“The reason most people come to see me is because they shove their thoughts and feelings to the side and try to move on with life without attending to their emotional state or needs “
I can’t tell you how often I hear patients talking about wanting to get over it. “It” being whatever situation is a trigger for their grief, pain, anxiety or depression. I always cringe at that statement, mostly because it implies that one should be able to simply get over meaningful issues.
In many of the cases the people trying to just get over “it” are mad and frustrated with themselves for what they perceive as weakness. I am always curious what makes people believe they can simply erase all feelings and attachments to significant events. Is it magical thinking? A hope or wish that one can simply get rid of emotions? Certainly there is an element of that. Is it because having and expressing negative feelings is still perceived as weak by some, and they want to avoid that label at all costs? Again, that is often the case. Of course for this latter group, coming into therapy is a huge blow, but by that point an unavoidable move.
If I were to identify the primary reason most people end up in my office, I would not name any one specific situation or psychological issue. The reason most people come to see me is because, they shove their thoughts and feelings to the side and try to move on with life without attending to their emotional state or needs. Energy doesn’t disappear it shifts; this is the conservation law of energy, a hallmark principle in physics**. So if you take all that emotional energy and your ignore it, it will change and transform into something far worse over time. Emotions like any other physical experience are there to inform us of our state of being. You would never ignore throbbing pain in your back for months at a time – the pain is an indication of a problem that needs to be dealt with, so why is it that we try to ignore emotional pain (I am using the term pain very broadly here to mean any distressing state from stress, to anxiety to depression or apathy)?
As a society we are beginning to understand the value and importance of self-care. Certainly a very large proportion of the readers of this blog are interested in healthier living. To believe that one can achieve that without proper attendance to your emotional state is like thinking that you can be healthy still eating horribly if only you make it to the gym enough times a week. You might get stronger, and improve your power and stamina, but in no way are you healthy yet.
What does it take to build emotional health?
At its simplest level it requires some self-awareness, a willingness to think upon and investigate your moods, and a decent arsenal of coping skills. In other words pay attention to how you feel, take the time to label your emotions. Simply saying “I am upset,” or “I feel bad,” doesn’t provide you with enough information to take action. When you can name the emotions that are present try to look for triggers. Remember to identify situations, but also the reason why a given situation triggers a feeling (these will be thoughts). Once you have taken those three steps see how you can address the real issue. It may be that what you are telling yourself is an exaggeration or a distortion and that’s what is triggering the distress. It may be that there is an identifiable issue that you can address through action. At the very least there are a few skills such as deep breathing, meditation, stretching and centering that can help you manage the emotions you are experiencing. Finally, sometimes we go through things and there is nothing we can do, there is no distortion, no solution, no fix; what you feel needs to be experienced, processes and dealt with. It is like a mending bone, you can’t make it heal faster, but you take care of yourself and accept the limitations it places on your mobility while it does heal.
Quick example: let’s say you have decided to build your emotional health, you take the time to pay attention to yourself and your behaviors. You notice that you have been much more impatient with your peers today. Upon further investigation you can say that you are feeling stressed, a bit overwhelmed and irritable. Looking back you note that this kind of started earlier in the day when your boss asked you about an upcoming deadline.
Now is the time to examine your thoughts. What is it about the deadline that is triggering these feelings? Your thoughts are that you have three other deadlines to meet in the next week, and you have a date later on tonight and you don’t see how you will get everything done in time to get ready for your date. You tell yourself that there is too much to do, too little time, you can never get it all done. Well now you have something to work with. You can start by tweaking a few things at the thought level – there is a lot (not too much) to do, and not a lot of time. You will be able to get everything done, but maybe not at the same time, or within your deadlines. Behaviorally there are a few things you can also do, since at the end of the day this is a time management issue. I would start with creating a list of to dos and prioritizing your tasks. Cut out or delay anything that is not urgent, be mindful of not wasting time on less important issues. Looking at the remaining elements try to guess how much time it will take you to do each one of them (and realize it will take you longer than you anticipate in most cases). Then realistically evaluate what you can do today. This might mean pushing back deadlines and speaking with people who will be upset with you for doing so. I would also recommend taking 10-15 minutes of this very precious time to do some deep breathing and calming your nervous system down; it might seem like an waste of time, but you will be more efficient and productive if you are calm, so in the long run it will save you time and energy.
Unfortunately there are times and situations that require more work or expertise than we might have. In those rare instances calling on someone to help is not a sign of weakness nor failure. After all, nobody seems to think twice about calling in a trainer or a coach to help with physical fitness when their own efforts fall short, getting a therapist to work on your emotional fitness is no different.
**”In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change—it is said to be conserved over time. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can change form; for instance, chemical energy can be converted to kinetic energy.” Wikipedia