Essential steps for dealing with intense and difficult emotions – working with your nervous system and your body’s needs
Emotions are messengers – giving us information about our internal and external environments. We are meant to get the message and then release it. When we don’t listen, or get the message, it’s job is not done, and it will intensify (via sensations and discomfort) – until it gets our attention. The better we are at noticing the early signs of emotion, the quicker we are to respond and maintain comfort and equilibrium.
The following steps can help you engage with intense or uncomfortable emotions with more ease and resilience.
1. DISCONNECT FROM THE STORY
As soon as you notice the intense or difficult emotion, disconnect from the story. Intense and difficult emotions register in the same area of the brain that physical pain does – because it actually creates physical pain in the body. To keep thinking painful thoughts is like continuing to cut yourself with a knife.
Thinking painful thoughts causes intense discomfort in our bodies, and when we continue to ruminate, it is like throwing petrol on a fire. We make the discomfort in our bodies worse.
Another nasty side effect of ruminating is that we strengthen neuropathways in our brains that continue to process our experience the same way. The stronger the neuropathway, the harder it is to have a different experience.
2. DIRECT and NOTICE
Direct your attention onto your body, and notice how it responds to your thoughts. Do not go back to the story – become an observer and notice the sensations, energy, discomfort, pain…
Emotions express themselves through the body via a language of sensation. Be curious about the qualities of the uncomfortable sensation and remember to be the observer. Does it have a temperature? What size is it? Does it have a movement? Throbbing, stabbing, pressure…? Is there a colour? Does it have edges? On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is extremely uncomfortable, how uncomfortable is it?
3. CREATE SPACE
Imagine creating space in your body for the sensations, energy, discomfort, or pain to be there and express themselves without judgment. Most importantly – DO NOT RESIST. Our natural response is to move away from pain, so this takes a little bit of discipline to let it be there without ignoring, suppressing, pushing it away, making it wrong, or wanting it to change – these are all forms of resistance.
Ironically – or so it might seem, when we create space without judgment or resistance, the intensity of the sensation, energy, discomfort or pain diminishes. Once they have been accepted and ‘heard,’ their job as messengers is over.
4. REDIRECT ATTENTION for RELIEF
Do not be a superhero or martyr and stay with the discomfort too long – this has the effect of re-traumatising your nervous system. Tiny little ‘doses’ is way more effective. Staying with the discomfort for just a few seconds can often be enough to make a difference.
Sometimes the discomfort is too intense for our fragile nervous systems (they are way more fragile than we realise – think timid wild animal – that is exactly what our nervous systems are like). We need to give our bodies temporary relief by producing pleasant, comforting sensations. This is NOT avoidance – we are simply giving the body some relief, to let the energies settle and re-calibrate.
You can provide comfort and relief to your body by re-directing your awareness to something in your external environment. Choose something that is pleasing – it could be the colour of a book cover. If you can look at nature, perhaps through a window, this is even better. Put your full attention for a minute or two on what makes it pleasing.
You may notice yourself yawning, or taking a deep breath, or gurgling in your stomach (maybe passing wind!), burping, or feeling the need to move or stretch. These are signs that the energy is moving. Allow your body to respond in whatever way it wants. You also might get teary – be careful not to fight the tears, but also not to go into sobbing.
5. CHECK IN WITH YOUR BODY
Check in with your body and notice how it responds to the pleasant thoughts. If possible, don’t go back to the place where you experienced the uncomfortable sensations just yet, and definitely do not go back to the story (yet). Take the time to experience how your body responds to pleasant thoughts.
Revisit the place in your body where you had experienced the discomfort and notice what has changed. You may notice:
- It feels less intense: follow the steps again from step 3 and allow more energy to express and release
- A new sensation of discomfort arises in a different place: follow the steps again from step 3 and allow more energy to express and release
- It is gone: you can leave it there or you can revisit the story and notice the shift – you should feel less or even no charge around the story. When this happens, you are now resourced and able to respond to the situation with greater clarity, compassion, and creativity.
7. REST and DRINK WATER
Moving heavy energy through our bodies is tiring. Take time to rest if that is what your body needs. Toxins are also released as we move energy in the body, so drinking extra water help to flush them out. It will help you feel better, sooner.
When you make this process a habit, you will recognise the early signs of uncomfortable emotions, and work with them before they become unbearable.
Here are the steps again in summary:
- Disconnect from the story
- Direct your attention to your body, and notice how it responds
- Create space for discomfort
- Redirect your attention to something pleasing to provide temporary relief
- Check in with your body – how does it respond to the relief
- Revisit the place of discomfort
- Rest and drink extra water
Remember, when we listen to the whispers of our bodies, we don’t have to hear them scream.