“I think I’m going to throw up.” “I think I’m having a heart attack.” “I can’t breathe.” “It’s like a wave of despair.” “I was seeing red.”
All these statements, made by past clients of mine, have something in common: all are related to experiencing intense, sudden emotions that may come out of nowhere or may have a clear trigger. In either situation, they are overwhelming and make it incredibly difficult to function as one needs to. These intense waves of emotion can be disorienting and can make us feel out of control and can be scary, especially if we don’t know what triggered them. Oftentimes, we may feel we don’t have any control over our behavior in the moment and these intense experiences can cause us to act out in ways we may regret, once the emotion has receded.
“Once the emotion has receded” - this is an important phrase to remember. We often get so caught up in the experience of the emotion itself, that we feel we’re going to feel this way forever. We forget that emotions are temporary. Perhaps we never considered the idea that the more intense an emotion, the sooner it passes. (I was far older than I care to admit when I learned this. Let me just say it happened well after I finished my education.) For many with whom I’ve spoken, this is a revolutionary sort of idea - we’ve all experienced that tunnel vision, that difficulty seeing the future, or remembering what it’s like to not feel that way when we’re caught up in the moment. Plus, if you’ve ever tried to tell someone experiencing intense emotions that “this will pass,” it’s likely they won’t hear you.
We as humans have a challenging relationship with emotions, a relationship which presents differently depending on your upbringing and culture. Many of us are taught that there are “good” and “bad” emotions - emotions that get positive reactions from the people around us and emotions that elicit more negative reactions. When we’re happy as kids, parents, caregivers, and teachers tend to encourage this. When we’re sad, these same adult figures have different reactions, often based on our gender. Female children tend to receive more empathic reactions, whereas male children are more often told to “be a big boy.” Females learn it’s mostly okay to be sad, whereas males learn the opposite. Anger is an emotion that more generally is perceived as negative: this is where we, as children, end up in time out, grounded, or in detention. We’re told to “use our words” when we’re angry, though we don’t yet have the words to express whatever’s bothering us. These messages are echoed by our friends and by the media: over time, we learn that the main acceptable emotions to show are the “positive” ones.
These messages take us in different directions with how we feel. Some people hold everything in and are “fine” until they’re not. Some learn it’s only acceptable to get angry or feel sad behind closed doors. Some find themselves with uncontrollable anger, because it’s easier to show anger than it is to show sadness or anxiety. Often, how we handle our emotions is also accompanied by guilt - a sense that, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” or “I shouldn’t have this reaction.”
Emotions are natural. Contrary to the messages we receive growing up, they are not inherently “bad” or “good” - they simply are. Emotions earn these characterizations because of the behaviors associated with them, rather than because the feelings themselves are problematic. This is not a distinction that is often made clear. Our emotions are going to show up, no matter what we do to try and stop them. This isn’t always pleasant. For as wonderful as it can be to feel exhilarated and excited, it’s awful to feel crushing despair or paralyzing anxiety. It can feel as though we’re never going to feel happy or “normal” (a word I dislike) again, that this is how we’re going feel forever. The physical reactions that go along with our emotional experience create a tunnel vision, which makes it hard to think clearly and to remember that this is temporary. It can feel as though we need to do something about how we feel immediately, but we do not.
Think of your emotion as a wave, something that peaks before it breaks. Much like how we can’t sustain a super long, intense workout at the gym, especially if we haven’t gone before, our bodies do not have the energy to sustain intense emotions. This is why we feel exhausted after a wave has passed.
So what do we do about these emotions? Validate. Acknowledge what we’re feeling. Giving something a name gives us a greater sense of control over what we’re feeling. Tell yourself, “okay, I’m feeling (insert name of emotion here) right now.” Give yourself permission to feel that way. “This is okay.” Maybe you know why you’re feeling this way. If so, tell yourself. “This is happening because (insert trigger here).” Maybe you don’t know why this is happening. That’s okay too. Remind yourself that it is time limited. “This will not last forever.” Provide yourself with a little comfort. “I’m going to be okay.” Repeat as necessary until the wave passes. It can be helpful to make yourself a cheat sheet of things that are useful for you when you’re experiencing an intense emotion. It can be hard to remember what helps when we’re caught up in a wave.
If you’re not sure what’s useful for you or you want help developing that cheat sheet, well, that’s what I'm here for. Come talk to me. I'm here for you.