Discover healthy ways to cope with strong emotions we are all experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.
For my birthday last year, I decided to take a yearlong break from alcohol. There are lots of reasons why but chief among them was the newfound realization that I was in a relationship with alcohol.
Alcohol was the friend I needed most when I was feeling sad, anxious, angry, bored, or lonely. It was my constant companion and I couldn’t imagine going through tough times without it. The truth is, I had been using alcohol to avoid feeling for my entire life.
I blunted the sharp edges of life for decades and because of that, I never learned how to process negative emotions. And they weren’t gone. Those negative emotions – fear, anxiety, anger – they were still inside of me.
If you’ve been drinking away your feelings of fear, grief, anxiety, or anger then you know what I mean. That knot in your belly is still there when you wake up the next day, slightly hungover and slightly depressed.
You can’t drink or smoke or screw your way out of depression, mood swings, and trigger responses.
These symptoms of imbalance in your emotional system all have serious consequences for your physical health. If you’re depressed, research shows that you have a 1.5 to 2-fold increased risk for a first heart attack. Anxiety plays a key role in developing coronary heart disease and if you’re chronically angry or hostile, research shows that you’re negatively impacting your health in a number of ways.
And most critically, negative emotions make you more susceptible to infectious diseases like COVID-19. This is because emotions alter the functioning of your central nervous system and your immune system, as well as your endocrine and cardiovascular systems.
The key is processing and releasing negative emotions, rather than blunting them or burying them by any means possible.
When you process a negative emotion, you experience it. You move through it. You don’t run from it and you don’t suppress it.
Interestingly, your brain is built to reward you for doing this. When you process negative emotions, your brain releases dopamine in the amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and medial temporal lobe. Dopamine is the same hormone that makes you feel so good after orgasm.
Processing negative emotions doesn’t mean you wallow in them. You can use emotional release techniques to let them go - like an onion peeling itself, layer by layer until there is nothing left.
Technique #1: Artistic Process & Release
You don’t have to be an artist to utilize this technique. Feel free to incorporate anything artistic, whether it is painting, drawing, singing, or anything else that you connect with. Experiment until you find an artistic expression that you feel moves or inspires you.
Set aside 30 minutes to one hour of uninterrupted time to work through this process and release technique. Gather your materials and prepare your creative space. Before you begin, take a few moments to set your intention for the exercise. For example, your intention might be to process and release fear. Then, take a few moments to sit quietly and connect with the emotion you’re wanting to process and release. Conjure it up and feel it rise in your body. Sit with it for a moment and when you’re fully connected with that emotion, it’s time to let it flow and let it go.
As that emotion rises within you, allow yourself to feel it and begin participating in the artistic expression form that you’ve chosen. Let that emotion rise in you, flow through you, flow out of you through your paintbrush, pencil, voice, or hands and into whatever medium you choose.
Keep going until you feel a sense of release or relief and then take time to reflect on your experience.
Technique #2: Movement Process & Release
As with the artistic technique, movement process and release can take on various forms depending on what specific type of movement you connect with the most. Some people connect with movements like running, walking, lifting weights or punching a bag, while others connect with movements like stretching, yoga, or dancing.
One movement that is accessible to just about anyone is rhythmic drumming. Research shows that drumming induces relaxation, enhances theta-wave production, and boosts brain-wave synchronization. It is a powerful vehicle for the release of repressed emotions and emotional trauma.
To do the movement process and release technique, follow the same steps as the artistic one. Prepare, set your intention, generate the emotion you want to process and release, then let it flow and let it go. As you feel that emotion, let it flow through and out of you into the pavement, the punching bag, the drum or whatever medium you’ve chosen. Keep going until you feel emptied out and have a sense of release.
Technique #3: Emotional Release Meditation
Research shows that meditation and breathing techniques may actually be superior to medication for addressing whole-body changes that occur in response to stress, anxiety, and depression. In fact, meditation, relaxation, and breathing techniques directly counteract the detrimental effects that stress and negative emotions have on your body.
To try this technique, set aside 30 minutes to one hour of uninterrupted time. Prepare your space so that it is quiet and comfortable. Some people light candles, dim lights, or play gently relaxing music. Then, set your intention for the exercise and connect with the emotion or feeling that you want to process and release.
Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and place your hands gently on your belly. Breathe in deeply, feeling your belly expand up against your hand. As you exhale, fully release all the breath out of your body. You should feel your hand collapsing or relaxing as you exhale. Again, inhale and draw your breath all the way to the base of your belly and then exhale fully.
As you are breathing in this deep and rhythmic way, allow the negative emotion to rise within you and with every exhale, imagine that negative emotion is being released from your body. Continue this breathing pattern and visualization until you feel that emotion has been released and you experience a sense of relief.
Whichever technique you choose to experiment with, it’s about finding what works best for you.
As you’re sitting at home “hunkered down” as we say here in Texas, you have choices to make every single day. You can choose to hide from the strong emotions brought on by this pandemic and the associated social isolation or you can choose to face them head-on.
Use this time to explore what it means to be whole in your emotional self and to develop your ability to process and release emotions in a healthy way. Processing and releasing negative emotions will help boost your immune system and keep you from day-drinking your way into liver disease, weight gain, and depression.
It will also help you maintain good relationships with people you love but who might be getting on your last nerve right about now.