Emotional regulation for better mental health

I’m a thinker. When a stressful situation occurs, I am capable of calm problem-solving, and can usually solve the problem at hand so everyone benefits (this also taps into the “people pleaser” aspect I have). I usually set aside my feelings and get on task.

However, when stressful situations keep happening, and I have not spent time addressing the emotional aspects of each situation, this means all the emotional energy builds up. Then I “explode” – this looks like snapping at my daughter, threatening to throw her toys away if she doesn’t pick them up right now (at this point, I’m usually aware enough to realise I sound like my mother, but that awareness isn’t helping me emotionally-regulate), using an angry voice with my husband, and rage-cleaning.

If we look at the word “emotion” as “energy-in-motion”, we can understand how our feelings need to be expressed. All that bottled-up emotional energy needs and outlet, and this is where we look at emotional regulation.

Firstly, I want to say that allowing all that bottled-up emotion to come up just as they are is OKAY.

In a society that values thinking over feeling, where children are often told their feelings are wrong, where boys are told they can’t cry, where women are laughed at or ridiculed for being emotional, where women automatically apologise for crying, where “keeping a stiff upper lip” when dealing with grief and loss is admired… we have a problem.

We have a big, complex, problem. We struggle to name feelings. We struggle to identify what we are feeling. We stuff our feelings with distractions and addictions. We freeze, flight or fight when others are showing emotions.

When in our childhood, we have not been taught to acknowledge our feelings as they are, and go with the natural flow of feelings, we do not learn the energy of emotions. We do not learn that we are okay with our multitude of feelings, that there is strength and power in emotions. We do not learn emotional resilience. And without knowing emotions, how can we learn emotional regulation? How do we make space for emotional expression? How do we prioritise emotional processing?

We learn.

The Feelings Wheel by Dr Gloria Wilcox (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/036215378201200411)

This diagram above may help you start that process for yourself. It’s the Feelings Wheel developed by Dr Gloria Wilcox and shows 650 different emotions. Print the wheel and have it at hand for easy reference to start with. You can simply start with this sentence, “I feel ….”, and pick one feeling to focus on. Spend a minute to feel this emotion (often you’ll find that you won’t even need a minute to feel this emotion. Paying attention to the feeling helps shift the energy). Practice doing this daily to get used to the process. Try it for 3 weeks.

When you feel a mix of emotions at once and you feel about to “explode”, get yourself a piece of paper, put a timer on for one minute, and write down all the emotions you feel. When the minute is up, ritually get rid of that piece of paper – bury it, tear it to pieces, scrunch and toss, burn it (being mindful of safety), etc. This process can be quite cathartic.

After 3 weeks, you can deepen your practice by using this sentence, “I feel …. because ….” . This starts to help you engage feeling and thinking together, in other words, linking head and the heart.

As a thinker and a counsellor, I’ve spent years learning to navigate and regulate emotions, and I’m still learning and practising, and I still need external help. So I wish to tell you that it is an ongoing process, and that if you need help, please seek a counsellor, psychologist or coach that you resonate with, and that it is okay to try out a few to find someone you can work with on an ongoing basis, because CONNECTION helps emotional regulation. A good therapist or coach, in their connection with you, will help you connect within so you can learn and practice emotional regulation, and connect head and heart.

In Australia, you can contact your General Practitioner to organise a Mental Health Care Plan (MHCP), which allows you to see a psychologist for 6-12 sessions per calendar year. Some psychologists bulk-bill so you do not pay a gap, with other psychologists there is a gap fee. Check out the psychologist first via their website or online listings, and contact them to see if they bulk-bill or there is a gap fee to pay. Then contact your GP to organise the MHCP.

Counsellors, psychotherapists and art therapists are also options to consider, and generally you can check out their website, social media or online listings to get a feel for how they work.

If you are interested in how I work, this is the link to my services page, where you can opt to book online via the booking tab.

 

How do you know when you have gone beyond stressed into overwhelm?

Stress. A certain amount of stress can be beneficial – it helps you focus, organise, delegate, take action, get things done. But how do you know when that stress you have been living with has taken over and gone into overwhelm territory?

