Many of us are feeling stressed with the issues of the pandemic, economic distress, health concerns, racism and violence we are facing. When we feel stress our first response is to solve the problem. But what if we can’t solve the problem? Then, we tend to resort to unhealthy behaviors such as bingeing on screen-time, junk food and alcohol. The result is a cycling of the stress over and over.
Stress comes from (and with) a variety of emotions such as fear, worry, doubt, frustration, anger and sadness. These emotions are expressed in our bodies through physical sensations that tend to be very uncomfortable. Naturally, we just want to be happy and make the emotions go away.
The typical solutions involve meditation, yoga, exercise and more. However, Americans are resistant to these solutions. They take extra time out of the day and during that time we tend to ruminate on everything we are not getting done.
The question becomes, if I can’t change the situation, how can I create a better life for now? Advice we usually get is all about positive thinking which can be somewhat helpful but does not address the negative emotions. Another way is to use the following steps:
Step 1 is to name the emotion. An example is: I am feeling fear, right now. Research suggests that naming the emotion reduces the fear response from the amygdala, reduces the stress response by tamping down the sympathetic nervous system and increases our rational thinking by revving up our pre-frontal cortex. It also helps to recognize that our emotions are not there to hurt us, they are meant to inform us and even help us.
A bonus to step one is to become the observer in the BEL model by speaking in 2nd or 3rd person. An example is: [insert your name] is feeling fear, right now. The BEL model teaches us that emotions send hormones throughout our bodies causing our bodies to have a physiological response. In turn, we produce language that feeds back into the emotion. If we notice our heart racing, we might add to the stress by saying, “Oh no, I’m so anxious.” Becoming an observer of this is a way to become our own best friend and step out of that stress loop.
Step 2 is to identify the language that is feeding the emotion. Why are you feeling stressed? What are your thoughts and perceptions?
Step 3 is to discover how the emotion can help you. Emotions have five ways of helping:
- Juxtaposition: How would we know happy if we never felt sad? This can help us recognize that most emotions are temporary. If we felt positive emotions before, we can return to them.
- Motivate (a more challenging choice): In a time of negative emotion it is easier to crawl back in bed. An alternative is to use the energy of the negative emotion to spur us into action that is helpful. If you are afraid of getting sick or losing income, that fear can motivate countering actions.
- Compassion: If we have felt grief at a loss, it is easier for us to feel for others when they feel grief. The same is true of other negative emotions. We can also choose to have compassion for ourselves when we feel badly.
- Show we care: We wouldn’t have any emotions, if we didn’t care. What do you care about that is creating the emotion? Dwelling on what we care about can soften the edges of the emotion.
- Signals us that we are:
- in danger: If a rabid dog is chasing you, forget all of this and just run!
- at a growth edge (vs. stagnate or diminish): Most of the time we are not in real danger. Growing can take more effort that stagnating (or surviving) and diminishing. Sometimes we need to just survive and rest. But when feeling negative emotions, it is helpful to ask, how can I grow from this?
Step 4 is to decide when to let go. After we have had time to metabolize the hormones and recognize how the negative emotions are helpful, it is time to stop wallowing in them. How is your language that is feeding the negative emotion harming you?
Step 5 is choosing more powerful language. What are some believable thoughts you can say that will get you unstuck and help you move forward?
The most important part is to practice, practice, practice to build new neural pathways. Imagine you can handle any emotion, shift to a better emotion, be productive, enthusiastic, and happy because you can!!
Note: This advice is not intended to replace medical or therapeutic help.
Photos from the event