Learning the skill of experiencing emotions is a lifelong journey. Each of us begins our journey from a different starting line. And as life goes on, we find ourselves at different points along a shifting, yet ever forward-moving continuum.
In my recent post Nowhere to Run, I shared how I went from living in survival mode to learning how to manage my emotions through movement. Then, in my post More than a Feeling, I shared how I came to a point where I had to take it a step further. I had to learn to manage my emotions without movement.
The Breaking Point
Each of these transitions came at some sort of breaking point. What worked before, was no longer working. I had to try something new if I wanted to continue to grow and evolve. To find relief from the suffering my brain seemed to inevitably heap upon me.
As I look back, the times of my life where I was in survival mode were times of near complete nervous system dysregulation. And it’s interesting that I call these time periods survival mode, because that’s exactly what was happening inside my body.
On My Nerves…
Our nervous systems are designed to keep us safe and alive without having to think too much. And that’s great if we are in situations where we our lives are literally being threatened. Under threat we usually go into one of four modes: fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
Fight and flight occur when our nervous system is in a state of HYPER arousal – overstimulated.
- Flight: “I can’t deal with this!” Looks like avoidance, procrastination or perfectionism.
- Fight: “I’m right and I have to prove it.” Looks like aggression, control, anger, bullying.
Freeze and fawn occur when our nervous system is in a state of HYPO arousal – under stimulated or shut down.
- Freeze: “I don’t know what to do.” Looks like numbing out, disconnection, staying stuck.
- Fawn: “It’s my job to make everyone happy.” Looks like people pleasing, lack of boundaries, codependency.
In today’s modern world, life threatening situations are rare, but our nervous system still needs to feel useful. So, it continues to scan for threats in our current environment. You may not need to outrun or fight a saber tooth tiger, but you may need to address a boss who could pose a threat to your family’s financial security. You may not be at risk of death from being isolated from your tribe, but you may need to take action and set boundaries to establish and maintain healthy relationships.
In the middle of a hyper and hypo aroused nervous system is an area called the window of tolerance. This area is where you don’t feel too activated or shut down emotionally. I like to describe it as feeling “even”. Goldilocks might describe it as feeling “just right”.
When we are operating within our window of tolerance, we are better able to handle whatever the day might toss our way. We manage conflict without it turning into an argument. Maybe we are able to make decisions without overthinking. We take action vs. shutting down. And we engage with others in healthy ways that don’t leave us feeling unduly depleted.
The problem is that many of us who have spent enough time in survival mode have a very narrow window of tolerance. We bounce up and down between hyper and hypo every day, sometimes every hour. We push ourselves to the point of mental and physical exhaustion so that the only antidote is complete passivity or shutdown.
Smoothing out the extreme emotional highs and lows, which are frankly exhausting, is the key to widening that window of tolerance. It helps us find a bit of relief and opens up space for us to do more than just survive. We can begin to thrive. But what does widening that window of tolerance look like in practical terms?
Truly experiencing our emotions. In other words, feeling our feelings.
It’s incredibly simple, yet exquisitely complex. And if you’ve lived in survival mode for any length of time, you might think that’s all you do now is experience your emotions. The truth is that living in any way that attempts to manage or change our emotions, takes away our true experience of them. We ignore them, deny them, resist them. Or we numb them with food, alcohol, exercise, shopping, scrolling and work.
We do everything but feel them. And truly feeling our emotions is what throws that window of tolerance wide open.
Let It Rain
You might ask, “How can I begin experiencing my emotions?” My favorite way to teach this is using the RAIN technique, pioneered by Michele McDonald.
- RECOGNIZE: Give your emotion a name. If you feel butterflies in your tummy, you might be nervous or excited.
- ALLOW: Don’t try to change it, just let it be there.
- INVESTIGATE: Get curious. What else are you feeling and thinking right now?
- NON-IDENTIFICATION: View this emotion as an event, not who you are. I am feeling fear. VS. I am afraid.
You may think, “I don’t have time for all this touchy-feely bullshit”, but I promise you do. I have been sitting in traffic on the way to work and suddenly felt an incredible sadness wash over me. Instead of pushing it away or rejecting it, I allowed myself to feel sad. When the feeling began to subside, I got curious about why I might be feeling sadness. I didn’t overthink it, just allowed the sadness to be there, until it wasn’t. This whole process probably took 60-90 seconds.
Feel All the Feels
I don’t always remember this. There are many times, especially if stressed or overwhelmed, that I don’t take time to truly feel. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” But on those days, I notice that I end up pushing through until I collapse on the coach in physical and mental exhaustion.
In those moments, I remind myself “I DO have time for that”. I don’t have to live in survival mode any longer. I’m not dependent on exhausting myself physically to calm myself down. If I take even one minute to check in and truly experience the emotions I am feeling in the moment, I can stay connected and go about my day with a sense of calm, ease and presence.
Betsy is a certified life coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
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