Handling strong feelings during tough times
For many years, alcohol was the friend I needed most when I was feeling sad, anxious, angry, bored, or lonely.
It was my constant companion. I couldn’t imagine going through tough times without it. I used it to blunt the sharp edges of life for decades. Because of that, I never learned how to process negative emotions. I never learned how to really feel.
When I felt angry or stressed, I'd have a drink to "calm down." Self-conscious? Grab a little bit of liquid courage before joining the party.
But the negative emotions - fear, insecurity, anger - those didn't go away when I took a drink...and then another. And another. Until I forgot what was wrong in the first place and blissfully pass out smiling. But when I woke up in the morning slightly hungover and slightly more depressed than the day before, my belly filled with bile and regret, those negative emotions were still inside of me. Lurking. Blackening. Biding their time.
I couldn't drink my way out of depression, mood swings, and trigger responses. I'm willing to bet that neither can you.
This is because these things - depression, mood swings, trigger responses, and more - these are just symptoms of imbalance in our emotional system. These symptoms of imbalance have serious consequences for our physical health. Research shows that people living with depression have a 1.5 to 2-fold increased risk for a first heart attack. Anxiety contributes to coronary heart disease and chronic anger and hostility negatively impact our health in a number of ways.
Unprocessed negative emotions also make us more susceptible to infectious diseases like COVID-19. This is because emotions alter the functioning of the immune, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems. Basically, the whole body and how it functions.
When I moved away from using alcohol to blunt and bury strong, negative emotions, I tried a variety of process and release techniques. These are ways to experience negative emotions, rather than hide from them. I find that facing feelings like fear and anger head-on is much more useful and ecological than ignoring or suppressing them. It's not about wallowing in the negative emotions like a pig in mud. It's more like an onion peeling itself, layer by layer until there is nothing left.
Interestingly, our brain is built to reward us for taking the narrower path. It releases dopamine - the "feel-good" hormone - when we process negative emotions. And in my experience, I do indeed feel good after doing these techniques.
Don't let the names throw you off. Anyone can do any one of these techniques. There is no artistic talent or athletic prowess required and you don't have to be a zen master. The only requirement is a willingness to try something new!
Technique #1: Artistic Process & Release
In this technique, we use art as a means to process and release strong, negative emotions.
Personally, I paint with acrylics or oils when I do this technique but feel free to incorporate anything artistic at all. Some people draw, others sing, whatever they connect with at that time. Part of the fun with these techniques is experimenting until we find a particularly moving or inspiring mode of expression.
Start by setting aside 30 minutes to one hour of uninterrupted time. Gather your materials and prepare your creative space. Get out papers, canvas, pens, pencils, paints, chalk, whatever else.
Set your intention. This means getting crystal clear on the specific negative emotion that needs to be processed and released. If it's anger or fear, sit for a moment and think about something or someone that brings up strong feelings of anger or fear. Take a few moments to sit quietly and connect with that emotion.
Conjure it up and feel it rise in your body. When you feel fully connected to that emotion, push it out of your body through whatever tool you've picked. Let the emotion rise, flow through your body, into the paintbrush, pencil, or voice...and out of you. Out of you and - equally important - into whatever medium you've picked.
Keep going until you feel a sense of release or relief. The first time I processed and released feelings of anger, I painted so hard and so long that my fingers blistered. I cried. I yelled. I stabbed at the cowering canvas with my brush-cum-dagger. And then all the air was let out of the balloon and I was empty.
Afterward, it is important to take the time to reflect on the 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.
We have choices to make every single day. We can choose to hide from the strong emotions brought on by this pandemic and politics and social upheaval, or we can choose to face them head-on. Join me in exploring what it means to be balanced and how process and release emotions in a healthy way.