By Bea Mackay, Ph. D.
We all have different ways we react to stressful situations. For example, when someone directs anger towards you, your instinct might be to fight back and protect yourself—or maybe you feel like leaving the room (flight) because you are uncomfortable. If the angry person is your boss, you might want to hide (freeze) from embarrassment or fear of being fired.
In all the species, basic survival methods have become instinctual—built into the DNA over thousands or millions of years. The organisms that survived passed on their genes to the next generation, and so on. These survival behaviours are so ingrained in human DNA that people’s bodies and minds behave as though their fears are life-threatening even though they are most likely not.
These reactions (fright, flight, freeze) can happen because stressful situations evoke emotions, expectations, and uncomfortable sensations in the body. How can we process our emotions during these stressful times?
Awareness is the first step in changing emotional and physical habits. Taking time to recognize uncomfortable sensations in your body is an important step.
For example, when someone feels anxious and they don’t take the time to recognize this feeling, they can drag this feeling on through the day. This feeling can affect your mind flow, muscles, posture, blood pressure, etc. We cannot process feelings/sensations if we don’t take the time to feel through the discomfort. This discomfort can be a headache, shoulder tension, stomach issues, or any specific body sensation that emerges when emotional stress takes over. Become aware of these sensations in your body the next time your emotions take hold of you.
People are strongly motivated to understand why and how they came to feel what they feel. Trying to understand this may even evoke positive change. However, understanding alone does not induce change because people do not know what else to do; they often get stuck analyzing and re-thinking with the hope/intent to get the change they seek. What they do not know is that understanding is not necessary for change.
To shift from thinking to sensing, you need to interrupt the thoughts and focus on the sensations in the body. Typically, people do not want to address unpleasant emotions because the sensations/feelings might be intense.
The sensations/feelings that are not processed build up over time and highjack personal energy, which serves in managing our emotions. This managing, or analyzing, can be exhausting and can affect our health and relationship with ourselves and others. Catching yourself in the act can lead to different neural pathways and new ways of being.
If an emotion is not allowed to flow, it will build up. It takes personal energy to block or stop the flow of emotion. Eventually, something will give. The person will either live a limited life or have an emotional breakdown; they will either implode or explode, cry, or have outbursts of anger over tiny incidents, such as spilled milk.
This emotional blockage leads to exhaustion and an inability to function, which is often what a mid-life crisis involves. A person’s way of operating in the world developed over time no longer works, but they do not yet have a new way of being; therefore, they stay the same. They use so much energy to manage their emotions that there is little energy left to function in daily life. Processing these sensations helps to promote emotional freedom and personal growth. Personal growth leads to healthy relationships.
Sensations come in waves.
Breathe through the waves.
Breathe through the sensations.
By breathing through the waves of sensations (deep, slow breaths), personal energy will realign and flow in the same direction.
Sometimes, during this shift, the biggest temptation is to avoid feeling the sensations (a twinge, some nausea, a slight headache, etc.) and immediately shift back to thoughts to figure out why you feel this way. However, it does not matter why! It also does not matter who, what, when, where, or how. What matters is that they are having these sensations and need to stay with them.
What is, is.
When we stay with the sensations and breathe into them, we process them; we create new neural pathways that precipitate new sensations, and therefore, we evolve emotionally and create healthy and productive change. As we reconnect with our bodies, we feel more connected to ourselves. When we connect to ourselves, we feel more connected in relationships.
To live happy and healthy lives, one needs to thrive emotionally, not just survive. Next time you sense an uncomfortable feeling, take the time to acknowledge your feelings/sensations and breathe through them.
Productive therapeutic experiences are an excellent way to invest in yourself. Effective therapy can save you thousands of dollars and hours/days/years of frustration and emotional pain.
Therapy is a safe way to explore and talk through your pain because you can speak freely without worrying about:
Therapy is a safe way to:
Three ways to get more bang for your therapy buck:
Make sure that the psychologist you choose is licenced/registered with an accredited association—for example, the College of Psychologists of British Columbia.
I strongly recommend you DO NOT seek help from someone who is not a member of an accredited association.
Word of mouth is an excellent way to find a competent therapist who has integrity.
My husband and I built two homes, and I learned something from those experiences that has helped me.
Everyone, no matter what their training/expertise, makes mistakes. When we were building our homes, the lawyer made mistakes drawing up the legal papers, the architect made mistakes designing the homes, the blaster made mistakes, the electrician made mistakes, the plumber made mistakes, etc.
