Viewing entries tagged
emotions

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

Emotional avoidance: Make it go away!

emotions pic.png

Lately I’ve been thinking about the various ways that people try to avoid their emotions. And it’s understandable. Emotions can feel pretty scary, especially when they get intense. Intense anxiety can elicit a sense of impending doom, the physical symptoms that accompany panic can generate a sense that one is having a heart attack, and individuals overcome with anger can feel like they are going to explode. So it makes sense that we would want to avoid negative emotions. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to cite getting rid of an emotion like anxiety as their initial goal for therapy.

Problems with wanting to eliminate negative emotions

Although it’s understandable to want to avoid negative emotions, either by numbing ourselves when they arise, or wishing we could eliminate them altogether, there are several reasons why this isn’t actually a good idea.

1. Our emotions are useful signals. A helpful analogy here is to think of physical pain – although many people wish they could avoid or prevent physical pain, pain signals give us useful information that we need to protect ourselves (indeed, people who do not get these pain signals often develop serious injuries; see link). In a similar way, our emotions are there to tell us something. For example, when we feel threatened in some way, anxiety alerts us to the possibility that we may need to protect or prepare ourselves. Without any anxiety, we might take risks that put us in physical danger, or we might shirk our responsibilities altogether.

2. It’s often not possible. When we suppress an emotion, it doesn’t typically go away.

a. The emotion might actually intensify over time (have you ever tried to push away feelings of frustration about something only to blow up about it later on?). In this way, our emotions are not all that different from children asking their parent for something – what do they do if they don’t feel heard? They raise the volume (sometimes very, very loudly!).

a. Or the emotion might come out in a different form, which can be hard for those around you to understand (e.g. if you become passive aggressive) or in ways that might confuse even you (e.g. you might be unsure of why you feel tense, irritable or drained).

3. The ways that some people try to avoid negative emotions, including drugs or self-harm, can lead to more suffering. Sometimes people avoid thinking about negative emotions by throwing themselves into projects or focusing on the world outside of their inner experiences (e.g. with to-do lists, focusing on other people’s problems); this can be a hard one to detect because we might trick ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when we might also be avoiding (the motivation behind our action is the important distinction here).

So, you want me to just…what? Sit with my emotion?

guy rain head.png

Although this might seem crazy at first, allowing ourselves to sit with a negative emotion provides us the opportunity to see that our emotional wave (although very uncomfortable) will decline in intensity over time and will not destroy us. Also, by not trying to “do something” to get rid of the emotion at the peak of its intensity, we might avoid doing something impulsively which we might later regret (McKay, Wood, & Brantley, 2007).

Rather than telling ourselves that our emotions do not make sense, that we should not be feeling that way, that our emotions are dangerous, or that we should try to get rid of them, we can try to identify what emotions we are experiencing in that moment (e.g. I feel angry), validate for ourselves that our feelings are understandable in light of the situation or context (e.g. it’s understandable that I’m angry because this situation is unfair), provide ourselves with words of compassion (e.g. I know this is really hard right now, and I know I will get through this), and ask ourselves what it is that we might need - not what we need to get rid of the emotion, but what we need to take care of ourselves (e.g. restorative activities like a nap, working toward boundary setting)…and if we’re really up for challenging ourselves, we can even thank our emotion for drawing our attention to this need and for giving us the opportunity to take care of ourselves in a more compassionate and present way (Neff & Germer, 2018).


Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


References

1. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/congenital-insensitivity-to-pain

2. McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

3. Neff, K. & Germer, C. (2018). The mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

Avoid Avoiding and Embrace Living!

pug-1210025__340.jpg

Have you ever had the thought, “I never want to feel this way again.” Maybe you did something that you felt was embarrassing, maybe you experienced something traumatic, maybe you ended a significant relationship and felt broken-hearted. Maybe someone made fun of you and made you feel small. Maybe you had a panic attack and you felt like you were losing control. 

After experiences like these, we understandably want to protect ourselves from the difficult thoughts and feelings that come along with them. Why wouldn’t we? So we change our behaviours, a lot or a little, to get ourselves as far away from these painful thoughts and feeling as possible. Sometimes though in our efforts to avoid feeling this sort of pain again, we end up avoiding some of the good things life has to offer. After all, most of the awesome, magical, fulfilling things that happen in life often entail tolerating difficult thoughts and feelings – like running a marathon, writing a difficult entrance exam, or asking someone out on a date. Moreover, the things that we do to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings are sometimes unhealthy – like drinking too much, sleeping a lot, overeating or under-eating, obsessively reading the news, etc.

