As many of us know, anxiety feels like being chased by a tiger. Our bodies are machines and don’t know the difference between a real threat versus a perceived threat. There may be no tiger chasing us, but our FIGHT, FLIGHT, or FREEZE response takes action the very same way.
Anxiety, fear, panic, and stress are degrees of the same feeling. Excitement is on that continuum as well. I’ve been skiing and felt excited, but at the same time, the ‘butterflies in my stomach’ feeling turn to fear, and then back again to the excitement. Do you know what I mean?
Our feelings (emotions) inform us. They also add depth, richness, and meaning to our lives. When we deny those emotions, anxiety ensues, much like this Tea Pot drawing (courtesy of Janie Hartmann). Strong emotions boil and rumble just below the surface. Lucky there’s an escape route, or spout to let out low levels of emotions.
As the heat in the kettle rises (as life happens), those feelings boil over into uncomfortable levels of anxiety. When we keep the lid on trying hard to release controlled amounts of steam, it’s like being at Grandma’s house and hearing the Whistling Tea Pot in the Kitchen. The sound interrupts the conversation, and someone rushes to the kitchen to turn off the stove. The screaming whistle can only go on so long before it drives us crazy!
Holding in our emotions causes the same reaction. The kettle’s lid eventually blows off and those strong emotions get loose! Yikes! Over time our anxiety becomes palpable and spills over into our relationships. It affects our functioning and eventually wreaks havoc in our lives.
The ‘boil over’ shows up in the form of anger, a panic attack, or a delayed grief response. It’s easy to understand why some of us don’t dare feel those strong emotions. “What if I do cry now like I wanted to when Dad died a few years ago? I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”
When we avoid strong emotions and put on a happy face as if life is always rosy, we end up reacting to little things, rather than responding to what’s really important. Someone might say, ” What up? You’re usually chill about these kinds of things. Your anger seems a bit over the top for the situation.” And, it is. Because when we don’t allow ourselves to feel a range of emotions, we will hit our threshold, and go from 0 to 10 without warning. That’s another discussion about how people with flexible boundaries need to add some tension to their fence lines. The equal amount of Flexion and Tension in our fences offers us choices as to how we respond to our thoughts and feelings.
Emotions are meant to be felt. If we take heed and feel the feeling rather than intellectualize it or run from it, we can respond to our feelings, rather then react to them. A sign of good emotional health is having the ability to think and feel at the same time. Uncoupling our thoughts from our feelings breaks the chain reaction of reacting to an experience rather than choosing a more honorable response.
So what Tips from the Trail can help us deal with our Whistling Tea Pots?
- First off, we have to become aware of our dysfunctional relationship patterns if we want to change them. This is the frustrating part. We want our friends or loved ones to change because obviously, it’s their problem. 🙂 We recognize the pattern and they can’t or aren’t ready to turn FaceTime toward themselves, own it, and choose new ways of relating. When someone avoids feeling for so long, it’s not easy for them to all of a sudden become aware and decide to change.
- If and when we do gain insight into our maladaptive relationship patterns and desire change, then we can slowly, over time, learn to tolerate these strong emotions. How? Try this technique called Riding the Wave of Strong Emotions.
Ride the Wave (learn more about emotional surfing @ http://www.mindfulexposurebook.com/).
You can do this anywhere. Just remember to keep your eyes open if you are driving. 🙂
a. When an uncomfortable emotion shows up, notice it, name it, and talk to yourself about it. For example, “Ah, there’s that fear again. Stay present, Allison. No tiger is chasing you. It is a perceived threat. You can handle this.”
b. Notice where it shows up in your body. I feel it in my stomach.
c. Then, imagine you are in a warm, beautiful ocean and the soft, round swells are rising up and down. See this in your mind’s eye: See it, hear it, feel it, smell it, and taste it. Engage every sense to bring yourself into and onto the WAVE.
d. Now, instead of pushing the emotion away and distracting yourself as you usually would, allow the feeling to rise in you like the warm swell of a wave. Breathe in slowly as the tide rises, and out even slower as you drop down on the other side of the swell.
e. Stay in the WAVE for several breath cycles. That might be four times or 10 times. Stay as long as you can tolerate the feeling. The feeling will dissipate over time. Just notice it as it gradually decreases in intensity. Don’t judge the emotion, or beat yourself up about feeling it. Read more in John Kabat Zinn’s book Mindfulness for Beginners to understand the power of the breath, and the power we have over how we choose to think.
f. I do this exercise when I am driving to an anxiety-provoking event. I sometimes, without warning get overwhelmed with emotion. I’ll notice it and take the time right then to feel it full on and with regular practice that feeling’s emotional valence drops.
g. Now it’s time to Self Regulate or Mood State Change. Come back to the present – get out of the water and onto the beach. Let the emotion go and get into what’s happening around you. I do the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise. Turn on some music, take a walk, or finish driving to the meeting and:
SEE 5 things you haven’t noticed before (Beginner’s Mind concept)
Hear 4 things
Feel 3 things
Smell 2 things
Taste 1 things.
Where ever you are, enjoy this day for you only have one chance at experiencing today. Happy trails, Allison