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 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.  

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care

Blog Swap - MissPsychLife on Self-Care


Guest post from MissPsychLife

MissPsychLife (AKA Dr. Brooke) is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Brisbane. She began her blog as a way of sharing her passion for psychology and the promotion of self-acceptance, self-growth, self-care and self-love in other people (as well as herself she says!). For more of Dr. Brooke's awesome tips check out her Facebook or Instagram


We all know the feeling. It has been several months since your last holiday, work is crazy, you feel exhausted every day, perhaps you’re staying up a few hours too late at night to get that extra episode of Game of Thrones in. You aren’t sleeping well because you keep thinking about that presentation you have at work in a few weeks time. Forget about the gym because seriously who has time for that? The dog hasn’t been walked for weeks, and heck- let’s just order a pizza tonight because who has the energy to cook when you are working such long hours and barely have time to scratch yourself?

Hello daily grind and hello road to burnout!

We have all experienced this. Winter is renowned for it when the days are much shorter and colder (yes colder- even in Brisbane. It’s all relative!!) and it doesn’t take long after returning from a holiday for this all to set back in again. Life is busy and it seems to just be getting busier by the minute.

It’s times like this that we might wish we were a yoga or meditation guru- those people who just seem to have their sh#t together and don’t ever get stressed! (I’m sure that’s not actually the case but it does seem that way sometimes when you are in yoga class staring at the instructor thinking “how is she always so Zen?”). But most of us don’t have our sh#t together, let’s face it. Overall, we do ok. But adulting can be hard and stressful and most of us don’t prioritize stress management and take time for ourselves nearly enough. I am guilty of this at times just as much as the next person. So….. How do we find that extra time in an already crazy busy life to look after ourselves?

“Self-care” is a term that is being used a lot on social media at the moment (Yay!) and I know it certainly comes up a lot in my work with clients too. But throwing the term around and actually applying it are two very different things…..So what is self-care and why should you even bother?

Some definitions suggest that self-care is any activity that is purposely enacted to improve or add to physical, psychological and social well-being. Vague I know……. and probably very much open to interpretation. One person might think going into work on a weekend to get more work done is “adding to their psychological well-being” while others (including me in most cases) would disagree and say it’s important to have time away from work. So ultimately, I think the term “self-care” should apply to anything that promotes and enhances the level of balance that we have in our lives.

Evidence suggests that when we spend time engaging in activities that are in line with our values balanced across multiple domains (work, social life, intimate relationships, spirituality, health and well-being etc.) that we tend to be more psychologically resilient. It’s no surprise really…. like most things in Psychology, it is just common sense. When we spend too much time at work, we feel blah…. When we don’t spend enough time at work and only focus on binge drinking on weekends and staying on the couch all day, we feel blah…. When we spend all our time doing for others and never doing for ourselves, we feel resentful and end up feeling blah. So, balance is the key.

I work with clients every day who have lost sight of balance and are now paying for it with depression, exhaustion, strained relationships, inability to continue working… And I have experienced first-hand what it’s like to be totally imbalanced and I certainly will never let myself get back there. When I was in my final years of Uni, I was already working as a psychologist 4.5 days per week. I would go to work from 8am until 5pm. I would do 45-minute bumper to bumper drive home. I would get home, cook dinner, have a very brief conversation with my partner of the time, and then head to the study to work on my doctoral thesis until the early hours of the morning. I’d then get some sleep…. If my mind would let me. Then I would be up again early the next day to do it all over again. I’m no superhero. I’m human. I needed 7 to 8 cups of coffee each day to cope. And by cope, I mean to just get by. Needless to say….. My body and mind suffered. I started needing more sick days.  I lost too much weight (I can’t believe the photos when I look back on them! My arms were so thin even though I was still eating three meals a day). I had headaches nearly every day. My stomach was in knots. I was a bit of an emotional wreck…. and definitely not the most fun person to live with. My work suffered too. Thankfully I managed to still hold it together to treat my patients, but my paperwork was appalling. I fell behind which then made me even more stressed. I withdrew from friends and family because I was “too busy” for that. Overall, it was pretty miserable. But the scary thing is I didn’t really notice how imbalanced I was. It had become my normal.  Thank God my boss pulled me aside one day and asked what was going on. She had noticed things were slipping and she was concerned.

So, after I submitted my thesis, I visited Thailand for three weeks, I ate, I slept, I relaxed, and I reflected. I knew a change was needed and that’s exactly what I did. I rearranged my work and got a different job so that my workload was less intense. I started spending more time with friends and family. I moved house closer to work and my social support network. But most importantly, I gave myself permission to slow down.

It took some time. I think about six months after I went to Thailand I was still having difficulty sleeping in on the weekends. I would wake up in a panic. My mind just didn’t want to slow down. But gradually, with more and more balance, things slowed down and I realized what it meant to be normal and balanced, and truly relaxed.