Here are some examples:

Beatrice played and loved sports ever since her early days of elementary school. During her first year of high school, her swimming coach commented that if she could just lose her “baby fat”, she’d really have a competitive edge. Although you would not have been able to tell by the look on her face, in that moment, Beatrice felt deep shame. She started dieting as a way to lose weight and feel in control, and in an effort to avoid ever feeling bad about her weight again. Eventually Beatrice developed an eating disorder, and much of her time was spent thinking about food, counting calories, and exercising. She would avoid social events that involved food, as she preferred to have full control of what and when she ate. Also, because she was underweight, she felt more tired and had difficulty concentrating, so school became more difficult and her grades were negatively affected.

Rahim had a panic attack in the middle of a crowd at an outdoor concert. It was the most awful feeling he’d ever had. He felt trapped and like he was going to die. The next time his friends asked if he wanted to go to a concert, he made up an excuse about why he couldn’t go. Similarly, he started to avoid going anywhere where there might be big crowds, like sports games. When he was in a crowded environment, like a house party, he would use alcohol to ease his anxiety. Eventually, he avoided going anywhere far from home in case he had a panic attack, meaning he stopped travelling, which was something he loved to do.

Daniella had been in a long-term relationship for 3 years. She had never opened up to a person and been as vulnerable as she had been in that relationship, which ended a year ago when she found out her then boyfriend had been cheating on her. Daniella understandably never wanted to feel those feelings of hurt and betrayal again. She tried going on dates to meet someone new, but had trouble opening up and connecting with people. Eventually, she decided that dating was pointless and spent most of her free time working.

Beatrice, Rahim, and Daniella all changed their behaviours to avoid feeling emotional pain. In doing so, however, other important aspects of their lives were neglected. Their relationships suffered (or in Daniella’s case, the potential for a romantic relationship), as well as opportunities for growth and positive experiences. Beatrice wasn’t able to fully engage in school, and Rahim was no longer doing something that once brought him joy, travelling.

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 9.37.32 PM.png

Additionally, some of the methods they used to avoid were harmful. In Beatrice’s case, she restricted her food intake so much that she became significantly underweight and her health was negatively affected. To ease the worry about having a panic attack, Rahim became dependent on alcohol to feel okay in these situations. For Daniella, it is less clear. Being devoted to work and working hard is something most of us see as a good thing. In some cases though, positive or healthy behaviours or activities, such as sleeping, exercising, or seeing friends, could also be ways of avoiding. We may procrastinate reading that difficult email by reading the news, or working on that paper by cleaning our apartments. We may also avoid our feelings by getting caught up in our thoughts. For example, instead of accepting that a relationship is over and processing the feelings of loss and sadness, we might obsess over what went wrong and what we could’ve done differently.

So what should we do if we think we’re avoiding painful thoughts and emotions at the expense of other important things?

1. Take some time to get to know your negative thoughts and emotions. The more familiar you are with the negative thoughts and emotions that tend to come up for you, the better you'll be at managing them before they lead to avoidance. To get started on identifying your thoughts and feelings, check out these helpful worksheets.

2. Make it a point in your day-to-day life to notice what you might be doing to avoid. Ask yourself if there are behaviours or activities that are hard for you to give up, and why. For example, is it hard to give up a night of seeing friends because you would miss their company, or because being alone with your thoughts causes anxiety? Is it difficult to give up exercise because you would miss the mood-enhancing benefits, or would missing a day of your work-out make you feel like a bad person and cause significant distress?

3. Once you’ve become familiar with the thoughts and emotions you might be avoiding, and the potentially problematic behaviour you might be engaging in to avoid, take some time to identify your values. What are the things that are important to you? Is it growth, relationships, hard work, or fitness, for example? When we are clear on what our values are, we are better able to move toward them even when it’s hard. 

No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
- Gord Downie -

4. Practice moving towards your values even when you’re experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. To help in this process, break down your “moving toward” behaviour into small, manageable steps, and use strategies to self-soothe and manage difficult emotions, such as mindfulness and deep breathing (or “power” breathing!). For example, if Rahim wanted to start going to places with more crowds because he values new experiences, he could break down this goal into small steps, and maybe start by going to a crowded restaurant, close to home, with a friend. To help him reduce his anxiety in this process, he could use the techniques outlined here, such as the 3-minute breathing space.