The nature of stress is that, it impacts your nervous system in gradual amounts, until a point where your nervous system is in overwhelm. The nervous system ends up in a chronic state of fight-flight, and it is hard to engage the rest-and-digest state. Basically, your nervous system is so used to stress that when you try and relax, and engage in “fun” or “relaxing” self-care activities, you can’t relax. Your body is still tense, waiting to jump up to do something, your mind can’t concentrate on the activity you are doing, and you feel guilty about NOT DOING ANYTHING. And this is when the beliefs you hold about relaxing comes up – “I’m being lazy, I need to do something, I can’t sit until…”

So you have a nervous system in a constant state of stress, and your thoughts and behaviours can contribute to and MAINTAIN that stress. For example, with myself, I was constantly working, finding different ways to make an income to support my family, caring for my family, caring for the animals on the farm. If I sat down for even 30 minutes, I would feel guilty, and the thoughts of “I’m being lazy, I need to get up” would come. I would jump up and rush to do “stuff” when my husband came home from work. I was always looking for more “things” I could do. Not a victim, but a martyr – friends and family would compliment me on how much I do, how amazing I was, etc. And I was so exhausted, I got sick, and I still wouldn’t, and couldn’t let my body rest – my nervous system did not recognise what “rest” looks like.

 

There were 2 distinct points of awareness when I realised this way of living was not healthy. One was when I was resting in bed after one of the earlier sessions of immunotherapy for hopper ant anaphylaxis – each session used to knock me out for several days, and I would be in bed at 7pm on immuno-day. My 4-year-old daughter was freaking out – she almost never saw me rest, even when sick, so seeing me sick in bed triggered a lot of fear in her. This wasn’t the message I wanted her to learn – resting is NORMAL and necessary.

 

The second point of awareness was when I realised none of my usual self-care strategies was working. My nervous system was so far and so long into overwhelm that it did not recognise “rest”, “nurture”, “heal”. No meditating, controlled breathing, visualisation – helped. I could not feel joy or pleasure, and I could not think of anything “fun”. This was the point when I realised the limits of my own training as a counsellor and a healer, and to reach out for help. When your own nervous system has “forgotten” how to rest-and-digest, you need to get help from someone else trained in therapeutic work to “remind” your nervous system how to rest. The human brain is amazing – it has mirror neurons that help you learn very quickly from someone else, a new action. Even if that action is something you have forgotten. It is OK to reach out for help.

 

Have a look at this brilliant infographic created by Rori, author of wordpress blog, The Graceful Patient. Her simple mental health pain scale can help you recognise when it is time to reach out for help. And for those of us who are used to working it out ourselves, this is a good reminder to get that support sooner rather than trying to power through it ourselves.

 

Rori’s Simple Mental Health Pain Scale, https://thegracefulpatient.wordpress.com/

 

This is the direct link to read more about this scale Rori created.

 

I have found that there is a line between stress and overwhelm, and that it is hard to recognise when we have stepped into that zone of overwhelm. Hopefully this infographic helps you recognise that line sooner and reach out for support.

One-Minute Stress Busters – How to quickly disengage the fight-flight system

A little bit of stress can be good for you – it helps you focus, get jobs done, multitask, stay organised, and so on. It can be similar to being in your “zone” of achievement – you feel accomplished, you get the rush of “happy hormones” (serotonin and dopamine), and if you post it up on Facebook, you get friends and family telling you how awesome you are to be able to do all those things. That “busy-ness” trap.

But it doesn’t take much for the busy-ness to become a self-perpetuating cycle that can leave you feeling overwhelmed. And it is hard to tell when those little bits of stress become stress overload, and chronic stress. Chronic stress fills your body with “stress hormones” of cortisol and adrenaline, which in turn has effects on our sleep, mood regulation, hormonal regulation, digestion, immune system, mental function, mental health… every body system is affected by chronic stress.

Let’s be honest – it didn’t take your body a short period of time to get into that chronic fight-flight state of being. Maybe you can’t even remember when your body was ever not stressed (here is a hint – if you find you cannot sit down to “rest” for a few minutes without feeling guilty, stress has been a long-time companion).

It can take some time to re-train your mind, body and emotions to shift from continuous fight-flight states to more rest-and-digest states, and here is a list of “1-minute Stress Busters” to help you get started:

 