So, the moral of the story. Slow your asses down, balance your life out and take care of yourselves. It’s important. I’m just grateful I learnt this lesson early on in life, instead of having a breakdown in my 50’s when I would have run myself into the ground.

Here’s some tips for self-care that I often suggest to clients who are burnt out or lacking balance…. Remember. It’s ALWAYS better to be proactive rather than waiting until you are utterly exhausted. I can’t stress this enough. Doing small things towards your self-care regularly is what’s going to ensure you avoid the dreaded burnout.

Tips for self-care:

  1. Check in with yourself regularly – recognizing that you need to up the self-care requires you to regularly check in with yourself and notice early warning signs that perhaps things might be getting on top of you. No this doesn’t mean waiting until you blow up at a colleague at work to recognize you are stressed. It will be more subtle and can be different for everyone. Perhaps you aren’t sleeping quite as well. Perhaps you are feeling just that little bit more irritable in evening traffic or your mind is busier than normal and unable to focus. The earlier you catch it, the more effective your self-care strategies will be. However, nothing beats having regular self-care strategies tied into your weekly routine – it means you have to think about it less and it just happens.

  2. Don’t be afraid to say no – this is something my Mum has always told me and she couldn’t be more right. One of the trickiest things for some people is being able to say no to requests from other people, be it colleagues, your boss, friends, family or partners. Saying no politely but confidently when you don’t feel able to do something is important for maintaining your own sanity, but also healthy interpersonal relationships. Don’t worry- the sky won’t fall down if you say no. The person will survive. I dare you to try it.

  3. Watch out for guilt – if you are someone who struggles with the last point or if you are someone who is used to always being busy, watch out for guilt when you say no or when you consciously choose to slow down. I’ve had to battle this over the last four days. I’ve spent a lot of time at home relaxing and not doing a whole lot and would occasionally get pangs of guilt thinking “I really should be productive”. Notice these thoughts, acknowledge them, and let them go. You are actively choosing to refresh yourself and will be better for it in the long run.

  4. Take time out, alone, at least once a week (or more if you are introverted and need alone time to recharge) – spending time on your own doing something that you find relaxing and fulfilling can be incredible refreshing. What you do is different for everyone as we all enjoy different things. I find working on projects like painting furniture, tidying, or blogging to be enjoyable, as well as reading a book in the sun or having an at home pamper session, or even just a simple cup of tea (Barry’s tea all the way!).

  5. Disconnect – spend a few hours disconnected from technology. This is definitely the one I struggle with the most. We have all become so dependent and addicted to technology that leaving our phone off for a few hours while we have breakfast with a friend (gasp!) can seem impossible. But go on- try it. You will feel more connected and mindful in the moment and will experience your present moment more.

  6. Connect - do something to feel connected with others. If you feel you have been neglecting your family or friends, reach out and connect in some way. Even if it’s just a phone call, or a coffee. Check in with someone you love and really see how they are going. If you can do this in combination with the last point- you will connect even more (yes I just suggested, you connect and disconnect at the same time.)

  7. Be mindful – do a task mindfully- this means, notice every aspect of that task. Touch, taste, sound, smell, sight. This can be very grounding and relaxing. Sit outside for half an hour and try your best to stay focused on the sounds or the feel of the breeze on your face. Yes, your mind will wander, many times. That is ok. Just keep redirecting it back to the present moment and try not to get frustrated with yourself.

  8. Sleep routine – I really can’t stress enough the importance of good sleep. I never used to value it much and always stayed up late. But with conscious effort now to get my minimum 8 hours it makes such a big difference. If for any reason I get less than this now, I feel confused about how I used to cope. Set a bed time, and stick to it. It might take a few nights for your body to adjust but you will thank yourself for it.

  9. Schedule regular mini breaks – having something to look forward to can make the daily grind much easier to bear. Look ahead at your calendar and pencil in some long weekends, whether you go away or just stay home. Knowing you have that little break is always nice.

  10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all need help. We are social creatures who depend on one another. Yet so many of us are bad at asking for it- me included in that at times. Look at your workload and life load and assess where you might be able to get help.

  11. Relaxation/meditation/yoga - this is an obvious self-care exercise. It is shown to reduce stress and is a nice way of scheduling “you time”. In my previous post “10 ways to boost low mood” I suggest a few apps you can use, including the headspace-au meditation app.

  12. Exercise/go for a walk – this is another obvious one. Some of us enjoy exercise more than others and that’s ok. You don’t need to be an athlete. Take the dog for a walk or even just yourself. The fresh air really does work wonders.

Now go forth and care for thy self. Let’s all get on board with self-care and try to do at least one small thing towards our self-care daily. I know I will be!

Dr Brooke @MissPsychLife xx