Most people have the mistaken idea that emotions are to be managed. When you process your emotions, they do not need to be managed, they naturally shift and change in healthy ways.
To make this shift, you need to understand the physiology of emotion. The brain and the body are complicated. The following is a simplification of the mind/body connection in regard to emotion.
The right-brain, limbic system and the body create the emotions we experience. The left-brain analyzes emotions, but it does not create them. We express emotions from our right-brain; we talk about emotions from our left-brain.
Emotions come in waves. When emotions are pleasant, such as experiences of contentment, satisfaction, happiness, and joy, people tend to breathe normally, rarely noticing the waves. Feelings do not stay the same – they come and they go.
What goes wrong?
When emotions are uncomfortable; such as experiences of high excitement, fear, grief and loss, people change how they breathe, often without realizing it. As the emotion wells up, people tend to hold their breath and then shallow breathe. They shift into their left-brain and start to question what is happening (What if ? What’s wrong? OMG, Etc) Holding the breath blocks processing of the emotion so the wave cannot crest, it cannot recede, and therefore, it cannot dissipate. Now the emotion has to be managed. Unprocessed emotions tend to build over time, like a stack of coins, as other situations create similar feelings. There is more and more emotion to manage. There is less and less energy to manage or wall off the emotions.
When emotions are distressing, such as intense love, fear, grief, and rejection, people get into the habit of trying to avoid them. What they are trying to avoid are the sensations of the feelings. The actual situation that created the distressing sensations, usually gets lost. Now life becomes about avoiding the awful sensations. This complicates life because people become so focused on trying to avoid, they cannot live freely. Also, by trying to avoid feelings, people often behave in ways that actually create the very feelings that they are trying to avoid.
The breath is the key to processing emotions.
As an emotion wells up, breathing through the emotion allows it to crest and recede. At first the waves may be intense. By breathing through the waves they dissipate and get smaller and smaller until, like waves on a beach, they are gone. There is nothing left to manage or avoid.
By facing a feeling and breathing through the sensations of an emotion you will learn that you can handle it. Knowing you can tolerate and handle difficult sensations, will free you up to make the decisions that you want to make. You are less likely to experience difficult feelings and, because life can be difficult, when you do, they won’t last as long.
Embrace all the moments of life. The capacity to experience the full range of emotion, from the depths of despair to the heights of ecstasy, creates a sense of being fully alive.
With care & concern,
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 was telling 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 of the 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 that 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 express anger constructively and productively.
Allow your body to do what it needs to do.
1. Do not hurt anyone else.
2. Do not hurt yourself.
3. Do not damage or destroy anything of value.
4. Do this alone only if you are confident that you can control your impulses. If you are not sure, seek out one or more people you trust to act as monitors for you. Or, seek professional help.
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 doing attacking motions. 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 involved running or skating yet those activities are not attacking motions, they are fleeing motions.]
Attacking motions that can be done at home.
Roll up a magazine or newspaper and put tape around it. Pound the kitchen counter with it.
Punch or kick pillows, throw rolls of toilet paper at the bathroom wall, throw a rug over a railing and pound it with a broom. Tear or cut up an old bed sheet. Rip up a phone book. Stomp on bubble packing material or up and down stairs.
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, chiseling, etc.
Express anger and clear your mind.
By doing attacking motions anger is dissipated and does not build up. Afterwords, people may still be angry yet no longer want to attack. They think more clearly. They are better able to access the underlying vulnerable feelings that are generating the anger. They are better able to deal effectively with whomever or whatever is making them angry.
Because the anger is not 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.
With care and concern,
To dream of yourself or someone else dying in your dreams can be disturbing. But dying in a dream is often, meant metaphorically, not literally.
Sandy, a mom with two children, was thinking about going back to work. Growing up, her mother when back to work when she was 10. She was the eldest of 5 children and had to be responsible for her siblings when mom was not there. It was too much for her. As a mom, she was determined not to do that to her own children.
