Friday, June 24, 2016

Emotional Pain- What Am I Supposed To Do About It?

No I'm not talking about the kind of emotional pain when someone tells you you have a long giraffe neck, you swing your hips too much when you walk, and your spoon-shaped nails look ugly (yes i've been told all these things and actually i think they're kind of hilarious and i laugh at them often!). I'm talking the type of deep emotional pain when you're really hurting from something someone did to you and you just can't get over it. We learn a lot about physical struggles in our life, but very little do people touch the topic of emotions, as if to say that we should naturally know the medicines to our emotional ailments, or they shouldn’t exist at all. Rather than explore the depths of our emotions and the thoughts behind them, a lot of us just cover them up and don’t deal with them. Boys are particular susceptible to this as society teaches men that to have emotions is weakness. Girls get taught they are overly-emotional because of their hormones and to have emotions is crazy. So here we are with all these ideas about emotions which don’t really help us because we are human and we all have feelings, which doesn’t say anything about our strength or mental status.

I dealt with some really big stuff in my life last year and for the first time I realized that I don’t really have emotional skills so I’m going to share what I have learned since then. Sometimes we get upset at someone for not being able to tell us what they need. But really there are several steps before that: they need to be able to accept their feelings, understand what emotion it is, and why they are feeling that. If they simply cannot figure out what they are feeling, they cannot be expected to communicate that! A lot of us don’t practice identifying feelings- “I’m hurt, I’m sad, I’m scared”, etc. We simply have learned to skip over these emotions and avoid them as long as possible. Then to figure out why, its like peeling back the layers of an onion. Usually its not what someone said or did that bothers us, but the way our brain interprets that as a message about ourselves. “He ignored me when he walked by, therefore he hates me and I must have done something wrong.” These automatic negative thoughts come from our past experiences and beliefs about ourselves. In order to understand why someone’s behavior or action bothers us, we really need to look deep inside ourselves. It can take a long time to get to it, but the more you practice, the faster it gets.

Going back to my story. I hit rock bottom, and I was an emotional disaster in anyone’s eyes. Not only could I not figure out underlying reasons why, I wasn’t even able to figure out what it was that I was feeling. So when someone would ask me to communicate that I had no idea how. My communication was non-functional because I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling. It was chaos. Worse, my body was slowly deteriorating as punishment, which is what happens in many situations with severe emotional pain- grief, depression, anxiety, heartache, etc. Anyone who has been through grief knows what its like for our bodies- as soon as you wake up, the pain hits you like a wave. Our body responds by disrupting sleep patterns, appetite, pain, concentration, energy, etc. So not only is your mind in chaos, but now maybe you can’t sleep at all and as a result you can’t think, and your stomach hurts from the hunger but you can’t manage to eat, and you are exhausted. This is when I learned that managing emotional pain starts with taking care of your body. Emotional pain can create physical pain like muscle pains, headaches, etc. and it can help to address that pain (baths, heating pad, medicines). Think about your very basic needs. Am I thirsty right now? Am I hungry right now? All other things may be too hard, but just focus on those.

Just being an emotional person doesn’t give you skills. This was a big realization for me. Just because I am able to express my feelings freely, doesn’t mean that I have the skills to deal with them. So here I was in this chaos, and I had to learn. I spent a long time just fighting my feelings. Fighting the feelings of sadness. Fighting the anxiety. Fighting the fact that something wasn’t right. My brain kept telling me- you don’t have time to feel, to fall apart, life is moving forward so you better just ignore it and keep going. Keep going until one day it crumbles apart and you can’t hold it together. The best thing you can do is allow yourself to feel. Allow your children to feel. Allow them to be sad when they are sad and be there for them. Same goes for friends. When we don’t allow ourselves to go through the feelings, we avoid them, and then it gets worse. You, man or woman, are allowed to feel because feeling is a reaction, and no one gets to say your feelings are wrong. The chaos phase can last a while but you can’t rush it. 

This is where I talk about relaxation and stress coping techniques. Unfortunately I didn’t learn these before I started dealing with real issues! The only stress techniques I ever really learned growing up were “take a deep breath”. There are a few categories of relaxation techniques in my mind. External techniques are useful for when you really need to just do something else for a while to get your mind off your pain. I know I just talked about accepting your pain, but sometimes its also important to take a break away from it and just be okay for a while. Being in constant chaos is hard on us, and I found some activities to be particularly helpful for me to just focus on something else for a while. This list is usually your list of hobbies. For me it was things like puzzles, crochet, coloring, painting, drawing, baking, dance, watching movies, etc. Don’t fill up all your time with these, but do use them as needed to take a break. Exercise is its own category. It is amazing and helps to elevate the mood.

Internal techniques are ones that you need some level of concentration or even just an ability to relax for: breathing techniques, 5,4,3,2,1 (5 things you hear, see and feel, then 4 things you hear, see and feel, etc.), meditation, 5 finger exercise (think of a time something funny happened to you, something happy, when you accomplished something, when you felt connected), progressive muscle relaxation, chunk the day (you decide a period of time you think you can handle. You do an activity for that and then reassess, which makes the day more manageable and less overwhelming), listening to music or a guided meditation, etc. Breathing techniques vary but I’ve found breathe in 4 (push your belly out), out 7 (pull your belly IN!) to be a good one for myself. Be creative and think of your own activities- personally I have found writing in washable marker on my arm the people and things that are important to me, or simply “Waheguru”, when I am having a tough time reminds me to keep going. Many people have books of positive things people have said to them, or a list of positive affirmations like “I am a warrior, I am a champion, I am resilient, etc.”

I was in chaos for a long time, but when I moved past that I was in a space to start to think about what the issues are that are leading to your feelings. There’s a few different ways to do this. Talking to a friend, (or professional), or someone you are close to and trust. Isolation hurts us, because no one shares the burden of our pains, no one is there to make you remember that the thoughts swirling inside your head may not be accurate, no one knows we are in trouble so we sink further as we try to pretend to be fine in our homes, at our work, etc. Of course, when we are in emotional pain, we are vulnerable, and you have to be careful who you share with. Some of my issues I realized were best shared with friends that were not in my peer group, but rather those much older than me who had some life experience and perspective. Talking helps us normalize our experiences and realize we aren’t alone, and it can help us reframe our experiences with an outside perspective. Of course you can just think about it. I’ve found that my brain doesn’t think very linearly so I can’t manage my thoughts if I don’t write, so I journal. Writing letters to people (that you don’t send), art, poetry, etc. are great ways to express your feelings in a different form as you process them and dig deep to figure out where they come from.

Lastly, you can work to communicate those thoughts and feelings (and make apologies as necessary) and working towards a solution (if relevant). This is a skill and takes some practice. I used to avoid those words "i need to talk to you", "i have something important to tell you." Now, i can say them a little easier (although i still have a lump in my throat and i get anxious), but it gets easier. Silence speaks louder than words. Sadly, if you don't communicate what you feel, it leaves the other person ultimately guessing and assuming (usually bad things about themselves). So it's important that you do take out the time to share how you are feeling. We can't take away the pain from what we said or did. But if we are willing to have honest conversations about what's going on, we are able to make repairs and move on. 

In the end, I learned a ton of skills that allowed me to keep moving forward. As the skills grow, you become faster at processing. You don’t lose those skills! Worse things have happened to me in the time since, and I have retained my skills for managing my emotions, so I’m never going to be in that same place I was again, never going to be at square one with no emotional skills. Rather now, I am continuing to build my skills. Good luck to everyone on their journey to building skills to manage emotions. It can be really hard but its never too late to start. 

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