Accepting our emotions…yes, even the unpleasant ones!

Friday, November 1st 2019 | Dr. Pamela Corey, C.Psych.

I am struck by how often we judge our emotional experiences. I hear it all the time – “Why am I so irrational?” “Why do I worry about things I know I shouldn’t worry about?” “I shouldn’t care so why do I?”

These kinds of statements are so common that most of us don’t think twice when we hear or say them ourselves.

We begin to think it is normal to be at a tug-of-war with our negative feelings.

We begin to think our feelings are foreign. Something to be controlled. Something to be tamed.

If only we didn’t have anxiety, anger, or sadness. If only.

But the reality is that if we didn’t have these feelings we’d be lost.

And I don’t mean lost in a spiritual or abstract sort of way, I mean really really lost.

Let me give you an example.

The other day I was driving along and there was a car pulled off to the side of the road with their left blinker on. They looked they were trying to get back onto the road.

I carried forward with the flow of traffic, but right before I was about to pass them, they started to pull out. I had an immediate surge of panic. I slammed on the break and honked. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating. I felt angry, I felt scared.

Thankfully when I honked, they stopped immediately.

Read that sentence again: Thankfully when I honked, they stopped immediately.

Would I have honked if I didn’t feel a surge of panic? Would I have honked if my heart didn’t start to race?

Probably not, right? I would have kept on going calm as a cucumber. The other car might not have stopped. We might have gotten into an accident, and my safety (and the other driver’s safety) might have been compromised.

This surge of panic that happened is called the fight-or-flight response, and it’s not just reserved for moments like this when is it clear that you might be in danger. It is activated all the time. When your boyfriend doesn’t text you back, when your husband tells you to unload the dishwasher in that tone, when your co-worker tells you that your boss wants to speak with you, when your good friend asks you speak at their wedding, when you spill something on yourself in a crowded place. Anytime you feel anxious, angry, panicked, on edge, or just not right, that response is activated. The fight or flight response is not evil. It is put in place to protect you. You are literally alive because your ancestors had this response. If your ancestors didn’t, they would have been eaten by a bear and thus would not have been able to procreate.

Now, at this point you might be thinking to yourself – but how come my fight or flight response is activated more often than my friend’s? Or, how come my fight or flight response is sometimes (or often times) wrong? Like that time my boyfriend didn’t text me back but then I found out he was just sleeping? There was absolutely NOTHING to worry about, so why did I worry?

To these questions, I will say that in many of us, our fight or flight system is hypersensitive, meaning it reacts to things that we realized after-the-fact, are not threatening. This is the case for many reasons, including the fact that in our fast-paced day and age, there are so many stimuli flying at us at once, and our brain has trouble distinguishing between threat and safety. To make matters more complicated, we are all born with different pre-dispositions, meaning some of us were born with a built-in safety system that was more sensitive.

Without a doubt, these feelings are uncomfortable and painful. But they are not bad or something to be fixed. Sure, we can learn ways to better manage these feelings and calm our bodies when fear sets in, but we cannot make this system go away (nor should we try).

So, next time you feel scared, angry, lonely, or sad. Ask yourself “why am I feeling this now? What am I afraid of”.

Try to notice the emotion. Label it. Give it some space, some breathing room.

Allow it to rise and fall like emotions do. Like a wave, they will come and they will go.

When you find yourself judging your emotions, try to gently notice these thoughts and instead, thank your brain for trying to protect you.

Find this challenging? You’re definitely not alone. Join our 8-week Emotional Wellness group starting January 23, 2020 to learn proven evidence-based strategies to enhance your emotional wellness within a positive, supportive, small group environment.