I write a weekly email called “How to be OK”. As a counsellor, that’s what people come to see me for. We all just want to feel like we’re coping, managing life, work, raising our kids, living in ways that are true to our values, speaking up about injustice. If we’re really honest, we want others to think we’re doing all that really well too. So it can be inconvenient to “feel”. But feelings are all around us at this time of year.
Contrary to what we’d like to believe, that we control our feelings from our heads, we experience and regulate emotions in our bodies. E-motion – energy in motion – big and explosive, urgent and heavy, tight in our chest. Feeling drains from our legs, our faces constrict and water falls from our eyes when we’re sad. A headache rises from the base of our skull when we’re overwhelmed, electrical pulses innervate our being as we’re swept up in joy. A flare of anger leaves us breathless, shaking, hot. My mother used to say, “That makes my blood run cold.” We refer to “butterflies in our stomach” or describe the feeling of a harsh word as “a punch in the guts”.
To take it further, what does being peaceful feel like? How do you know you’re anxious or angry or happy? Hungry or tired? Perhaps even really tired at this time of year. How do you know? Where do you feel it in your body?
Big emotions can be felt safely when we understand how our nervous system is working for us.
These can be difficult questions to answer as we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our nervous system or what it is to be a body. We can be judgey about our emotions and find it easier to numb or simply ignore them. We don’t really know what to do when people tell us they’re not OK. There’s no handed-down manual for how to communicate openly and be present in one another’s suffering. And we often don’t feel entitled to big feelings when other people “have it so much worse”.
And so we bypass. We deflect. We say it’ll be OK, all will be well. This may be true, but we need to feel it to heal it, whatever “it” is and however “it” is showing up in your body.
What we underestimate though, is that as hard and uncomfortable as it is to feel our feelings, we can actually enlarge our capacity to feel. Our instinct is to squash them down, but big emotions can be felt safely when we understand how our nervous system is working for us. Alerting us to the way it shifts and morphs to accommodate our emotions, adapting to stress, then bringing us back to being grounded and our baseline state of engaged and social, creative and calm.
We can even learn to feel joy and pain, sadness and peace, anxiety and hope. We can carry them all, listening to and acknowledging each feeling. Watching them come and go like leaves on a stream, even if the currents are stronger than we’d like at times.
As with any big emotion, it helps to think small when we feel these things.
The pressure of seasons like Christmas – times that are supposed be reflective, family-oriented, happy and Hallmark-nostalgic – can feel unbearable for some of us.
Right now, so many of my clients are experiencing their firsts. The first Christmas alone, strapped for cash after losing a job but aching to make the tree beautiful, the table generous. The first summer without the kids at home. The first time being with family after a significant event has changed everything. It can be painful and cause us to function on high alert.
Of course, those of us sensitive to human suffering, those holding people they don’t know in prayer or solidarity, are also carrying the weight of global tragedy, violence, existential angst and the constant hum of uncertainty. We wonder where it will end. Bearing witness to the pain of the world is a grief all of its own and can leave us feeling powerless and overwhelmed, but emotional agility allows us to hold many emotions in tension. I find myself saying, “I won’t look away, though it’s costly.”
Self-compassion is a beautiful practice. Far from being selfish, it acknowledges that, yes, of course our bodies are reacting – there’s a lot going on and we are humans in a broken world. Yes, of course it’s unsettling and the lump in our throat and the dragging in our core is how we know we feel it. Grief is anger with nowhere to go. Anger is our body’s way of telling us a line has been crossed.
We can sit with our big feelings and remember we are safe in this moment.
As with any big emotion, it helps to think small when we feel these things. Breath (make it a prayer), intentional movement that gets the heart rate up, dramatic change in temperature (think a cold shower, sauna or a hot bath) are the quickest ways to shift overwhelm (there are simple exercises you can try at the end of this article). We can assure our bodies that we’re listening, and we can sit with our big feelings and remember we are safe in this moment. If we bravely allow stillness to provide a landing place for what’s going on inside us, counterintuitively, the impact isn’t as great. We become better able to feel it all and be okay. We remain able to hold space for others, though we ourselves are feeling pain.
So the call, as Dante Stewart wrote recently, is to stillness and bravery throughout this Advent season. To staying present to pain. Bravely facing the darkness without being consumed by it. Tending to our own hearts so they can stay tender to others. Nurturing our spiritual life with a 10-minute daily (longer if there is that luxury) contemplative practice, so we can give out from our own full cups.
Stewart continues, “It is a call to push back against evading the hardness of life. It is a call to radical trust and radical faith in the midst of human darkness. It is a call to remember and be changed by the tears. It is a call to solidarity and collective liberation. It is a call to be OK with being quiet and doing less and being attentive.” And, where there is heaviness, being open to joy, to moments of lightness and permission to laugh out loud.
The older I get, the more I relate to God like the theologian Paul Tillich, who described God as “the ground of all being”. I find this image comforting; I feel like I can be held by that vastness. Big emotions, all of our parts able to be surrounded by a strong embrace, immovable love.
We contain multitudes as the saying goes. Even at this time of year, and with so much going around us, we can enlarge our container to hold it all as we are held by God.
Jane Kennedy spent most of her career working in the International Aid and Development sector before becoming a counsellor and psychotherapist. Jane gives the following practical exercises for managing “big” emotions:
Go small when emotions and triggers are big
These simple exercises bring the parasympathetic nervous system online and dampen emotional reactivity.
Activation mode is met beautifully by tactile and accessible actions, by bodily awareness. You can downregulate your reactions and find greater ease.
- Practise the pause – that moment between stimulus and response.
- Put your hand on your heart, breathe in for the count of four and out for the count of six. You could use this practise as a breath prayer.
- Inhale a strong smell like coffee beans or essential oil.
- Shake your hands for 30 seconds and note how that feels.
- Roll your hips like you’re swinging a hula hoop for 30 seconds up to a few minutes.
- Do anything that gets your heart rate up. This can include two minutes of dancing to an upbeat song in your living room (it’s harder than you think!).
- Rub your hand on your sternum in a circular motion for 30 seconds with your eyes closed.
- Put your hands in a bowl of ice.
- Hold yourself like you’re trying to keep warm.
- Sing loudly.
- Put on a timer for 10 minutes and write in a stream-of-consciousness style, with the intention to delete it.
- Connect with someone you can tell the truth to.
- Ask for support if you need it.