2020 am I right?
When you’re an anxiety coach, you tend to hear from people when anxiety levels reach an all-time high. And boy have I been hearing from people this year: my clients, my friends, complete strangers… you name it. We are all feeling big fears about what’s happening and what else might happen next.
In addition to the overwhelming fears and anxiety, so many are feeling, we are also feeling lots of other negative feelings too. We’re feeling everything from uneasiness and ennui to anger, guilt, shame to overwhelming sadness, and grief. Even those of us who have struggled with significant unpleasant feelings in the past have been surprised by the depths of our negative feelings this year.
Of course, there are lots of reasons that we are feeling all of the feelings. One underlying factor in all of the negative feelings we are experiencing is that the human brain is designed to notice and remember negative things. Early humans’ brains developed to remember and stay vigilant for dangers such as which snakes could kill you, which berries were poisonous, where the river currents were the most dangerous, etc. And even though most of us aren’t in danger of being swept away by dangerous river currents on a daily basis, our brain still reacts to the world as if we are. We see danger and things to fear everywhere. And 2020 has given our danger-seeking brains lots of things to grab on to.
Knowledge of all of the possible dangers that surround us can send us into a spiral of negative feelings. But knowledge of how our brain works is actually the first key to feeling a little bit better. When you find yourself confronted with overwhelming fear, anxiety, and negative emotions, the first step in alleviating the discomfort you are feeling is simply to remember: This is how you and I and every human everywhere were designed. Our brains are wired to see the negative, the dangerous, the scary. The negative feelings you are experiencing are not a sign that there is something wrong with you.
In fact, they are a sign that you are operating perfectly. You are responding exactly in the way you are designed to react. Take a breath and tell yourself, “This is normal. I am normal. This is how my brain and body are designed to work.”
Once you have reminded yourself that the negative feelings are completely normal and that your brain is just responding in the way it is designed to do, the next step in managing these icky negative feelings is simply to feel into them and identify what those feelings are. I know that might sound counterintuitive. Why on earth would I suggest you feel something that you know will be unpleasant? While this may sound a bit like something the late Yogi Berra might have said, the only way to get through bad feelings… is to get through the bad feelings.
We, humans tend to have two reactions to negative feelings and emotions. We either avoid them with every fiber of our being, or we wallow in them. Many of us will avoid our bad feelings by distracting ourselves, staying busy, never allowing ourselves to be alone or quiet. Sometimes we even find ourselves doing things that are completely self-destructive and dangerous like abusing substances that can harm or even kill us simply to avoid feeling whatever we are feeling. At the same time, others of us decide to continue feeling bad feelings indefinitely. When we choose this latter option, we actually avoid anything that might bring us pleasure or joy.
Neither of these are good options for managing negative feelings. As I said above, the only way through bad feelings is to get through the bad feelings without avoiding them OR staying in them any longer than necessary.
Here’s the way I try to do it. First, I focus on any physical sensations I might be having. I feel into my body and notice where it is. Do I have an ache in my head? A lump in my throat? Tightness in my chest and shoulders? Queasiness in my stomach?
Once I identify the physical sensations, I ask myself, “what is the emotion I am feeling?” But in order to do this, I must be curious and dig deeply as emotions can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes fear lies beneath what I initially think is anger. Sometimes anger is at the heart of sadness. Once I get into the feeling, I give it a name. Perhaps it’s grief or anger or even rage.
Whatever it is I allow it to be without resistance.
Again, I know it’s counterintuitive but allowing emotions – even bad emotions – helps me find relief in several ways. First, I am reminded that there are no emotions so big that I am unable to handle them. Second, I am reminded once again that emotions always pass. And typically, they pass more quickly when I allow them rather than resist feeling them. And finally, I’m reminded that experiencing the full range of human emotions leads to a rich and full life. Empathy and compassion are some of our most positive emotions that only result from having experienced negative feelings. Light does not exist without shadow.
When those negative feelings come, as they will, it helps to remember that this too shall pass.
- How to Fight Fear and Negativity - September 29, 2020
- When Life Gives You Lemons, Positive Psychology Can Help - September 28, 2020