5. Be nice to yourself! We are hard-wired to avoid things that make us feel bad. Most of us have those days when we want to hide under the covers instead of facing the world. Instead of judging yourself for avoiding, try approaching these difficulties with curiosity and kindness. This compassionate mindset will be more helpful in moving toward your values when the going gets tough :)


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


Getting off tilt

Getting off tilt

I’ve been trying some new things and recently I decided to branch out into poker. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the game - keeping track of the odds, reading the other players, deciding on your risk-taking comfort level - that I’ve actually found to be helpful for me in my day to day life. In fact, probably the most useful thing I’ve learned about so far is being “on tilt”.

In poker, when a player in on tilt, it means that their emotions have taken over and reduced their ability to make decisions. So something negative happens like they lose a big pot, and then they get really upset and make decisions in the next hand that are not ideal. And of course, they get into a bit of a spiral, with negative emotions leading to poor decision making, which then leads to more negative emotions and so on. Sound familiar?

We have all had similar experiences - we get really angry, or sad, or frustrated, and then react in an unhelpful way. Maybe we yell at a family member and say something that we regret, or hit someone and end up escalating the situation. All of us know what it’s like to be on tilt, the questions is, how do we right ourselves?

In the moment, Linehan (2014) recommends that we STOP. So we:

  • Stop what we are doing

  • Take some deep breaths

  • Observe what is happening

  • Proceed effectively

The key is to not react impulsively, but to give ourselves time to calm down. See Natsumi’s blog post for other great ways to handle strong emotions.

This is also a wonderful time to put your deep breathing and other relaxation skills to use. Again, inserting some time between the situation and our reaction can only be helpful.

Once you’ve moved past the initial emotion, engaging with your thoughts can be helpful. Is this the worst thing that could happen? Will this matter six months from now? Why has this affected me so strongly? What are other options for reacting that may be more helpful? In cognitive behavioural therapy, the focus is on the thoughts that lead to the emotions, with the goal of reducing unhelpful thinking.

Sometimes, the urge to do something can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to recognise when we are not in a space to make good decisions, and to take the time we need. After all, as a great philosopher once said “To tilt is human, to break out of the cycle is definitely possible with some practice” :)


Ava-Ann Allman is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Linehan, M. (2014). DBT skills training manual: second edition. Guilford Press.

All about Emotions! Accepting Difficult Emotions and Feeling Strong Feelings without Acting

All about Emotions! Accepting Difficult Emotions and Feeling Strong Feelings without Acting

Have you ever felt so strongly about something, but then it turned out not to be true? Has your “emotion brain” ever clashed with your “rational brain”? Or maybe you have witnessed a friend fall madly in love with someone who clearly is an illogical choice? In therapy, I often help people identify what can be referred to as “unjustified emotions” (from Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy). Unjustified emotions are emotions that don’t fit the facts. For example, feeling like you’re incompetent and the worst at your job when in fact you’re a solid employee, feeling like something terrible is going to happen when the probability is low, feeling like a friend is mad at you when really they’re just super-busy and forgot to respond to your text, feeling like you’ve gained a ton of weight after eating one big meal even though that’s actually not possible, etc. When I point out to a client that an emotion they are experiencing may be unjustified, I’m often understandably met with a, “Yeah, but, Lisa, it feels so true.” Fair enough. How can we ignore an emotion that feels so real, and should we? In this blog post I’ll explore how we can “listen to” our emotions, but then thoughtfully decide what to do about them.

Justified vs. unjustified emotions

Why do we have emotions in the first place? Emotions serve important functions and give us information. For example, they allow us to react quickly in important situations, and they let us know if a situation is scary, dangerous, unfair, etc. Sometimes, however, they may not be accurate, but we treat them as if they’re facts anyways. The stronger the emotion, the more likely we are to assume they’re true. Although it’s always good to pay attention to our emotions, it’s possible they might lead us astray, so it’s also good to explore where they’re coming from and check them with facts.