  1. Breath
    Yes, I know this is a no-brainer, but because we don’t tend to give thought to our breathing, it is very easy for our body to fall into a permanent state of shallow-breathing. Shallow-breathing is a stress response. Consciously controlling your breathing, in particular, elongating your exhalations, sparks your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down your heart rate.
    My favourite breathing sequence is 6-2-4 = inhale for 4 counts, hold for 2 counts, exhale for 6 counts. See how few you can do in 1 minute.
  2. Visualise
    While visualising giving that annoying person the bird is tempting, visualising calm scenery is probably better for your nervous system. It’s why there is a market for guided relaxation recordings. So go to your happy place in your mind, with or without the help of a guided relaxation recording. Even better if you have a photo of a calm scenery you can use, and best if its a photo of a place you have been to which can trigger your own good, happy, calm memories.
  3. Savour
    Like visualising, savouring engages the imagination, but is geared towards pleasure. There are three forms of savouring – anticipatory savouring, which means looking forward and imagining a pleasurable experience to come; savouring moment, which means fully savouring and engaging in the pleasurable moment and making it last as long as possible (a minute is a lovely long time in this activity!); and reminiscing savouring, meaning looking backwards and enjoying the memory recall of a pleasurable activity.
  4. Cross your Midline
    This refers to any physical activity that allows your limbs to cross the middle of your body repetitively, which engages large areas of both brain hemispheres simultaneously. This helps you process when you are feeling overwhelmed by too much information, emotion or stress. Cross-crawl activities (see here for an example), the Butterfly Hug which was developed for desensitisation in trauma processing (video), some yoga poses, even simply crossing your arms or legs across your body can help reduce the experience of physical pain.
  5. Hugging
    Hugging involves touch and relating with others, which can stimulate a flood of dopamine, relieving stress. Even hugging yourself can relieve stress, as it is part of self-compassion, and the activity crosses your midline.
  6. Yoga poses
    Some yoga poses are specifically aimed at relaxing and calming the mind and body, others help to stretch and release the muscles, some are activities to cross your midline – each can be done for a minute to help relieve stress. The cat-cow pose, downward dog, child’s pose, and the corpse pose to name a few.
  7. Noticing
    This is when you engage each of your senses systematically – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. For example, setting yourself a task to see 3 red items, smell 3 scents, taste 3 flavours, touch 3 different textures, hear 3 different sounds. This helps your brain disengage from mental stress (worrying, panic thoughts, etc).
  8. Sensory immersion
    Following on from above, you can also select just one sense to immerse yourself in for one full minute. For example, placing an essential oil on a tissue or handkerchief, and inhaling deeply for a minute. Or peeling an orange and inhaling the essential oils released. Or squeezing a wedge of lemon into a glass of water (or gin, maybe?) and noticing the scent. Holding a piece of ice in your hand for as long as possible.
  9. Warming your hands
    Similar to sensory immersion above, warming your fingers and hands can relieve stress through noticing the sensation of heat. Biologically, it can help shift the fight-flight state to the rest-and-digest state. When we are in the fight-flight state, blood goes to the large muscles of our body, prepping us to run or fight. By reversing the blood-flow to our hands and fingertips, we engage the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system. Combine this with a hot drink that is nourishing, and we can build on the calm.
  10. Eat (or drink) chocolate
    A Johns Hopkins University study found that the taste of sweetness on your tongue causes a surge of feel-good endorphins. Also, dark chocolate contains compounds called flavonoids that also affect mood – according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, cocoa flavonoids improved both mental acuity and attitude. Dark chocolate also contain high amounts of magnesium, a mineral essential for managing stress. Additionally, in a 2009 study by the American Chemical Society, eating a mere 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily lowered stress hormone levels (more info on chocolate). The key is to limit yourself to just a few bites, since the sugar in chocolate can cause a crash later, plus binging can cause a range of other issues too. And if you drink a hot chocolate, you combine it with strategy number 9 above.
  11. Pet an animal
    There is a reason why animal-assisted therapy is a growing modality for helping medical and behavioural issues in children, educational and motivational purposes in aged care, prisons and mental institutions, to helping war veterans recover from PTSD. According to Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis, our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible. So, have a good cuddle-fest with your furbaby to trigger the rest-digest (and heal) state.
  12. Pick flowers
    This follows on from the biophilia hypothesis above. The term “biophilia” means “love of life or living systems”, so not just animals, but also plants and trees, etc. It explains why we keep plants and flowers in and around our homes. Very often, flowers also indicate potential for food later. Most fruits start their development as flowers. For our ancestors, it was crucial to spot, detect and remember the plants that would later provide nutrition. So get out into your garden and pick a bunch of flowers and foliage – gathering greens for food is a biological instinct, signaling eating, nourishment, comfort and rest.
  13. Brain dump
