Category: <span>Stress</span>

Emotions are the Solution, Not the Enemy

Written by Mareena Atalla, MA, TLLP
Edited by Julie Braciszewski, PhD, LP 

Emotions are our constant companions, ever present and impacting us. We spend a lot of time trying to manage them, push them down, and fence them off. However, emotions are hard-wired in our brains and bodies. This hard-wired system is designed to keep us safe, motivate us, and connect us with others. If we are open to shifting our perspective and accepting that all emotions are useful and important, not just the pleasant ones, we just might be able to accept them, manage them, and hone our ability to use them as a guidance system. If we experience all of our emotions we gain more of what we want and need in life.

 Shifting Perspectives: Emotions can be difficult, but they are not “bad”

Emotions are often labeled as “positive” or “negative.” Most people learn very early in life that emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger are “bad”, are signs of weakness and/or are to be avoided. We are told that the ‘good’ emotions are the ones we must strive to feel and show to others. However, the perspective that only ‘positive’ emotions are ‘good’ leads to shame and embarrassment, which then lead us to ignore or suppress more difficult emotions. However, this usually makes the feelings and situations worse. What if I told you all emotions are of equal value? Really think about it; consider that your sadness is just as important and valuable as your happiness. How would this perspective change your experiences? We think that in a perfect world, people would feel positive emotions such as happiness, excitement, joy, love, or curiosity all of the time. However, it is the vast experience of emotion, and the contrast between pleasurable and difficult emotions that paint the landscape of our lives. Emotions motivate and guide us through situations, interactions, and decisions. We must have a full range of emotional experience to engage in life. All emotions are equally valuable because they tell us very important information about ourselves, others, and our experiences. We know that many emotions are difficult and painful to deal with, but it is important to allow ourselves to feel all emotions in order to be able to learn from and cope with them. By accepting all of our feelings as equal in value and importance, we can better learn to express and cope with them.

Alert! Alert! Emotions are a signal

All emotions serve a purpose, and if we understand them as signals, telling us what to be aware of and what to do next, we are much more effective in getting what we want and what we need. What we call emotions are actually a cascade of thoughts, brain reactions, and bodily reactions. First, our brain reacts to a situation, we may or may not have an interpretive thought, and this reaction or thought then result in signals sent to our body. For instance, when we are faced with difficult situations, our brain’s stress-response system sends a signal to our body that something might be wrong, so that we can decide what to do next. If our brain thinks we might be in danger, it sends stress hormones through our body to protect us. These hormones translate directly into bodily reactions. For instance, our heart beats faster to get more blood and oxygen to our body, in case we need to run or fight for our lives. Our breathing also becomes faster as our lungs work to get more oxygen into our body. Our pupils dilate to help us scan our environment better. We label these bodily sensations as emotions, such as nervous or irritated, and we are motivated to act. We might fight, freeze, or run away. When we are feeling sad, our brain signals to our body that we need to rest and recover. This is why we often feel tired and drained when we experience sadness or grief. Paying attention to what we feel in our body can help us understand what our emotions are guiding us to do to meet the demands of a situation. When we are disconnected from our emotions, we are disconnected from solutions.

 The Mind-Body Connection

Emotions are the lens we view the world through; hence the saying, seeing something through ‘rose colored glasses’. The physical aspects of emotions influence our thoughts and behaviors a great deal. This may seem obvious, but often times it’s not so obvious in our daily experiences. When we understand that emotions are interconnected with our bodily sensations, thoughts, motivations and behaviors, we can, in turn, learn how to manage these different experiences of emotions. For instance, when we are angry, we tend to think angry thoughts. Thinking angry thoughts then feeds and fuels our emotion further, and leads us to want to act on our anger. The stronger the emotion, the more intense the motivation, sometimes leading to decisions or actions that don’t work for us, or that we regret. Now here’s were the work comes in! We learn to identify the emotion, increase awareness of bodily sensations, and use this insight to guide us toward what we need. Coping skills can be used to manage the physical feelings and behavior urges that come with intense emotions. We can then effectively explore the thoughts that might be colored by those emotions, and consider what actions best meet our needs or wants. We can’t control how our body reacts or what thoughts initially pop into our heads, but we can control how we look through the lens.

 The Mind-Body Connection

One way of gaining insight and control over emotions is to increase awareness and control of bodily reactions. Although some people are skeptical about breathing and grounding exercises, science shows us that using these strategies can send a signal to the part of the brain that turns down the “stress-response system” (sympathetic nervous system), and turns up the “calm down system” (para-sympathetic nervous system). Active strategies that use your whole body help to regulate stronger bodily responses to emotions, especially frustration and anger. These techniques aim to help you focus on something else, while calming and shifting your bodily responses and sensations.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique: Slowly breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breathe for 7 seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this sequence until you feel your body calm down.

Five senses grounding: Acknowledge 5 things you see around you. Acknowledge 4 things you can touch around you. Acknowledge 3 things you hear. Acknowledge 2 things you can smell. Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste.

Move your body! Sometimes, our emotions feel so strong that the calming techniques above are not enough to release that emotional energy. Instead, moving your body around can help release that built up energy. Play one of your favorite fast-paced songs and dance around! Go for a run or bike ride! Kick or throw a ball around! These strategies are meant to help you focus on the activity, while moving your entire body, to release the built up energy that emotions give us.