When her youngest daughter entered school full time, Sandy’s life changed. She had much more time. She thought about going back to work. She’d loved her job as a elementary school teacher. Yet she was concerned about how her going back to work would impact each of her children, especially her eldest child. She struggled with the decision.
One night she had a nightmare that her youngest child died. She woke up in distress. While thinking about the dream she realized that the dream was not about her daughter, but an aspect of herself. Her youngest daughter had been so excited to go to school and was enjoying it immensely. Sandy wanted to get back to school again and the nightmare was telling her if she did not go back to work, a part of her would ‘die’. Her youngest daughter represented that part of herself (a daughter is related to a mother) that was keen to go to school, that is, get back to work. Sandy solved her dilemma by taking a position of Teacher-on-Call so she could work if she was called in, yet decline if she needed to stay at home with her children.
Years ago I wanted a better relationship with one of my brothers. We were adults and I wanted more of a connection with him. For many years, I kept trying to make that happen between us whenever we were together. One evening we went out to dinner. As usual I was trying to get more of a connection with him. That night I dreamed that he died.
That was years ago and my brother is still very much alive today. What died in the dream was my belief that we could have a more connected relationship. My dream was telling me to give up; it was not going to happen. So I stopped trying. We have had a relationship all these years, it is not the relationship I longed for, but it’s OK. I accept it as it is.
In my 30’s I did major work on myself through intensive therapy. Much of the therapy centered on my dreams. I kept a dream log during this time. One time I read through a series of dreams and identified a recurring symbol in them. As dreams can have recurring themes they can also have recurring symbols.
The symbol I notice was a retaining wall. Sometimes the retaining wall was made of wood, sometimes stone, sometimes high, sometimes low etc. When I talk about this dream I always put my hand on my chest, just over my heart.
Here are the last two dreams I remember having about a retaining wall.
I dream I’m in the ocean. I’m at the base of a sheer rock cliff. The waves are dashing me against the cliff. I say, “If this continues, I’m going to die.” Suddenly, there are metal rungs on the cliff wall forming a ladder. I climb up out of the water to the top of the cliff. The dream ends with me chatting to a woman who is sun tanning on a lawn chair.
In this dream, the retaining wall has water on both sides of it. I’m in a powerboat and I’m travelling toward the retaining wall. I’m trying to go over it in the boat. Why? I don’t know. I’m just going to do it. As I approach the wall, the boat goes up, in my mind’s eye there is a big wall of green water, and in my chest there is terror. My boat crashes on the wall and I die. But I do not wake up. I say to myself, “No. No. It’s not supposed to be like this.”
I start to do a replay. I’m in the powerboat again. I’m heading toward the retaining wall again. I’m determined to get over it. As I approach the wall, my boat goes up, the same wall of green water in my mind’s eye, and same terror in my chest. This time I make it over. The dream ends with me driving my boat slowly on a peaceful ocean; there are other boats around me. In my chest, where the terror was, I felt a deep sense of peace. The next day, I found myself doing things without thinking about them and saying things without thinking about them. I became more spontaneous in a positive way. That has never stopped.
The retaining wall represented the part of me that held myself back. Growing up, I learned to keep myself safe by holding myself back. In order to come fully into myself, that part of me needed to die. With all the therapy I had had up to this point I had arrived at the place where I could risk letting that part of me go. It was difficult to let go of a way of being that helped me survive childhood, and some of my adulthood, but it was time and I was ready for it. I know that I would never have done the things I have done if that part of me had not died. I would never have gotten a Master’s degree, Doctorate, become a psychologist, written a book and other things, if that part of me had not died.
It was like a death and rebirth. I had to let go of one way of being in the world so I could develop another way, a healthier way of being in the world. I have never forgotten this dream and how it changed my life for the better.
When trying to understand your dreams, remember – they are often metaphorical.
With care and concern,
Dr. Bea Mackay