This is hard. Knowing what to write as our area experiences raging wildfires is challenging. I want to help.
I must begin by expressing my deepest, heart-felt gratitude to the amazing and courageous firefighters and first responders who are risking their lives to keep us safe and prevent further loss. Words fail me as my eyes fill with tears of profound gratitude.
I am also grateful to their families who also sacrifice during such times. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for them knowing their loved-ones are on the front lines. Thank you.
I’ve found myself wondering how I can best serve my dear readers. While fear, anxiety and irritability are very human responses when safety and the fabric of our lives is threatened, knowing how to help ourselves and one another is important.
For those who experienced the 2003 wildfires, memories and past trauma can be reactivated. This has certainly happened for me and I know I’m not alone. I’m hearing from many people who are feeling stretched beyond capacity, as life as we’ve known it has changed so abruptly. Difficult and uncomfortable emotions often arise and it can be challenging to think clearly. It may be hard to focus and simple tasks feel more difficult. We may feel more irritable and on edge.
In teaching mindfulness, I’ve learned people often don’t know what to do to help themselves during times of challenge. It’s important to begin by being gentle, patient and kind with ourselves and one another. These times are hard and scary, and holding ourselves and one another in compassion.
I thought it would be helpful to revisit the topic of emotions, and what to do when challenging emotions arise.
Emotions come with a sticky-note of preference; some emotions we try to hold on to, while others we try to avoid or suppress. Feelings of fear, sadness and grief can whelm up, and tempers can flare, even on the heels of feeling love, appreciation, and gratitude. It can be confusing.
Many people are pretty good at pushing uncomfortable emotions down, and trying to ignore them. When we do this, they often spill out in unexpected ways, looking quite unlike what they really are.
Then there are those who let it all loose, and unleash their emotions as they arise. We see this in people who have a habit of anger or drama. There may be a tendency to want to blame others, to off-load our uncomfortable feelings.
Both of these responses to emotion easily creates interpersonal challenge when we’re reacting from our feelings, instead of responding. Extreme, or pent-up emotions, can cause us to say and do things we wouldn’t normally do. Forgiving ourselves and others if we act poorly or in unskilled ways when under duress is helpful.
Emotions are a normal and natural evolutionary capacity, important to our survival. We’re all capable of experiencing every emotion, although there are some we try to avoid and some we prefer.
I refer to emotions as energy-in-motion. The energy will move through us, if we let it.
Emotion researches tell us even the strongest emotions only last 60-90 seconds, unless we suppress them or feed them with a story. They may come back, but will do so with less intensity, if we learn to turn toward them, breathe, and let them pass.
Our emotions colour the way we see the world. They become the lenses through which we view life. When we’re afraid, irritated or angry, we see more things that match that emotion. When we’re feeling big love, happiness or positive emotions, we tend to see the world through those lenses.
Extremes of emotion, fear, love or anger cause a “gating of perception,” in which the brain blocks out what doesn’t match. We don’t perceive clearly.
This is why people ignore blatant warning signs of abuse when they fall madly in love. They just can’t see them. It’s also why angry people see only that which irritates them—everything makes them mad and they’re unable to see the goodness.
The challenge is, many of us don’t let the emotions move, we resist them.
I’ve found it powerful to learn to notice the sensations of emotion moving through me.
Staying open and curious to what feelings are arising, without judgment, and naming the emotion that’s present, is a powerful way to support ourselves.
Dr. Dan Siegel, professor of psychology and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre at the University of Southern California, recommends we “name it to tame it.”
This simple practice has proven powerful for me and made life more pleasant for those I live with.
In the old days, when I was irritated or felt crusty, I’d try to suppress it and pretend everything was OK. I thought I was hiding it from others, but I wasn’t.
My irritation showed in the tone of my voice and in the way the cupboard doors closed. I found more to be irritated by and the feelings grew in size.
In learning to “name it to tame it,” I simply state, out-loud to myself, how I’m feeling, without searching for a reason or story about why, or who’s to blame. This simple act helps to reduce the feeling and invites the thinking and reasoning part of the brain into play. It soothes my system.
Learning to ask for what we need is also helpful. I find myself asking for a hug a little more often these days and it’s helpful for all of us. I’ve also found myself asking for forgiveness when I’m acting in unskilled ways.
It’s important we find ways to support our emotional health. Learning to “name it to tame it,” is a quick and simple practice to support us in these challenging times.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help if you need to.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.