Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA
As a counselor, I am constantly urging my clients to express their feelings. Anger, hurt, sorrow; difficult as they are to feel, they are all there for a reason. They are messengers, and they have wisdom for us.
As a human being, I know that there are times when we simply can't express our feelings. There are situations when expressing our emotions might mean losing a job or an important friendship. On these occasions, it can better serve our long-term goals to press "pause" on our feelings and get through the moment. Then, later, when we are in a safe place, we can let the emotions out.
The danger here, of course, is that we often forget to do part two! We press "pause", but never "play". We would rather stay numb than bear the inconvenience and discomfort of emotional expression. Over time, as our unexpressed emotions pile up, it can seem as though to let ourselves feel would be dangerous; that the rage or grief or loneliness would swallow us whole if we gave it even the smallest opening.
Over the long term, repressing our emotions has terrible consequences for our mental and physical health. So how can we balance these two truths: one, that we must express our emotions, and two, that there are situations in which it is not safe to do so?
Over the years I have learned a few small exercises that allow me to press the "pause" button on my emotions so that I can continue to function. I share them here with this caveat:
DON'T FORGET TO EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS LATER! When you are in a safe place, make sure that you give yourself the time to feel your feelings and listen to the messages they have for you about your work, your relationships, and your well-being.
5 WAYS TO PRESS PAUSE ON A BAD MOOD
1. Get your feet on the ground.
Excuse yourself for a restroom break; then find the nearest patch of grass or bare ground and make some skin-to-earth contact. Breathe deeply; visualize your stress, sadness, or anger flowing out from the soles of your feet into the earth. Breathe in strength and feel yourself cradled by gravity. Three deep breaths, then back into the breach! (In a pinch, when I am in a situation in which it doesn't feel acceptable to take off my shoes, I pretend I am tying them and place the palms of my hands on the ground instead. Any port in a storm!)
2. The 5-minute shake.
I may or may not have done this exercise in a bathroom stall in the middle of my GRE exams.
Make yourself a foolproof playlist, all of the songs that you simply cannot help but move to. When the moment comes and you are shaking with anger or sadness or frustration, find a corner where you can be alone, pop the headphones in, and start shaking. Shake your feet from the ankles, your hands from the wrist. Shake your hips, your shoulders, shake your head 'no' and 'yes'. Lay down on your back and shake your legs vigorously overhead like a dying bug. Just shake. Let all of the tremors of your muscles work off those stress hormones and move them through your body. When the song ends, stand still for a moment and take a few deep breaths, noticing any shifts in your state of mind.
3. Square Breathing.
This is a good one for those times when you cannot get a moment alone; this can be done without anyone knowing even in the midst of a conversation.
Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of four, hold the breath out for a count of four. Nod and smile as though you are listening and not seething with emotion. Repeat. Inhale, hold, exhale, hold. If the 4-count doesn't work for you, find the count that does. Finish with a few breaths in which your exhale is twice as long as your inhale.
Taking the time to focus on your breathing forces the mind to concentrate on something besides the overwhelming feelings.
4. Shift the focus.
Practice this one ahead of time. Wherever you are, take a moment and extend your arms out to the side, parallel with your shoulders, so you look like that Leonardo da Vinci sketch. Wiggle the tips of your fingers and see if you can unfocus your gaze enough to see the fingers of both hands wiggling simultaneously in your peripheral vision.
This soft-focus gaze is the opposite of the gaze we use to focus on our computers, on the written word, on any detail work required of us. This is a gaze that was taught to me when I was studying wilderness survival skills and again when I was studying kung fu, and recently it turned up in my yoga practice! Any technique that has made the rounds of that many cultures has my vote!
In the moment when you are feeling overwhelmed by emotion, shift your focus into this soft gaze and breathe that way for a few moments. There is a rather amazing metaphorical shift in perspective that happens with the literal shift in perspective.
5. Take a mental step back.
Whatever you are feeling, take a step back and witness it. Notice yourself, the thoughts you are thinking, the emotions you are feeling. Thinking about it in the third person can be useful too: "Lissa is having a hard time talking because she is feeling a very intense sorrow." "Lissa is so angry that I can hear her voice shaking and she has squeezed her hands into fists." You can also take a mental step back by reframing your thoughts from "I am going to explode if she keeps talking!" to "I am having the thought that I am going to explode if she keeps talking".
Taking this mental step back reminds us that we are larger than our emotions and thoughts, and gives us a sense of perspective when those emotions and thoughts feel overwhelming.
I hope these techniques are useful to you, and please remember (all together now!):
DON'T FORGET TO EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS LATER! Put on a dramatic playlist and dance and shriek. Write down all of your worries and then rip them up. Hit pillows with a baseball bat. Curl up in fetal position and cry. Whatever you need to feel, let it work its way through you until it is finished. And if the emotions feel bottomless or stuck, please don't be afraid to ask for help. That's what we're here for!