Listening to our Emotions

(Lesson 3 with the Vernon Community School, SD22) Let’s try to make sense today of what it would mean to experience our emotions in a different way. Rather than fearing them and shutting them down – actually noticing the sensations of our emotions, and considering the messages within the emotions. How do we learn to hear the message of the emotion? Well, emotions are often felt in the body – there is some sensation stirred up. Because of that, it seemed fitting to start our group today by thinking about a recent situation (unique to each student) that triggered some emotion. Once each student had an example in mind, I asked them to notice what sensations stirred up in their bodies. The students noticed that there was a lot of muscle tension that accompanied their emotions: tightness in their chest, throat, and stomach. Some students giggled and noticed a lot of nervous energy in their bodies. The key is to notice the emotion in your body: just observing the sensations the emotion evokes in your body, and less of those verbal descriptions. Become a curious observer – notice and track the sensations, and how they change (intensifying or lessening). Ultimately, if we learn to notice our emotions and how they impact us, we can tap into the message of the emotion and perhaps even the energy of that emotion – and that emotion will then despite. But what if it doesn’t? Sometimes our emotions do run awry. What if fear bubbles up in a person and when she tunes in, she notices the energy of her fear response but there is no message? We need to change the way we understand these emotions in our bodies, and have an understanding of how our brain processes emotion. For a great description of how the brain processes emotion, check out the Integrated Wellness blog. Fear rises up from our reptilian brain (I know, why the heck does it have to be called the ‘reptilian’ brain?? Well, its because 3 important parts of the human brain emerged successively in the course of evolution. These include the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex). The term ‘reptilian brain’ refers to the brain stem and the cerebellum. These parts of the brain control vital body functions such as heart rate, temperature, and breathing. It is the center for our survival and instinctual behaviours – they are reliable but often rigid and compulsive (and thus resistant to change!). Back to the example of fear flaring up. These situations can trigger panic responses in our bodies. If we fear the panic response in the body, we grow to fear emotions that lead to fear and panic, which can lead to avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, if we don’t want to have an emotion, try as we might not to have it, we still will – just in covert ways. (For example – not wanting to feel the energy of ‘anxiety’ but then noticing this energy has converted into an argumentative communication style in relationships). So instead of being so quick to shut down those emotions – let’s try working through them over the next few weeks.

  1. Notice the emotion instead of quickly shutting it down, bracing or defending against it.
  2. Notice how that emotion manifests in your body (use that ‘curious observer’ to notice what sensations are there in your body – what muscles tighten? How does your breathing change? How does your posture or body movements change?)
  3. If the sensations you notice with the emotion are over-whelming – use one of the techniques we discussed for grounding:
  • usearrow your imagination and visualize the uncomfortable sensations as a colour – allow the colour to move through your body and out through your feet
  • take a moment to write/draw/scribble in your journal as a way to process the emotion
  • imagination technique of protection

These 3 points are all designed to just get you grounded, so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed by the emotions. Once grounded and back in your thinking brain, it becomes a little easier to decide what course of action you would like to take (responding to the emotion).   To learn more, check out Karla McLaren’s blog. She talks a great deal about being with our emotions, and breaking cycles of fearing our emotions.

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Four Reasons Why our Emotions are Important

(Lesson 2 with the Vernon Community School, SD22)

I thought it would be helpful to start out our journey together by exploring the role of emotions. Understanding the role of emotions is an important starting place because emotions are largely misunderstood. We are often sent messages from a young age not to feel certain ways. A common example is a caregiver saying to child “don’t cry” – often because they themselves feel uncomfortable with emotion. Society sends us messages about emotions that are “good” or “unacceptable” – and we then become conditioned that we are unacceptable when we feel this ways. There is a great blog written by Karla McLaren’s about common misunderstandings people have about emotions – check it out if you have a moment.

 The Role of Emotions… in 4 points

1) The Need for Balance (and what happens when we don’t have it)

We don’t enter into this world with the ability to handle intense emotions. Our ability to for affect regulation depends on many circumstances. What we are often left with is a lack of balance between the experience of intense emotions that arise from difficult experiences and the skills required to process those emotions in healthy ways

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2) The problem of not feeling our feelings (why numbing those strong emotions isn’t the solution)

In a similar way that our body strives for homeostasis (internal balance), so to does our body strive for emotional balance. So when the EXPERIENCE of intense emotions EXCEEDS our ability to COPE with those intense emotions, problems arise. Without the needed skills to be with those emotions and work through them, we start to seek out anything that will reduce the distress we feel. Psychologist Kevin Miller writes the following:

“When we experience difficult and particularly horrible sensations and feelings, our tendency is to recoil and avoid them. Mentally, we split off or ‘dissociate’ from these feelings. Physically, our bodies tighten and brace against them. Our minds go into overdrive trying to explain and make sense of these alien and ‘bad’ sensations. So, we are driven to vigilantly attempt to locate their ominous source in the outside world. We believe that if we feel the sensations, they will overwhelm us forever. The fear of being consumed by these ‘terrible’ feelings leads us to convince ourselves that avoiding them will make us feel better and, ultimately, safer. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. “

Unfortunately, the unhealthy behaviours we might choose serve their purpose only temporarily and often create additional problems. They create a false sense of balance by numbing the distress). By learning to feel our emotions and regulate our emotional state in healthy ways, we render these unhealthy behaviours unnecessary.

3) The Feeling your Feelings Proposition

I proposed to the group that there is another way to view our emotions. What if we could view them as giving us important information about ourselves. So we don’t fear our emotions but rather look at them and learn from the messages they have for us. Our emotions are meant to motivate us to take action, to help us survive and avoid danger, and to assist us in making decisions – essentially, to take action.

4) The real Purpose of those Emotions (Harnessing the Power of our Emotions)

Psychologist Kevin Miller writes that emotions are behavioural readiness. Our emotions want us to take action (depending on what the situation requires and what the emotion is telling us). The very word emotion alludes to the notion of motion. When we suppress our emotions because they are uncomfortable, we are suppressing the energy associated with those emotions. So, we need to recognize, understand, and reflect on our emotions.

Our emotions provide us with important messages. If we tune in and listen (i.e. noticing how our body experiences emotion) we can then hear that message and respond appropriately.

 


References:

McLaren, K. (2010). The Language of Emotions.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-Body Attunement Therapy, Clinical Strategies. http://mind-bodyattunement.com/

 

 

My Mentorship Opportunity

Children do not enter into this world knowing how to work through strong emotions. Quite a few conditions actually need to exist for us to foster in kids the ability to deal with their emotions in healthy ways. Without this ability, when difficulties in life happen, we risk kids learning to shut down their emotions, or to fear their emotional reactions, or perhaps to view them as a sign of weakness and grow angry at themselves. If we could help kids learn healthy ways to be with their emotions, I believe they will grow to be stronger, more compassionate, content individuals. I also believe their communication patterns and relationships will improve.

The reality is that many children are not learning how to be with their strong emotions. The world we live in bombards us with messages that can be confusing (show this emotion but not that emotion; this emotion is good but that one is bad; keep calm; don’t show your fear, and so forth).

The good news is that a lot of great researchers (such as Daniel Siegel) are publishing books for parents on how to foster these skills in kids. Some teachers have even started teaching these skills in schools with the MindUP program and Zones of Regulation. The great news is that a lot of people want to learn these skills – including kids. I am so pleased to be a mentor at the Vernon Community School – helping youth aged 12-15 learn the skills to understand their emotions, be with their emotions, and respond to their emotions differently. Each week I’ll post an overview of what we talked about, so that the group (and anyone else who is interested!) can refer back and refresh their learning as needed!

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