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.
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?
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.
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 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 rethinking 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.
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.
Anger Is Energy
Anger expressed positively can convince a lover or child that he or she is loved. It can help you get a job done when you’re tired. It can be motivating. Tiger Woods, one of the top golfers, says, “I sometimes lose my temper on purpose to fire myself up.”
Anger expressed negatively can devastate a child of any age, but especially when they are very young. Anger can destroy relationships and ruin things of value. People can hurt others when they get angry, but they often hurt themselves.
There are times when it is appropriate and productive to get angry. But often, getting angry can be dangerous, even embarrassing. It is helpful to know the difference and have the impulse control to carry out the choice. Most important is how a person acts when angry.
Scenario: Sam pulled into her garage after a long hectic day at work. As she got out of her car, she heard glass breaking. She went around the corner of her home and saw the shattered living room window. Her son and his friends stood on the street, frozen. One of the boys had hit the baseball through the window. Sam was enraged! Last time, it was the neighbour’s bedroom window. She’d told them many times to practice in the schoolyard nearby. She wanted to scream at them and slap them silly!
Sam knew that she was too angry to deal with the boys right then and told them so. She sent her son to his room and sent his friends home. She changed into her jeans and a T-shirt, went into the backyard, and chopped some wood. As she chopped, her rage dissipated. She was still angry but not enraged. Then she got her son to help her put some plywood over the broken window. Later that evening, she and her husband sat down with their son to deal with the problem.
Sam did not blow-up, nor did she block her anger. She allowed her muscles to do what they needed to do—attack. But she did not attack her son or his friends; she attacked the wood. She destroyed and created something simultaneously.
When people get angry, their bodies pump adrenaline into the bloodstream, preparing their muscles for fight or flight. Their muscles are primed to act, and as they do, the adrenaline is processed. However, if the anger is blocked, then the muscles do not do what they naturally do. The adrenaline stays in the muscles, often causing side effects, such as shakiness until it is eventually processed. Blocked or unexpressed anger builds up over time. The brain and the body need to deal with it in some way. Some people blow-up because they can no longer tolerate the tension. Others suppress and repress their anger, which can lead to physical and emotional illnesses. Depression is often the symptom of repressed anger. Neither is healthy, and both can cause a lot of harm.
It is not easy to find wood to chop, but there are many other ways to express anger constructively and productively, like throwing a rug over a railing and whacking it with a broom.
Scenario: Mary sighed. She’d blown her top—again. After the last time, she’d promised herself that she would not do it anymore, but she’d just lost it again.
Mary had been cleaning the home for a couple of hours. Ralph had come home from soccer and was in the shower. She walked into the bedroom to get something and found a pile of his sweaty clothes on the floor. This was an ongoing struggle between them. Mary had asked him many times to put his dirty clothes in the clothes hamper. Annoyed, Mary swept up the clothes, put them away, and went back to cleaning the home. Half an hour later, she walked into the bathroom and saw his wet towel lying on the bathroom floor. She lost it and went into a rage. She grabbed the towel and stomped off to find him. He was sitting on the patio, relaxing. Seeing him relaxed infuriated her even more. She threw the towel in his face and yelled obscenities at him. Finally, she stomped off. Ralph sat there in shock, wondering what had just happened.
Often there is a cycle of anger and peace. A person blows-up, and then there is a period of peace. But life is life. Things happen, and often, they are not significant. A small annoying event will happen, and it will get dismissed. There is tension. Another irritating event follows, and it gets pushed under the rug. Tension increases. Another frustrating event and anger is pushed aside. More tension. Another event and the anger is swallowed. Tension builds. After several more frustrating events, another small event happens, and a person blows up in rage. Usually, there is confusion because the nature of the event did not warrant the intensity of the anger. Others will ask, “How could you get so mad about that?” However, the tension is released. Now there is peace again—at least for a while. The building process starts again. It’s like a stack of coins; each coin is like a frustrating event. The stack gets high, then one more coin is put on the stack, and the whole stack falls over.
For Mary, it was not just the wet towel on the bathroom floor; it was the many wet towels on the bathroom floor, the dirty socks around the house, the jacket hung over the back of the kitchen chair, the newspapers scattered near the couch, the shoes cluttered by the door, dirty dishes on the coffee table, etc.
Underneath the anger, Mary felt out of control and unappreciated. She tried everything to get Ralph to help around the house. She felt resentful that Ralph was playing while she was working. It seemed to her that she did the major share of keeping the home in order. Finally, she snapped and went into a rant.
Blow-ups happen because of ongoing difficulties that are not resolved. There is a buildup of tension that is not released. At some point, the buildup gets so intense that it cannot be contained.
How to Make a Change
Make a change by interrupting the cycle. Bring up unresolved issues during the phase when tension is building. In this scenario, Mary realized that if she did not address this with Ralph, she would blow-up at him again. She asked him to set a time when they could talk. Together they picked a time they were both available. Mary felt less frustrated, knowing that the problem was going to be addressed. When the time came, they sat down together and explored the issue. They did not come up with solutions before they figured out what the real problem was between them. This helped them feel connected to each other. Once they were connected emotionally, they came up with solutions to experiment with. Each felt better about the other.
Ralph, too, could have initiated the discussion with Mary. After she calmed down, he could have asked her for a time to talk.
Each Partner Has a Part in the Cycle
No one person is at fault. Whatever is going on between two people is co-created by them both, and each needs to take responsibility for his/her part in the negative cycle.
When issues have been discussed unsuccessfully before, couples need to change how they address them. The exercise “Sooner Rather Than Later” is a useful tool that gives couples a protocol to follow when addressing and resolving issues.