My point is, no matter what training and experience someone might have, everyone makes mistakes. It’s how many they make and how they handle the mistakes that counts. Therefore, do not assume everything a psychologist does is perfect. It’s ok to question your therapist.
Before the session:
Prepare the evening/night before you go. Spend about 30 minutes in thought about what you might want to talk about and/ or explore. Write down any thoughts, images, dreams, memories that come to you during that time. Recurring dreams and thoughts are especially important to share with the therapist.
During the session:
After the session:
Clients often say to me:
“I was in a fog most of the day after our last session.”
“I don’t remember leaving your office last time.”
“I felt like I’d been run over by a semi-trailer truck after our last session.”
“I had a headache that started during the session and lasted the rest of the day.”
“I felt nauseated for quite some time after our last session.”
Not every session can be productive. Sometimes even frustrating, seemingly unproductive sessions can generate movement. But most sessions should feel they were worth your time, energy, effort, and money you invested in them.
How productive was the session?
Not at all 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 Extremely
How invested in the session was I?
Not at all 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 Extremely
How much has my life changed since starting therapy?
Not at all 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 Extremely
The only person to be honest with is yourself.
Maybe you need to “pretend” to do therapy until you trust your therapist. That’s okay. (Feeling safe with your therapist is important, especially if you were not safe with the parents/caregivers who raised you.)
Note: Do not start out trusting your therapist.
Tell your therapist some of your problems and see what he/she does with them.
Let the therapist earn your trust.
When Should You Go to Therapy?
If you are in a good place, i.e., you are not particularly stressed or bothered about anything, you may think there is no reason to seek therapy, so you cancel the session.
However, I encourage you not to cancel.; When you have nothing pressing, issues can come to the foreground that needs addressing. I often find those are the most productive sessions my clients have.
Canceling sessions: Clients often unconsciously cancel sessions when they do not want to face their struggles. If that is true for you, allow the part of you that does not want to face the issue or feel unpleasant sensations to say so. In other words, allow expression from this part of you.
You are conflicted – part of you wants to face certain issues and part of you does not. Often this frees up the energy to realign, – creating new neural pathways with different pleasant/calm sensations.
Procrastination: arriving late for sessions is another unconscious way to avoid dealing with issues.
If you are late, let go of being late and settle into what time is left of the session.
Take two minutes to breathe and shift gears from being in the outside world to being in therapy.
Sometimes you can be even more productive when you do that.
One time, a client of mine came rushing to her session. She was late.
She apologized profusely for being late, explained why she was late and berated herself for being late and wasting my time. She said she had something important she wanted to address, and now she would not have time to do it.
I listened to her for 3 minutes, and then I said I want you to put the issue of your lateness aside; we will revisit it at the end of the session. I would like to see what we can accomplish in the time we have left. Do you think you can do that?”
She nodded, and we focused on her issue for the remaining time.
At the end of the session, I asked her how she felt about what we had done. She said she felt good about it. I asked her if she had gotten what she wanted and needed from our work together. She responded, “Yes, more than I thought I would.”
If you’re late, make use of whatever time you have.
January 29, 2017, Roger Federer lifted his 18th Grand Slam Trophy at the conclusion of the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. He is a great champion because he exemplifies what great champions do – time and again they overcome adversity to rise to higher levels of performance.
Federer has overcome a lot of adversity. One significant example is his performance at the 2008 Roland Garros final against Rafa Nadal. Federer won only 4 games over three sets. In terms of the survival skills of flight, flight or freeze, he was frozen in terror during the match. He could not play. When he hit the ball, it would go all over the place because he was so tight. At the end of the match, Nadal had a puzzled look on his face as he stretched his winning arms up in the air and walked toward the net to shake Federer’s hand. At the final ceremonies, during his speech, Federer apologized for his level of play and promised to perform better next time.
I don’t know what emotions Federer felt during and after that match. I can only guess he felt frustrated, bewildered, shocked, ashamed, bitter, disappointed, out of control and more.
He experienced another devastating loss at the 2009 Australian Open when he lost to Nadal again. This time he was going for a record-breaking 14th Slam title to equal Pete Sampras. He was expected to win because Nadal was tired from playing a long gruelling 5 set match in the semi-final. Again, Federer played badly. His emotions were evident during the final ceremonies as tears streamed down his face and he struggled to speak. Nadal, his friend and tennis arch-enemy, put his arm around Federer’s neck, expressing caring, warmth and friendship. I’m guessing it felt bittersweet for Federer.
