There is so much about our current situation that is challenging. There’s the obvious: job loss, financial insecurity, fear about the virus itself, uncertainty about the future. We’re living in a state of limbo, waiting for (more) bad news while trying to figure out what, if anything, we can do to reassert control and order over our lives. If you’re feeling… well, like you don’t even know what you’re feeling, you’re not alone. All of us are experiencing this massive disruption to our lives, and the collective fear and uncertainty that go along with it, for the first time. We’re learning to navigate and adapt in real time to a world that feels foreign. It’s normal to feel adrift, to run the gamut of emotions, and experience conflicting emotions sometimes simultaneously. Emotional Awareness as a First Step Toward Working Through Emotions It feels like emotions just happen to us. Especially strong negative emotions can feel like they overtake us, inhabiting our body without our permission. To some extent that’s true. What we call “emotions” or “feelings” are our subjective experience of our brain and body’s reaction to a situation. We can’t control the initial physiological response. However, we can shape emotional experiences—how strongly we feel emotions, how the thoughts we have about why we’re feeling a certain way, and how we cope. This process is called emotion regulation. The first step in any kind of emotion regulation strategy is awareness. We must recognize that we are having an emotional experience and then discern what, exactly, we are feeling. Anger, frustration, and fear all feel bad, but they are very different emotions that should prompt different responses if we are trying to help ourselves feel better. Mental health professionals suggest that simply naming our emotions, bringing awareness to how we are feeling, can be a first step in coping with emotional upheaval. Putting words to our inner states is one of the goals of therapy. It’s also a tool you can use to help yourself in the moment. When you’re hit with strong feelings, and you don’t know what they mean or what to do about them, simply pausing to say, “I’m feeling _____” can offer a bit of relief. I’m not suggesting that naming your emotions will magically fix everything, of course. That’s not reasonable. However, it is a tool you can add to your coping toolbox. If you’re like me, you need all the tools you can get right now. Naming emotions, or affect labeling Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel has coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” He explains that emotions come from a region of the brain known as the limbic system. Using language to describe our emotions recruits a different part of the brain, the cortex, which is less stress-reactive. By naming the emotion, we actually “calm” the activity within the limbic system that is triggering such strong emotions. This is supported by fMRI research conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues. They have shown that “affect labeling” … Continue reading “Emotional Awareness and Processing Emotions Through Hard Times”
How’s everyone doing out there? I hope you are all doing your best to protect your health, including your mental health. These are wild times to say the least.
I don’t know what it is like in your neck of the woods. Where I live, a lot of people saw the writing on the wall at the end of last week and prepared to self-quarantine. Stores were suddenly packed as people stocked up with the necessary supplies to stay home for several weeks. (Yes, and dozens of rolls of paper towels and toilet paper, too.)