Imagine a situation recently when you felt a negative emotion. Perhaps you felt judged, like a failure, or were experiencing anxiety or anger. For this exercise, try to entertain the idea that this emotion may be completely inaccurate, a little accurate, medium accurate, mostly accurate, or completely accurate. Once you have the situation and emotion in mind, read through these tips on how to check your emotions with facts, adapted from Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014)

  • Ask yourself, what are the events that prompted my emotion? Try to describe the events objectively and non-judgementally.
    • For example, “I sent my boss a draft of a report for feedback and she hasn’t responded yet (it’s been 4 days). “
  • Ask yourself, what are my interpretations, thoughts, and assumptions about the event? Are you making assumptions, thinking in an all-or-nothing way, or catastrophizing (assuming the worst). How likely is it that the expected outcome will occur? We all make assumptions and catastrophize sometimes!
    • For example, “My main assumption is that my boss thinks the report is terrible and doesn’t know where to start when it comes to giving me feedback, so hasn’t bothered to respond.”
  • Think of other possible interpretations and outcomes. Practice looking at all sides of a situation and all points of view. You might get a trusted friend or a therapist to help you do this.
    • For example, “It’s possible my boss is really busy and hasn’t had a chance to look at the report.”
  • Think about the “middle path” that takes into account what your emotions are telling you and what your rational mind is telling you. What’s a balanced perspective of the situation? What would you tell a friend? Check out my colleague Michelle’s blog post on taking the middle path
  • Keep in mind that sometimes the intensity of your emotions doesn’t fit the facts. One way to figure out if the intensity of your emotions matches the situation is to ask yourself how important the outcomes are. For example, perhaps you feel intensely angry because your parcel hasn’t arrived in the mail yet. How bad is it that the parcel hasn’t arrived yet? Are the consequences little-to-none, small, medium, big, or really big?
  • Develop guidelines for when emotions fit the facts. For example, intense fear matches the situation when your safety or the safety of a loved one is in danger. A feeling of guilt may fit the situation if your behaviour violates your own moral code. A feeling of anger may fit the situation if you are being treated unfairly. For more guidelines, check out Marsha Linehan’s DBT Skills Training Manual (2014)

Why do our emotions sometimes “trick us” and not fit the facts?

Our emotions might be “too big” for a situation because we’ve had negative experiences in the past where this emotion was justified. For example, we might often feel like people are being dishonest or are going to betray us because this actually happened to us at some point in our lives. Our brains are really great at remembering negative experiences. Another reason for unjustified emotions is that maybe our big emotions have been positively reinforced. For example, maybe important people in our lives only really listen to us when we have big emotions. Or maybe our emotions were often invalidated growing up; for example, being told we shouldn’t feel a certain way (“You’re being too sensitive”; “You have no right to feel anger because you’re a spoiled kid.”). If we’ve grown up in an invalidating environment we may not have the skills to identify and regulate our own emotions (Linehan, 2014). Last but not least, maybe we haven’t eaten enough or slept enough that day, maybe we’re not taking care of our bodies or exercising, or maybe we’ve been using substances such as alcohol or other drugs. We often overlook these behaviours when it comes to managing our emotions, but sleeping well, eating well, exercising, and avoiding excessive substance use do wonders for our emotional health.

It’s important to remember that there is always an understandable reason for why our emotions might not fit the facts and resist the urge to judge ourselves for having a certain emotion. If we judge ourselves for having a certain emotion, we’re adding another layer of negative emotion on top of the initial emotion, making us feel worse and making it more difficult to identify what we’re feeling. For example, if we feel angry, but then judge ourselves for feeling angry (“I shouldn’t feel angry, look at me indulging in my first-world problems.”), then we’ll feel shame or guilt in addition to the anger.

Accepting difficult emotions and feeling but not acting

Once we’ve determined our emotions might not fit the situation, what do we do? How do we accept a difficult emotion but not react to it? Acceptance of difficult emotions means we acknowledge their presence, let them be (i.e., not push them away or avoid them), and make a deliberate decision about how to react. Acceptance does not mean we like the emotion or that we are helpless to it, but that we are committing to deliberately changing how we typically pay attention to our emotions (see Zindel Segal’s blog post: Three Ways Acceptance Helps You Work with Difficult Emotions). To facilitate acceptance of emotions, we can take what is known as an “observers’ stance” (e.g., Hayes et al. 1999), which is paying attention to an emotion (thought, or physical sensation) in a neutral way, as if it were something separate from us, thereby giving ourselves the time and space to notice it, be with it and not push it away, while decreasing our chances of getting overwhelmed by it. It is about seeing the emotion for what it is, observing it without judgement and with curiosity, and “making room” for it until it passes.