Most people tend to avoid bad experiences. No one wants to experience painful difficult feelings if they can help it. It is common for people to try to avoid any situations where they might feel awful feelings, especially the sensations of the feelings. They become invested in avoiding. They try to control the outcome. By doing so they behave differently than they would behave if they didn’t try to control the outcome. They do behaviours, which limit their abilities. The byproduct – their performance level drops and they are more likely to fail. For many people, the fear of feeling the difficult painful sensations of failing become more important than the exhilarating sensations of winning and success.
How has Federer overcome these (and many other) difficulties? He is not afraid of feeling difficult feelings. (That does not mean that he likes it.) Somehow he processes the emotions so that if they happen, he knows he can get through them and survive – well. It takes courage and strength to process emotions.
As well, he has enough successes in his career and in his life that make the risks worth it. He knows the best way to win, and win big, is to play at his best. That means not controlling the outcome. The answer mostly lies in his attitude –
Quote from Roger Federer at the pre-match interview at the 2017 Australian Open: “There’s only one match left. I found it’s so great already. Just like – Let it [the ball] fly off your racquet and see what happens.
He let go of the outcome.
Scenario: Jack was furious at his boss for undermining his authority yet again. He wanted to quit! He felt powerless. He met with a business colleague and told him about what had happened. The business colleague had offered him a job before and told him the offer was still open. Jack was interested. That would serve his boss right if he quit. Still furious, Jack said he’d like to think about it and get back to him.
Jack went home. He rolled up a newspaper and put duct tape around it. After making four more paper bats, he went down into his basement. He found a pole and wailed on the pole until all five paper bats were in shreds. He was exhausted. His anger was gone. As he rested, he realized that he did not want to leave his current job. He realized that besides liking the job, he valued the people he worked with and would miss them. He decided he would find a way to address his issues with his boss.
When people are angry, they want to attack or defend—anger has a purpose— to make something happen or stop something from happening.
There are many ways to constructively and productively express anger.
Allow your body to do what it needs to do.
Types of attacking motions:
Slapping, hitting, pounding, chopping, stomping, swatting, poking, throwing, smashing, slamming, grabbing, kneading, kicking, shoving, squeezing, pushing, pinching, pulling, screaming, ripping, tearing, cutting (with knives, scissors).
Many sports provide us with outlets for anger by making attacking motions, including hockey, soccer, tennis, racquetball, badminton, football, volleyball, basketball, boxing, wrestling, archery, darts, and more.
Martial Arts provide excellent ways to do attacking motions.
Many of these sports involve running or skating, yet those activities are not attacking motions; they are fleeing motions.
Attacking motions you can do at home:
Household chores: Scrub the floor. While making bread, knead the dough.
Gardening: pull weeds, dig, prune trees and shrubs, etc.
Workshop: pound nails into wood, sawing, hammering, pulling nails out of wood, grinding, chiselling, etc.
Express your anger and clear your mind.
By making attacking motions, anger is dissipated and does not build up. Afterwards, people may still be angry yet no longer want to attack. They think more clearly. They can better access the underlying vulnerable feelings generating the anger and are better able to deal effectively with whomever or whatever is making them angry.
Because anger is no longer building up, it is easy to handle or manage. Now, when an upsetting event happens, there is a response rather than a reaction. Small events generate small responses, and more serious events generate larger responses. That is, the response fits the event.
Albert Einstein is often quoted as having said: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
I think Einstein thought humans would obliterate each other with nuclear weapons. He probably did not realize that the threat could be a deadly virus. While the virus is dangerous, what is important is how people handle the pandemic. The weapons we have are vaccines, physical distancing, handwashing and sanitizing, shutting down most businesses, including airlines, and not permitting public gatherings of any size.
If the virus is not held in check, World WAR lV might be fought with sticks and stones.
Embedded in the word “pandemic” is the word panic.
There is a valid fear: the virus is deadly.
There is an irrational fear: overreaction to the virus—the fear of the fear.
Another “weapon” is alienating us from each other.
Pandemics are a disaster, but most disasters bring us together, and we support/comfort each other. However, this worldwide pandemic is a global disaster, so how does it differ from most disasters? This pandemic is isolating.
To be continued . . .
With care and concern,
Dr. Bea Mackay