    Set a timer for 1 minute, and write down on a paper what you are feeling at the moment, or all the stuff running through your head in that moment. Then ritually discard that paper – whether burning, burying or shredding. This is different to writing out a to-do list, in that this one is aimed at cathartic relief of emotional stress around a person or situation.
  14. Declutter
    You don’t have to declutter the whole house or even a room, so don’t panic! What you can declutter in a minute is your recent photos on your phone (just today I deleted 100 selfies and 10 videos my 4-year-old took this morning!), your email inbox, newsletters you are subscribed to, your Facebook pages or friends list, your working desk… letting go of “stuff”, even non-physical stuff, helps calm the overwhelm.
  15. Do something else
    I like this one especially when I get triggered by something my husband says and start engaging in an argument. Embarrassingly, it started with our 4 year-old daughter telling either of us to go do something else, but I’m glad I’m able to recognise and accept wisdom no matter how young the teacher! So now when I get triggered (and was already stressed anyway), I either tell hubby to go do something else instead of continuing to say stuff that seems to trigger me more, or I take myself away when I realise I’m yelling.
  16. Step outside of the environment
    Like doing something else, this gets you out of the immediate, stressful moment. By physically removing yourself, and stepping into a calmer environment, you can calm your sympathetic nervous system down. Best is if you have your own sacred space to go to where you have spent time there cultivating calm. Example, your meditation space, your garden, your reading or knitting nook; my favourite sacred space is of course my clinic – instant calm whenever I step into this space.
  17. Music
    Music is another good one to shift the environment, and also engages the hearing sense. So pop on your favourite stress-relieving music – a calming piano piece, or a rousing dancing tune – whichever works for you to help shift your internal state.
  18. Grounding in dirt
    In the esoteric world, talk about “grounding your energies” is a common term, with recommendations to go out in Nature and connect with Mother Earth, getting more negative ions into your body and removing positive ions (negative ions are what is available in nature spaces – oceans, beaches, forests – and refers to the charge; positive ions are linked with stress and electronics). However, there is scientific research that shows soil bacteria present in dirt, Mycobacterium vaccae, helps increase serotonin levels, which in turn reduces stress, and supports the immune system. So grounding is literally getting into fresh dirt, so get out into your garden and stick your feet and hands into fresh soil for a minute for some lovely M. vaccae!
  19. Magnesium
    Magnesium is a mineral that helps with all cellular function in the body, hormonal and neurotransmitter regulation, uptake of other minerals, muscle repair and relaxation, stress relief, sleep support, and so much more (if you are new to magnesium, have a read of this). With modern-day living and all the stressors, plus magnesium-deficiency in soil and plants with modern farming practices, it is safe to say we can all benefit from oral or topical supplementation of magnesium! So rub it on, spray it on, or roll it on – it won’t take more than a minute! (Here is the link to my magnesium products).
  20. Let that jaw drop
    Relaxing your tongue and jaw sends a message to your brain stem and limbic system to turn off the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Simply let your tongue go limp in your mouth, and then open your mouth slightly, which will instantly loosen up your jaw. These exercises help bring our parasympathetic nervous system online, which tells our bodies to rest and restore.
  21. Smile
    It is hard to smile when we are stressed out, yet research tells us smiling reduces stress and helps the heart. When I read that, I think of a grinning rictus and hear the words “fake it till you make it”…
    Seriously though, a genuine smile, whether at a stranger or a loved one, connects, and that connection helps us feel a little less alone in our stress. A “sad smile”, a little Mona Lisa-type smile, or a wide Julia Roberts smile – each can bring connection, and connection helps calm our nervous system.
  22. Humour
    Anecdotally and intuitively, we know humour relieves stress. Gallows humour and black comedy shows the interplay of adverse situations, stress, and humour and laughter as stress relief. The psychological research is inconclusive, but I feel it is when humour and laughter is used as a way to connect, and helps the sense that we are in the situation together, do they help relieve stress. We women know this – when we complain about our husband or children, we don’t want a solution, we just want to be heard and seen, and somehow what we are complaining about turns into a source of humour rather than stress (like the time my husband suggested I was ignoring my family with my hobby of reading. I was about ready to hit him at the time, but it started becoming funny after telling it to others a couple of times).

So there you go, a list of 1-minute strategies we can use to relief stress, and shut down that fight-flight instinct. These are small steps to help alleviate chronic stress, but how effective they are depends on how stressed we have been for how long. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to see the humour in any situation, so we may need more than a reminder list like this. Chronic stress, where fight-flight is a dominant response to any trigger, big or small, benefits from additional help. So seeing a therapist will help with deep-set chronic stress, even just for having another person mirror what neurological and physiological calm looks like.

If you’d like to discuss with me whether psychospiritual counselling will help you with working through chronic stress, contact me through the website or via my Facebook page.