Given we can’t actually see our emotions, in order to “observe” them it is helpful to get creative and use some imagery, especially imagery that allows us to have some space from the emotion and time to observe it.

Try this exercise: Think of a time recently when you felt disappointment and try to really remember the event, where you were, who you were with, what your surroundings looked like, and what you were thinking and feeling. Take a few moments to really remember the situation and the emotion. Once you are feeling the feeling, imagine you are standing at the top of a mountain, and your emotion of disappointment is like a leaf on a stream far down below. You watch that emotion way down below coming and going. Keep watching it pass by you way down below on the stream, coming and going. Don’t judge the emotion, but be curious about it. For example, ask yourself, what is this emotion telling me? Where did it come from? Keep watching the emotion floating on the stream way down below you until you feel like it’s passed by or until you feel like you’ve fully acknowledged it.

By attending to your emotion in this way, you’re not turning away from it or avoiding it, but you’re giving yourself some time and space to observe the emotion without quickly reacting, thereby lessening your chances of behaving in a destructive or unhelpful manner. For more useful imagery, check out this handout: Facing Your Feelings - Module 2: Accepting Distress

Noticing and describing where the emotion is happening in our bodies is another way to access the observers’ stance. Each specific emotion tends to be associated with typical biological changes and experiences. For example, anxiety often comes with a racing heart and maybe tightness in our chest, whereas anger might come with feeling hot and a clenched jaw. Describing where our emotions are happening in our bodies gives us that third person perspective that allows us to take the time and space to thoughtfully observe our physical sensations without feeling overwhelmed. To practice getting into the observers’ stance with physical sensations, try this body scan meditation.

Be kind and curious

An important part of acceptance of difficult emotions (and their associated physical sensations), but perhaps the most difficult part, is learning to pay attention to them with kindness and a gentle curiosity. This might sound silly or strange, right? Why would we pay attention to our emotions with kindness and curiosity? By being kind and curious, we change our relationships to our negative emotions, we feel less threaten by them, we prevent the reinstatement of old habits, and we’re therefore more likely to respond to them in a way that’s helpful and healthy. So, when you notice you’re feeling a negative emotion, try to acknowledge it and label it, and notice where it’s happening in your body, without judgement and with kindness. For example, you might nicely say to yourself, “Ah, anger is here. I notice it in my chest. It’s tense and hot.” vs. “I’m so stupid for feeling this way; I need this to go away right now.”

Why is acceptance important?

Instead of thinking these physical sensation are terrible and such a pain, through acceptance and the observers’ stance we’ll start to form a different relationship with them, seeing them for what the are, a part of our emotion and experience, something that will come and go.

Trying to escape, avoid, or deny negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations is problematic because the struggle against these negative internal experiences often leads to more distress (“I can’t stand this.” “I must get rid of it now.” “I’m stupid to think like this.”), and maybe even unhelpful behaviours like binge eating or excessive drinking. Plus, emotions give us information, so if we’re not acknowledging them we’re potentially missing important information. For example, if we don’t acknowledge our anger and shove it away we may neglect to see that a situation is unfair and thus we might miss an opportunity to change it. Also, as mentioned earlier, the more we’re able to “be” with our emotions (as well as thoughts and physical sensations) in a non-judgemental way and hopefully with kindness, the more we will learn that we can have unpleasant internal experiences and still be okay, and move away from our habitual and destructive ways of responding. Last, negative emotions are in fact part of a meaningful life, so learning to be with them is an important factor in building a life worth living. For more on this, check out my colleague Brent’s blog post for a discussion on how living a meaningful life includes negative, unpleasant emotions.

Conclusion

I think it’s common to think our emotions are just happening to us, and we don’t have much choice in what we do about them. Luckily, as humans, we have the ability to observe ourselves in the third person, to think about our thinking, to think about our emotions, and to make a well thought-out decision about what we want to do with them. This is easier said than done I know, but just like learning any new skill, accepting and getting into the observers’ stance with our emotions is a skill that can be practiced and learned. Instead of avoiding or fighting against our emotions, we can learn how to welcome them into our lives and act on them when we choose. 


Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.



References

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® skills training manual, second edition. Guilford Publications.