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How are you REALLY feeling?

Many of us don't often take the time to check in with how we are feeling. In fact I would go as far to say that most of us are pretty good at avoiding our emotional life all together. After all, who likes to feel pain, anxiety, guilt or shame? Even excitement can feel overwhelming.


Avoidance can feel like the right way to go. We do this by distracting ourselves or using food, alcohol, in some cases drugs, shopping or various other things to take our minds off how are feeling.

This is also called self medicating or numbing our feelings. The trouble with doing this is that with some things, for example alcohol or drugs, it can cause us even more problems in the long run as these are addictive substances.


Most of us are no strangers to comfort or emotional eating. That chocolate bar or bag of crisps or two seems to take the pain away for a short time and tastes great but if we do this on a regular basis, over time, it can makes us feel sluggish or bad about ourselves, especially if we put on weight or develop health problems because of the things we are eating.


And what actually happens to our emotions when we consistently avoid them?


The truth is that they don't go anywhere. They stay. They are pretty persistent. And in time what can happen is that they grow bigger, especially if other things happen, as they so often do, that pile on top of what we are already feeling.

For example, you might feel angry because you've had a terrible day. You don't deal with your anger, instead you avoid it by binge watching your favourite show on Netflix and munching your way through a giant bag of Maltesers.

The next day, someone might cut you up in traffic and your anger grows. Again, you don't acknowledge it, you simply grind your teeth and get on with your day. And so forth.

But eventually, there will be no more room for any anger to be stored up and something seemingly trivial might cause you to have a massive outburst or breakdown.

This is often called misplaced emotion. All it means is that the situation which tips you over the edge might not be what you're actually angry about.

It's a bit like when you fill up a bottle. What happens when you continue to fill it up even though there is no more room?

It spills over.


The thing is that if we don't deal with our feelings, they stay and grow and they find other ways of expression. This is particularly true if you've experienced something traumatic or life changing but it can also happen with our every day feelings.


By avoiding our emotions, we are in fact shutting off a part of ourselves. Feelings tell us something about what is going on for us. They hold vital information, just think about your gut instinct. How many times have you ignored it to the detriment of yourself or your needs?

So why do we avoid our emotions when it might not be doing us any favours?


Many of us have never learned how to tune into our feelings or how to manage or deal with them in a healthy and positive way.

In many families emotions are not talked about or acknowledged.

If we cry as children our parents are quick to comfort us or they might tell us not to cry or not to be silly. Their intentions might be good and come from a place of love and protection but the message is: don't cry.

Similarly we get told that showing anger is unacceptable. Of course it's not acceptable to go around smashing or breaking things or hurting others because you are angry. But that is the behaviour caused by the feeling rather than the emotion itself.


Let's talk about how you can deal with your emotions in a more positive and healthy way.

If you find it helpful, you can write down what comes up for you when you ask yourself how you are feeling.

Writing things down has been shown to help clarify what is going on for you as well as allowing you to get things out of your system.


Try to get in the habit of asking yourself how you are feeling and what is going on for you.

Try to reconnect with your emotional life.

If this feels risky or daunting, don't worry. You can do this at your own pace in a way that feels right for you.

Don't put pressure on yourself and don't force anything.

Some people find it helpful to use mindfulness or meditation to help them with this. What you are trying to do is to create a space for whatever comes up without judging or expecting anything from yourself.

Once an emotion or a sensation is coming up for you, try to name what you are feeling. Are you feeling sad? Happy? Anxious?

What does it feel like? Where in your body does the emotion sit?

What other sensations can you feel?


Remember that whatever you are feeling is okay. There are no right or wrong answers.


Dr Sarah Jane Arnold (2018) uses a technique called NAV to help her clients navigate their emotions. NAV stands for Name the feeling, Accept the feeling and Validate the feeling.

Once you've named what you are feeling, try to accept the emotion.

This might feel difficult at first but by accepting your feeling, you are taking ownership and acknowledging what is going on for you which is important.

Validating your feeling means that you reassure yourself that whatever you are feeling is okay, that it is understandable and that you are not being silly or hysterical or whatever else you usually tell yourself. It means offering yourself compassion.

If you're finding this tricky, think about what you would tell a friend if they were feeling like you are feeling now.

Would you be harsh and critical? Or would you offer them support and compassion?


By engaging in this exercise on a regular basis, you might notice that the need to self medicate or to numb your feelings lessens as you become more aware of your emotional life. Your feelings will no longer grow and become heavy as you carry them around because you are listening and acknoweldging them as they arise. Our feelings often just want to be heard.

