Getting Through The Rapids:  Understanding The Biology of Emotion

At what point did we tell ourselves that we are not supposed to feel emotions?  When did emotions become something to be pathologized, exorcized, locked away, or completely ignored?  And when did we decide that it was not okay for others to see our emotional selves, and attempt to prevent what we have come to know as the “vulnerability hangover?”  When did we stop accepting what it means to be human?

Many of us have come to know what it feels like to become overwhelmed with emotions.  Whether it has been through our own first hand experience, or by our experience of seeing others overrun by them, we have learned to fear our feelings.  We learned somewhere along the way that emotions can become big, dangerous, and can drive us to do unthinkable things.  But like many of the clients I work with who attempt to outrun feelings such as anger (having perhaps witnessed a parent’s rage) we can end up drowning in painful emotions as adults, despite our best efforts to avoid them.  Emotions are an integral part of what it means to be human, the fabric of our survival, and are absolutely meant to be experienced.

Emotions only become unbearable when we refuse to allow them to flow freely.  But we have to gain the experience, and skills required to navigate them safely.

We start by thinking our way through.  If your thoughts lead to painful feelings, such as shame or regret, then be sure to feed your brain counter thoughts.  Be thoughtful about finding mantras, words, or phrases that overtime can create different thoughts, emotions, and subsequent behaviors.  Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help with this process.  Phrases like “this too shall pass” or “there are no failures only lessons” can become louder than the cacophony of self-doubt through our practice.  However, thought replacement requires us to first acknowledge the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are creating the rapids in our lives. Acknowledgement is always the place we start. But then what?  Here are some additional ideas to help you start, and to also help you build tolerance for emotions, and overall resilience.

Resist Dry Land

If you start to move into choppy waters, resist the urge to get out of the river all together.  Eddying out from time to time is appropriate, but find the courage to stay in the boat.  Emotions, like rapids, can come and go, you just have to hold on.  From my experience, the bigger the emotional wave, the more confident we can be that that type of intensity will not last.  Learn to ride on top of the wave versus getting pulled under by it.  This will pass.

Invite Emotions Onboard

You can resist the urge to bail out by spending time with your emotions.  What are you feeling, what are the sensations you are experiencing in your body when you feel these emotions?  Where in your body do you hold shame, anger, or fear?  What is the image or metaphor that communicates what you are feeling?  Breathe in peace, and breathe out pain.  Write to your emotions and learn from them.  What are they trying to tell you?  What are the thoughts behind the wave?  It always goes back to a thought.

You Can’t Steer a Boat Without Oars

Shame is one of the more painful emotions we experience.  If you are feeling the pervasiveness of shame (a much deeper shade then guilt), then you may be experiencing a bind.  In other words, you may be in a situation you just can’t win.  For example, if you are in a co-dependent relationship with someone who expects you to fix their heart, you simply can’t win.  Healing someone else is not your job, or even in the realm of possibility.  This experience may leave you feeling as if you can’t ever get it right, that you can never do enough, or worse, that you are not enough.  These thoughts can lead to shame. Step out of the bind, and stop trying to fix what is not your problem to fix.

Know Why the Water Flows

Understand the biology of your emotions.  We are wired to feel, and our emotions help us survive.  For example, anger may be communicating that we may be under attack, anxiety can help us keep our eyes peeled for potential danger, and shame can remind us that we need to stay connected to the human race (not necessarily to one specific individual) because we can’t survive alone.  Accept the biology of emotions. If you ignore the signals, they will simply get louder and more acute.  Your emotions are trying to help you.

Navigate Calmer Waters

Remember that you are human, that you make mistakes, that emotions are natural, and stop being so hard on yourself.  To accept being human means we accept our imperfections, and therefore the truth that we won’t always get it right.  The experience of emotions is part of what it means to live fully.  You know yourself, your intentions, and there is always grace in the fact that you showed up.  See yourself through the eyes of the people around you who know you, love you, and can be there to support you.

This too will pass.  In a hundred years no one will care.  You will be okay.  You are loved.  You are lovable.  You deserve to be here.  You are stronger than you think you are.  That which does not kill us only makes us stronger.  There are no failures.  You are doing the best you can.  You are a survivor.  You are enough.

Clear Reflections

What are the emotions that feel unbearable?  How could you be more intentional about acknowledling them without getting overwhelmed by them?

Spend some time with your emotions.  Write to them.  What are they wanting to teach you?  What do you need them to know?  What do you need them to know about you?  How can they work for you?  Guide you?

Are you struggling with co-dependence?  What are the relationships in your life that nurture you?  What are thre relationships in your life that deplete you?  What can you do to establish stronger boundaries with others if you need to?

How can you continue to accept your emotions, what they are trying to do for you, and accept what it means to live fully?

Enjoy the full experience.

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