How do you handle stress and pressure: Working with strong emotions
Have current events triggered an internal emotional roller coaster ride for you?
Perhaps moments of feeling okay, relaxed, happy, grateful, interspersed with resignation, acceptance, mixed with a bit of worry, concern, anxiousness, perhaps a good shot of anger, irritation, and intense frustration for good measure?
So how do you handle stress and pressure? How do you react in times when you feel an intense emotion?
In my experience, I see that many of us (myself included), sometimes feel that we need to suppress or hide how we really feel or act out by lashing out at others.
The longer the pandemic and its financial, emotional, and mental impacts play out around us the more at risk we are of developing unhelpful ways to deal with how we really feel.
“Human beings have always employed an enormous number of clever devices to run away from themselves...by middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.”
Learning to self-regulate strong emotions
Human beings become accomplished fugitives by bypassing our emotions by suppressing them, or escaping from them all together (hello Netflix). This is often done for fear that strong emotions will flood or overwhelm us when we feel like we need to hold it together or stay strong for others.
Sometimes these strategies can be a way to cope in the short-term, however, studies have shown that suppressing emotions endangers your health and well-being, both physically and psychologically.
In fact, a recent article by The Greater Good Science Center outlines that:
‘Emotional suppression (having a stiff upper lip or “sucking it up”) might decrease outward expressions of emotion but not the inner emotional experience. In other words, suppression doesn’t make the emotion go away, it just stays inside you causing more pain’.
How do you handle stress and pressure? Feel it, don’t fuel it!
Earlier in the year, during a moment of intense emotion, I developed a strategy that I now find incredibly helpful:- ‘Feel it, don’t fuel it’.
It's not a silver bullet or a fix-all, but one small way we can learn to work more skillfully when we feel the wash of a strong emotion.
When you feel a rush of anger or fear, a wave of sadness and loneliness, the heaviness of despair, or the grip of uncertainty, how do you handle stress and pressure?
I'd say, take a second to stop and check out exactly what you are experiencing. Is your chest tight, tummy queasy, hands clenched, shoulders hunched, breathing shallow?
As an active suppresser of emotion, I have found the question ’What am I not allowing myself to feel?’ very helpful.
Of course, this might not feel very comfortable, which is why we would rather pour a glass of wine and scroll Instagram, but the truth is what we resist persists. It will simply find another way to express itself, and living like this may lead to anxiety, depression, stress-related illness, and addiction.
Don’t fuel it
It's really important to acknowledge how we feel and allow ourselves to experience and work with waves of strong emotion.
However sometimes we get stuck in loops of worry or despair, we might catastrophise about the future, or replay past events over and over again in our heads. This adds an extra layer of fuel, often also activating our stress response, and affecting our mental health.
According to Amishi Jha, Associate professor of psychology:
'We can end up trapped in the past and future. All this uncertainty makes us much more likely to play out various possible scenarios over and over again. We burn attentional fuel on imagined situations that may never come to pass.
A recent study found that the more COVID-related intrusive thoughts people reported, the more depressed they were, and the poorer sleep quality they reported’.
The good news is mindful attention training can help us to notice when we slip into unhelpful thinking and help us work with it skillfully.
Amishi Jha points out that Mindfulness Meditation practiced regularly can become “mental armour” protecting us from excessive mind wandering, rumination, and catastrophising. This is a trainable skill we can strengthen over time.
Finding a middle ground - bring a good-natured curiosity to your experience
In these times of uncertainty, it's good to contemplate how do you handle stress and pressure - whether it involves your personal or work life.
Stopping and deliberately bringing a good-natured curiosity to moments of high emotional intensity can help us to regulate emotions in a healthy way.
To notice what we feel, allow ourselves to experience the wave of emotion, and do what we need to take care of ourselves, talk to someone, take a break, or seek help.
Strong emotions and worry are very normal during this time but if you feel you would like some extra help remember to chat to your GP, access EAP if you have it at work, or call 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.