Before you try to "just calm down," do this first
Updated: May 14
Dealing with difficult emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic, part I
Have you ever had someone tell you to “just relax” or “calm down” when you were freaking out about something?
Have you ever been told “don’t be mad” in a moment you were really, really angry?
Have you ever been told “just don’t worry about it” when you were extremely worried about something?
How helpful was that?
Probably not very helpful at all.
When we’re feeling a negative emotion, being told to stop feeling it, or ignore it, or instantaneously switch to a positive emotional state is completely useless advice.
Most of the messages about negative emotions – what they mean, and what we should do when we experience them – are pretty useless, in fact. Even in the last few days, when collective anxiety levels just might be at an all-time high, I’ve seen experts on television saying things like, “We all just need to stay calm.”
But how the hell do you stay calm if you weren’t feeling calm in the first place?!?!? How on earth do you get from a state of panic to a feeling state that’s a little easier to tolerate?
I’m going to tell you how.
Here is what you need to know first:
A feeling, or an emotion, is a set of sensations you experience in your body, to which we assign a one-word name. We tend to get feelings confused with thoughts, but it’s important to differentiate between them. A thought is a sentence or phrase in your mind. “I’m going to be financially ruined by this COVID-19 pandemic,” is a thought. You may believe that it is THE TRUTH, and we’ll talk about that later, but for now, the point is that that statement is a set of words that are strung together in your mind. Whether it’s true or not, or a likely possibility or not isn’t the point – the point is that you are thinking it.
When you think that thought, you might experience fear or panic or worry or anxiety or despair, and that’s the feeling.
Often, we express thoughts as if they are feelings. We say things like, “I feel like this pandemic is going to completely ruin my life.” But that’s actually a thought, not a feeling. The bodily sensations we experience as a result of thinking that thought is an emotion. And when you think a thought that’s anything along the lines of “my life is going to be ruined,” the feeling you experience probably isn’t positive.
Let’s try this out for a moment. Allow yourself to believe whatever worrisome thoughts you’re currently thinking – whether they’re about the current pandemic situation, or anything else. See if you can focus on just one thing. So maybe it’s, “I’m going to get sick and I’m not going to be able to get medical care.”
I’m willing to bet that thinking a thought like that feels TERRIBLE. Typing that sentence feels pretty awful! Although I am currently asymptomatic and in good health and have been doing the social distancing thing and washing my hands and cleaning my phone like a maniac, when I typed that sentence, I honestly considered the possibility that I could get sick and not get the medical care I need. And I started feeling something along the lines of panic.
And here is what I did to deal with that feeling. I took my hands off of the keyboard. I took a few deep breaths. And I tuned into what was going on in my body. My heart was thumping. I felt heaviness in my chest. It felt kinda hard to breathe. And I sat with those feelings for a moment, and after a few uncomfortable moments, they began to pass.
That’s how we deal with uncomfortable feelings. We notice them, we let ourselves feel them, we trust that we can tolerate the discomfort, and we let them pass. And as we get into the habit of doing this, we learn that we’re stronger and more resilient than we thought they were.
Most of us have gotten the message, implicitly or explicitly, that negative feelings are bad. But that’s not exactly the case. Negative feelings may be uncomfortable to experience, but that may say more about our attitudes about discomfort than anything else. Here’s the deal: the so-called normal human experience includes a generous helping of discomfort. Negative emotions are not inherently problematic. They are not necessarily a sign that anything is wrong. They’re a sign that you’re alive and you’re human.
The problem is that there are so many messages out there that tell us that negative emotion is a problem – and so little guidance on how to deal with negative feelings when we experience them. So when we do feel something negative, we tend to try to resist those feelings. We try to push the uncomfortable emotions away, rather than engaging with them.
And that’s where the trouble really starts.
When we resist our negative feelings, we give them power they don’t deserve – power to lurk in the corners of our psyche and color everything we see.
But when we let ourselves feel our feelings, and separate the story we’re telling ourselves from our emotional experiences, we’re better able to digest our experience of life. We’re better able to navigate difficulties and discomfort. And we’re better able to engage with whatever is going on in the present moment.
SO. Here’s what I want you to do. Find yourself a reasonably calm, quiet place where you can sit down and have a few moments to yourself.
Get situated, and take a few breaths. Notice how you are feeling in the present moment. What’s going on in your mind? What are you thinking about? What do you believe is true right now? See if you can identify the dominant thought or belief that’s going through your mind. If you notice you’re worrying about an endless list of things, see if you can pick a primary worry. Set the other ones aside for a moment – you can always come back to them later.
How do you feel in your body when you think that dominant thought? What physical experiences do you notice right now? Be curious. Maybe your left big toe is tingling. Maybe you feel a buzzing sensation in your chest. Maybe you feel cold, or hot, or jittery. Maybe you feel pain or tension somewhere. Maybe you feel heavy. Maybe you feel like you’re about to levitate. Maybe you’re sweating in places you didn’t know you could sweat. Whatever it is, notice it. And see if you can let yourself feel whatever you feel without judging or resisting the experience.
And stay put. Keep breathing. See what happens.
If you never done anything like this before, this practice may seem strange at first. Your first inclination may be to say that you feel “nothing.” That’s okay, but stick with it.
What does “nothing” feel like? How does your breathing feel right now? How does your skin feel? Systematically check in with different parts of your body. How do your feet and ankles feel? How about your legs? And so on.
Many of us are pretty disconnected from our bodies, and experience life primarily through our cognitive processes. Getting into the habit of doing something other than that can take practice. (It took me a LOT of practice, and moreover, when I first encountered the idea that there is value in tuning into our whole bodies and getting out of our heads, I was deeply resistant to it.) But even if it seems strange at first, developing the habit of tuning into our bodies and noticing the physical experiences associated with uncomfortable emotions gives us superpowers.
When you sit with an uncomfortable feeling, you will most likely notice that after a few moments, the experience of the feeling starts to change. And in fact, if we allow ourselves to slow down and feel our feelings without resisting them, the feeling usually arises, peaks, then dissipates within about 90 seconds.
And in that feeling’s wake, you will probably feel at least a little bit of relief. And that’s what we’re going for here. You might also feel more than a little relief, and that’s great – but when you first start to practice doing this, the main thing to look for is feeling just a little bit better. That’s good enough for now!
When we practice feeling our feelings instead of resisting them, we learn that we can handle the experience of discomfort. And that’s where calm comes from. Not from avoiding the discomfort in the first place, and not by engineering a life that’s free of difficulty or challenge. From learning through experience that we be present with challenges and difficulties, and building the capacity to feel uncomfortable feelings without losing our bearings.
This alone is marvelous. But being able to tolerate our own discomfort without freaking out is also important because it helps us tone down our reactivity during times of stress. And that is a superpower any day of the week, but it’s especially important during times of heightened uncertainty… like the one we’re in now.
So for today, practice noticing when you start to feel an uncomfortable emotion, and see if you can stay with the feelings without reacting or resisting them. Breathe. Inhabit your physical body. Ride the wave of the sensations that arise, and stay present with the experience until the sensations dissipate. And then congratulate yourself for doing something that may be counterintuitive and challenging – and notice that you just might feel a little more calm than you did a few minutes ago.
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