6 more ways to manage your feelings
In a follow up to my last article, there are six more practical ways you can help yourself with your emotions. You can think of it as working on your relationship with your feelings. After all, feelings are messages, letting you know about something that needs your attention. You could say symptoms are trying to help - it’s just their approach is outdated, and, for your needs now, misguided.
These tips are ways of learning to make space for, and contain, the way you feel so that the message can be received, and the intensity of the experience can ebb away. Not every tip will fit for everyone; the trick is experimenting and finding things that resonate for you and then making them your own.
We tend to think that feelings just are; that we can’t influence them. The good news is that we can. Our emotional state is made up of the following:
- The way we represent stimulus to ourselves internally, e.g. processing more by what we see and imagery, or by touch, feelings, or what we hear.
- Our physiology - how our body is.
- Our filters that, beyond awareness, determine what we notice - these include our values, beliefs, assumptions, and preferences.
Tip 7 - Count three gratitudes each day
This tip is a simple, and ancient, piece of wisdom. Every day, sit down and notice what you are grateful for, right here, right now. However bad your day has been, whatever is going on, just take a few moments to identify three things that you value and appreciate.
Positive psychologists have studied this exercise and have found it can help to shift your mood. It apparently causes us to release two feel-good hormones. Firstly, while you think of what you appreciate, you get a dopamine hit. Then, as you savour what you came up with, you get a serotonin boost (this is the hormone many anti-depressants try to give you more access to).
I've recommended this exercise to many clients, and have frequently been humbled and grateful for the difference it seems to make. Deliberately noticing what you are grateful for seems to shift focus to what is good and help people counter the negative bias that low mood and anxiety can bring.
Tip 8 - Connect with nature
Humans are animals. We have evolved over millennia into the conscious beings we are today, yet we still have much in common with the animal kingdom which we are a part of.
Connecting with nature has a calming effect; it somehow feels like home. There are many different ways to connect, and we each need to find our own. Here are some options you might try;
- Take a walk in nature, and notice your environment with all your senses as you move.
- Spend time gardening, clearing weeds, planting flora you like, and tending to it.
- Spend time stroking or grooming an animal. Notice what they most enjoy, and the sensations for you as you touch them.
These are just three suggestions amongst many, many ways to connect. Whether it's stargazing, surfing, outdoor swimming, or birdwatching, the important ingredient is noticing what you sense as you do it. Take in what you see, notice the sounds, savour the smells, and be alive to the sensations. The more you can engage your senses, the more grounding the experience will be.
Tip 9 - See things from different perspectives; someone else's, a fly on the wall
Our ability to see things through our own eyes, as well as realising how they seem to other people, and would look to an impartial observer, is variable. We each have preferred ways of perceiving. For good emotional regulation, its useful to be flexible in where you perceive things from.
Here's a simple exercise to do on your own to expand the information you have about a situation, and so change the way you feel about it; Bring to mind the situation you want to explore. Notice who is involved; you, and who else?
Set out three chairs, one to be yours, one to be the other person's, and one to be an impartial perspective. Position them appropriately for the situation, with the impartial chair looking onto both the others from an equal distance and even angle.
Sit on the chair that is your perspective. Notice what you see and hear from here, as you look at the other person. Be aware of how you feel. Say out loud the thoughts from your perspective.
Then, get up, leaving your perspective on the chair, and move to the second chair - the other person's perspective. Sit down and see things through their eyes, looking back on yourself in the first chair. Sitting here, as the other person, what do you notice about yourself back there? What do you see, hear, and feel? What thoughts come to mind?
Now, leave this perspective behind, and go and sit in the third chair - the fly on the wall. As you look at both people, what do you notice here? What do you see them doing and saying? What seems pertinent as you look at the space between them?
Finally, sit back in your first chair, and bringing with you what you have learned from the other two perspectives, what do you now know? How does this change your understanding? What do you now want to do to change how you are interacting?
Tip 10 - Come up with at least 3 explanations for what has happened
Oftentimes, we feel emotions strongly based on the way we interpret what has just happened. For example, a friend lets you down for a planned meet up - you jump to thinking they no longer like you and feel hurt, or decide they are rude and feel angry. Later, when you talk to them, you find that they actually had something come up that they needed to attend to urgently, and they regret not meeting up, and want to see you really soon. They told you as soon as they could. Maybe you even end up feeling guilty for your feelings and reaction, and that's a familiar feeling.
What can you do? Come up with at least three alternative explanations for what has happened. What else could be true? The key is not to come up with something else to believe instead; it’s more to wobble your sense of certainty and introduce possibilities, to get you into a more curious mindset where you can think more clearly and with less emotion find out what is actually happening.
As you do this process regularly, you will find that in time it becomes more natural; you are less quick to react, and take more time to reflect and respond. Remembering that you don't know yet can be a powerful way of kicking off an exploration. You may even get creative and playful in coming up with explanations that, while not true, make you smile!
Tip 11 - Check-in regularly with how you feel emotionally and physically
If emotional regulation is challenging for you, it's likely that feelings and thoughts are able to build up and build up, getting to a stage where they are too much - potentially even explosive. My favourite metaphor for this is to think of yourself as a bottle of pop. Life shakes you; each little event that does not go as planned adds some more fizz. Like the pop bottle shaken repeatedly, you can get extremely fizzy. Then, something bigger happens. Like a pop bottle dropped, you may even explode!
The human equivalent to this is regularly checking in with your body to notice what it is you are feeling. Initially, you may not have emotions to put to it. You may instead be noticing a churning tummy, or a tight back. Whatever it is that you notice, I recommend spending a little time breathing with it - just gently focused on it while you breathe through your nose (if possible), sensing what you feel, and acknowledging the emotion that goes with it.
Hard to remember to check-in? Why not set a phone alarm every few hours to remind you? It takes just a few moments, and it may well help you spot patterns and trends, to give voice to things you have not yet noticed, and best of all, to let some tension out so that you have more capacity for everyday living.
Tip 12 - Connect with others
We've all seen mothers gazing down at the babies in their arm with a loving look. Babies love to be touched; it’s also a survival necessity for them. Fortunately, we have a chemical mechanism that encourages us to pick up our young - a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is a pleasant hormone, and it is released by touch, motivating mum to pick up her young and soothe the child who is held.
In the brain, oxytocin acts as a chemical messenger and has been shown to be important in human behaviours beyond mother-infant bonding, including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety, and low mood.
There is a lot of research showing that interpersonal touch quickly increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Touch includes kissing, cuddling, and sex, but non-sexual touch such as hugging and shaking hands increases oxytocin as well. A 10-second hug every day can help boost your immune system, fight infection, increase dopamine, reduce depression, and lessen fatigue. One expert, Dr Paul Zak, recommends eight hugs every day as optimal.
Research shows that just touching your pets lowers your blood pressure and increases your oxytocin levels. One study found that oxytocin levels increased in both humans and dogs after just five minutes of petting. This may explain the emotional bonding between humans and dogs. Even just staring into your dog’s eyes can trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain. So, if hugging humans is not for you right now, then being with animals is an alternative to get the feel-good factor of oxytocin. If you don't have a pet or don't want one, maybe consider other ways of getting animal contact, such as walking a dog for a friend, or helping out at an animal centre.
I hope these 6 techniques stimulate some thoughts about how you can relate to your feelings and thoughts, and help you feel more at ease about what you are experiencing.
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