. And in the second place, your loved ones may not be as fragile as you think they are. Not sure if they can talk about feelings with you? How about asking? And while you’re at it, volunteer to listen to how they feel, too.
Encourage your children to express emotions! Remember, kids know how their parents are feeling, and they may as a result hold back on saying something they fear may upset their parents. So they may be holding back on talking about their feelings and not get the support from their parents they need.
While We’re At It, Let’s Encourage People Around Us to Talk About Feelings
One more time: humans have emotions. So here’s a challenge for you: What if you took a few more risks to talk about your own feelings – with your family members, with your neighbors, at work, with your students, with any of the people you come into contact with in life. And encouraged them to do the same?
Have a heart. You can’t control how you feel but you don’t have to let your feelings control you. Accept your own feelings – all of them – and let yourself be human. Be aware of the range of your emotions. Sure, feelings can be scary. But allow your feelings to see the light of day.
Compassion. Give yourself a break, and you’ll be that much more able to give others a break, too. We’re all in this together!
This article was published in the Excelsior University Magazine.
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and educator, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening health conditions, as well as their families and professional caregivers. His website is JustGotDiagnosed.com. He is currently writing “The Power of Closure: Why We Want It, How To Get It, And When to Walk Away,” to be published by Tarcher Perigee in the spring of 2024. He has taught at Excelsior University since 2008 and was named Distinguished Faculty Member of the School of Health Sciences in 2013.