 Put it all together

When we see emotions as equally valuable, we can harness the power of a full range of emotional experiences. These experiences provide us with incredibly important signs and signals, guiding our expression, behaviors, and choices. This leads us to be more effective in getting more of what we want and need.  However, to ensure we don’t feel overwhelmed by these experiences, we also must attune to our bodily responses and learn to turn the dial up or down.  Stay tuned for more on recognizing and managing thought patterns.

*Click on this link to view a “Feelings Wheel” which can help you identify and express your emotions using different terms that describe different levels of the common emotions humans feel.

https://feelingswheel.com/

 

Managing Back to Work Anxiety

Dr. Julie Braciszewski PhD, LP

Michiganders are headed back to in-person work this week, and while some are feeling a renewed sense of freedom, others are facing significant anxiety. ‘Back to Work Anxiety’, as some are calling it, is part of the larger experience of ‘Re-Entry Anxiety’. We have been expressly avoiding many situations, interactions, and contexts for over a year to keep ourselves, and others, safe.  However, when we avoid a feared situation, our perception of danger increases, as does our bodily response to this fear. So now, as we venture out into the world, it is reasonable to feel a little wary, or even downright intense anxiety. The closeness of others, enclosed spaces, people touching things… it might all be a bit overwhelming. It’s imperative to highlight what we can do to manage back to work anxiety and make this transition a bit easier.

Evaluate What Has & Has Not Been Working For You

Over the past year we have adjusted to working at home by developing new routines and patterns of life.  Inevitably, some of these changes have brought additional stress. We can make a list of what new routines, situations, or responsibilities are causing more stress, reducing work engagement or satisfaction, and target these for change.  For instance, most people feel like ‘Zoom Zombies’ after a couple of hours of video conferencing. As you go back  to in-person work, specify a time threshold for video conference meetings and work toward shifting to more in-person meetings. However, for some the ability to take a break from work and do household tasks or errands has been a very positive shift while working from home. Additionally, people with families are reporting engaging in more meals together. Perhaps these are things you want to hold on to? Just as importantly as working to address added stressors, make a list of what is bringing more connection, relaxation, balance, and satisfaction and fight to keep those routines in place.

Communicate

This might seem like a no-brainer, but many struggle to really communicate what they need and what they want.  When we are stressed, our ability to communicate often declines further.  This makes the transition back to in-person work a potential black hole for communication.  About 60% of people report already feeling burned out, and are thus less likely to communicate their needs.  Once you’ve sat down and clarified what is working and what is not, translate this into actionable steps. Formulate assertive statements around what you want, why you want it, and how it will actually benefit your team, the business, or your work quality. Communication during this transition will pay off long-term for you and your employer.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

For many, as work moved into their homes, it became difficult to separate work life, home life, and all our other responsibilities/roles in life. Our separate roles no longer fit neatly into their contexts and have compounded stress as we try to meet these intersecting demands. For instance, many people are simultaneously working, facilitating their children’s schooling at home or in a hybrid model, and providing support or care for other family or community members. It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?!? As we shift back to in-person work it’s important to think about boundaries between work and home, and reassess how to be sure you get time to relax, connect, and recharge. When will you NOT be available for work. If you return to in person work, practice putting down your phone, ipad, laptop, ect., and unplugging from work once you are home. If you are returning to a hybrid work model, you might have to work even harder to set your boundaries. Reclaim your home as your sanctuary, reclaim your family and friendship connections without the constant distraction and pull from work, and reclaim your balance.

Get Clear Answers

Returning to work in person is going to result in a lot of ambiguity at first. This will take a lot of planning on employers’ parts and at first, it might be hard to get answers to your questions. However, now is the time to speak up and ask important questions around expectations, policies, flexibility, and work roles. Do you have a firm sense of what the policies are around office safety and sanitizing? Do you have questions around flexibility of work schedules? It’s important you give your employer the opportunity to grapple with these questions at the outset, so that you, in turn, have the opportunity to get what you want and what you need.

Support Your Mental Wellness

The pandemic has caused a mental health crisis of the likes we have never before seen. Usually 15 – 20% of people are experiencing mental health challenges at any given time. But right now, about 40-60% of people are struggling with their mental health, before even contending with back to work anxiety! The importance of this increase in mental health difficulties cannot be overstated. The majority of individuals returning to in-person work are already feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, and burned out. We can not really switch into a ‘full steam ahead’ attitude at work. Instead, we must make room for how mental health is impacting our well-being. Identify what you need to prioritize your mental well-being during this transition. Many are asking to start back in stages, so that they can adjust their household needs, such as childcare, and get used to their new schedule. Should you ask to take walks on your break or lunch? Do you need to shift your work day to address sleep disruption? Can you seek out additional communities out of your office? Groups like recreational sports teams, moms groups, religious meetings, crafting group, sober living group, super-niche-car-guy group, provide connection and positive sense of identity. We can be purposeful in creating our own mental wellness. If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

It’s OK To Not Be OK

Be aware that you will have a stress response to this transition. Because mental health IS medical health, you will feel back to work anxiety in your body as well. This may present in the form of headaches, gastro-intestinal distress, body aches, sleep changes and fatigue. Be attentive to this reaction. If your stress reaction, anxiety or mood difficulties are worsening, or have not gone away in a couple of weeks, give yourself the gift of professional support. You deserve it!