“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us, which would have to be taken into account in an exploration of our gusts and storms.” George Elliot, English novelist.“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us, which would have to be taken into account in an exploration of our gusts and storms.” George Elliot, English novelist.
There are times in our lives when we experience a sudden overwhelming feeling of emotions that completely side swipe us into a storm of fear, anger, hurt, or sadness. Often we are triggered by something that brings up old fears or beliefs about ourselves. Without any awareness we respond impulsively and often in ways that we later regret.
For instance, you walk into a party. You see a friend you haven’t seen for a while engaged in a conversation. She sees you but doesn’t acknowledge you. Instead of waiting for her to finish her conversation and then go over to say hello, you start to feel insecure. You don’t know many people at this party. Your chest tightens; you feel slighted and then annoyed. You decide to wait and let her come to you. She finishes her conversation but still hasn’t come to greet you. During this time, your annoyance turns into anger. When she does approach, you are very curt and then walk away. On the way home from the party all you can think about is how rude your friend was. These thoughts keep you up that night, tossing and turning. The anxiety comes from an old belief that you are not lovable or not good enough. Instead of being aware of your triggers, you wake up the next morning, call your friend and tear a strip off her.
That is an example of an emotional storm. These tidal waves of difficult emotions can take us by surprise. If we don’t work through them mindfully, we can react in ways that can disconnect us from ourselves and damage our relationships with others. The aftermath of a storm can sometimes open the door to anxiety or feelings of depression.
Working with these emotional storms involves learning more about your inner world. Dr. Henry Emmons, author of the Chemistry of Joy, calls this “unmapped territory.” The more we understand our inner world – the thoughts, images and beliefs that trigger us – the more confident we can become in learning to navigate through the storm.
According to Dr. Emmons, being more aware of what is happening to you during an emotional storm is the key. When you start to feel a sensation in your body as you react to a situation, recognize it as the start of a negative reaction. Start to breathe deeply to calm yourself.
What are you telling yourself about what is happening in this situation? Are you making assumptions about what is happening? Continue your awareness by recognizing the thoughts you are feeling as they come up without judging them. Just take notice. Remember, they are only thoughts. They may not be true.
As these thoughts come up, you may feel the urge to try to escape them or the situation. Difficult emotions are uncomfortable. We often try to numb ourselves with food or drink, for example, to calm ourselves. But avoiding them creates a wall between yourself and your feelings which actually prolongs the pain. Instead, ground yourself, acknowledge you thought or emotion and then refocus on your body sensations.
Avoiding the feelings can also put up a wall between yourself and those you love especially when you respond with damaging behaviours. You know the storm has taken over when you react impulsively and regret it later. Before you react, go back to your calming breath. Ask yourself, ‘Am I overreacting? Am I making assumptions about what is going on? How can I look at this situation differently?’
Dr. Emmons recommends reflecting on and “identifying what triggers started the storm and the patterns and thoughts that contributed to its velocity.” Understanding where they come from and challenging negative beliefs about ourselves with compassion can help us gain the wisdom needed to avoid suffering the next time we feel a storm coming.
For further information about the Canadian Mental Health Association, Thunder Bay Branch, and how can contribute, please visit www.cmha-tb.on.ca.