Once you've come to grips with your feelings, you might want to explore what to do about them. Some emotions carry with them a particular physicality, for instance anger can feel quite energetic whereas sadness can often makes us want to hide away from the world.

Guilt and shame can feel like a heavy burden that we are lugging around with us and anxiety can often have a sense of restlessness that means we cannot concentrate or settle down to do anything. Again, this is where many of us self medicate or try to numb ourselves.

Alcohol can makes us feel relaxed and like we don't care about anything.

Sugary foods can momentarily lifts us out of our gloom.

Maxing out our credit cards on lovely things can momentarily induce a rush of endorphins making us feel better.

Until your credit card bill flutters through the letterbox or you wake up with the mother of all hangovers. Sound familiar? Yes, I've been there too.


So what would be a better way of dealing with the physicality of our emotions?


I've put some ideas together for you.

Please bear in mind that not everything works for everyone and it is a process of trial and error to find what works best for you.

Be patient with yourself.


Going for a walk - any form of exercise can be helpful to deal with the physicality of an emotion (anger or anxiety for example). Being in nature has been found to have restorative effects on our wellbeing and putting one foot in front of the other is actually a good way of dealing with anything because sometimes that is all we can do.


Engaging in an act of self care that nurtures you - having a hot bath, doing your nails, talking to a friend, cooking your favourite meal- you are sending yourself an important message which is that you matter and that your feelings matter.

If you're feeling sad for example, what you might need to do is to self soothe and comfort yourself and what better way to do this then to engage in an act of self care?


Journalling or any form of creativity - this can be particularly helpful if you're feeling restless or anxious because it allows you to express your emotions and by doing so you are getting them out of your system.

Don't think too much about what you are writing or creating- trust your own process and see what comes up. It's not about whether what you create is good or bad, the point is to create and express yourself. There is no pressue and there are no right or wrong answers or way of doing things.


Writing an unfinished business letter - letter writing can also be helpful, especially if you have unfinished business with someone or are nervous or scared of conflict.

If you're feeling angry or ashamed or guilty, you could also try writing a letter to the particular emotion and the impact it is having on you. Again, you are exploring your feelings and acknowledging them.

Once you've written the letter, you can decide whether to keep it or to let it go. You do not have to send it. The choice is entirely yours. Some of my clients have chosen to burn the letter or to rip it into shreds which for them was a cathartic way of letting go.


Having a cry - sometimes there is nothing for it but to have a good old fashioned cry. Allow yourself to feel whatever it is and if you need to cry, cry. If you need to ugly cry or sob your heart out, allow yourself to do this.

Just make sure that you take care of yourself afterwards. You might want to confide in a trusted friend.

Having a cry means that you get whatever is making you feel sad out of your system. If you feel overwhelmed or are struggling, think about engaging in therapy or talking to someone. There is no shame in asking for help. You are not alone!


Talking to someone - sometimes a problem shared is a problem halved - we can often get the sense that we are on our own with whatever we are experiencing but in actual fact most of us share a lot of similar experiences and feelings. Talking to someone you trust, a friend, relative or even a professional, can be helpful in recognising that you are not on your own and that other people also experience anger, sadness, anxiety or whatever it is you are going through. This in itself can be comforting.


If you do feel that self medicating is something that you use as a coping strategy or that it is getting out of hand, it might be helpful for you to think about what purpose your chosen method of numbing yourself is serving.

For example if you find yourself reaching for a chocolate bar or three every time you have a bad day, ask yourself how you are feeling as you are eating it?

What need is the chocolate meeting?

You might then want to reflect on what else you could do to meet that need. For example if chocolate provides you with comfort, could you perhaps have a bath or phone a friend to meet that need?

If you do feel you have a dependency issue, there is help out there to help you address this in a safe and manageable way. Please do not continue to struggle alone.

I have included some helplines/support agencies at the bottom of this article.




References

Dr Sarah Jane Arnold (2018). The “NAV” Technique: Navigating Challenging Emotions”, Responding to your Emotions, The Calm Coach, Page 63-69



Helplines/Support Agencies


British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (for anyone looking for therapy)- www.bacp.co.uk/search/Therapists


Samaritans- www.samaritans.org.uk , 116 123



Alcoholic Anonymous- 0800 9177650, help@aamail.org


Alcohol Change UK (for anyone worried about how much they are drinking)- www.alcoholchange.org.uk


Frank (confidential advice/information about drugs, their effect, the law) – talktofrank.com, 03001236600


Beat (help with eating disorders)- www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk , 08088010677


Hub of Hope (mental health services database and support available in your area)- www.hubofhope.co.uk





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