Three Steps to Fight Big Scary Feelings

feelingsI work in an elementary school twice a week as part of my social work intern.  Most of my job description entails observing children’s emotions, talking to children about their feelings, and teaching children what to do when these emotions and feelings strike.

I help run a social skills group for special education students ranging from kindergarten to second grade.  The students in this group fall on a wide spectrum of social and emotional functioning.  Some of them have been diagnosed with autism, OCD, Down Syndrome, or Bipolar Disorder and some of them have learning disabilities or require extra academic assistance.  All of them, though, struggle with interpersonal interaction.

This week we read a book called Sometimes I Get Scared where a kid explains the many things that scare him throughout the day. The book talks about spiders, clowns, dogs and the dark.  My favorite page, though, talks about “big feelings.”  The narrator explains that we all have big feelings inside us, like anger and sadness, and sometimes these feelings build up so much that feeling them scares us.

The book continues to explain different ways children can handle being scared, like breathing, thinking positively, and asking for help.  Through these techniques, the children are suppose to learn how to control and lessen these “big feelings” to make them safe rather than scary.

As I was reading this book to the kids, I felt like I was at church. “Preach!, I thought as the book talked about “big feelings.” Being a deep feeler, this fear of feeling is all too real. Many of my days are paused by thoughts of fear, like “what happens if I’m disappointed?,  how will I react if someone misunderstands me?, what if I get my feelings hurt?, how can I hide that I’m feeling emotional right now?” Because “big feelings” don’t stop when we grow up.

While children may have “big feelings” about not getting ice cream after lunch or not being included in the popular group’s text or having to do a classroom assignment, adults have “big feelings” because they are not satisfied with their lives, their trust was betrayed, or they are stressed from work. What causes the feelings can be different, but the reactions are often the same.

The difference between adults and children, though, is that adults are expected to remain in control of these feelings while an occasional tantrum from a child is somewhat acceptable. When we reach a certain age, we are expected to be in control at all times…or at least when we are around other people, but adult tantrums happen just as often.

Has someone you love ever stopped talking to you? Shut down completely after an argument or even one comment? That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever lashed out and said something hurtful to you?  That’s a tantrum.  Has someone you love ever used alcohol or other substances to block out their “big feelings”? That’s a tantrum.

So adults need to learn these lessons just as much as my students.  How do we reduce the fear we have about our “big feelings”?

  1. Allow ourselves to feel the genuine emotion.

Often when we feel big feelings, like betrayal, hurt, pain, sadness, we react without processing.  In order to shield ourselves from the pain or overwhelm that we may be feeling, we go straight to action.  Unfortunately the actions we take often lead to more hurt for ourselves or for others around us.  We shut down, we lash out, we numb.   If only we took one minute when we are flooded with a certain feeling to recognize the feeling and feel it in our physical body, then we could begin the process of control the feeling instead of reacting and letting the feeling control us.

       2. Breathe.

Emotions are physical as much as they are mental.  Chemicals are releasing and nerves are activating throughout our bodies. Therefore, when we feel “big feelings,” they feel like that are actually washing over us and coursing through us.  Our breath shortens, our heart pounds, or skin becomes hot. When we take deep breaths, we are working to reverse these automatic reactions within our body… slowing them down to a halt. We are then able to think, process, relax.

       3. Release the fear.

Feelings and emotions are important evolutionary adaptions because they warn our bodies that we may be in danger [And if your emotions are telling you that! Listen!] But many of us deep feelers tend to activate the danger signal at any slightly uncomfortable experience, therefore, these steps are crucial to surviving in adult life. After recognizing the emotion and breathing through the intense first minute of feeling, we must begin to learn to separate ourselves from the emotional experience. While the emotions are happening in our body and they are real, this does not mean they are right.  For example, I can have a strong reaction to how my girlfriend says the word “cheese” to me and the emotion that I feel could be real, but it does not mean that it is appropriate or accurate.  Therefore, it is important to think about the experience that brought about the emotion, assess whether it warrants a danger response, and if we decide it does not allow the emotion to wash away.  Like waves, emotions come intensely and crash on us but if we breathe and feel the genuine emotion instead of the primal reaction we can then allow them to retreat in a slow and methodical manner until they are needed again.  We can allow the emotions to wash away by breathing, removing ourselves, or logically explaining why we felt the way we did.

Just like my students are learning to do with their “big feelings” adults must learn to not let tantrums ruin their peace, because tantrums simply intensify and prolong emotions.  Instead learning to recognize our genuine emotions, breathe through our bodies physical reactions, and mentally watch as they emotion wave recedes can help us lessen the fear of these “big feelings” and be more in control of how we respond.

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The Crisis of Quiet

Chicago does not lend itself to quiet moments.  Most of the time horns are honking, people are shouting across a crowded street and an airplane is flying overhead to land at one of the airports in the near vicinity.  Quiet never comes.

This morning I was walking to my usual bus stop in the heart of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood that is more little than Italy these days.  As I was about to cross the street, a siren became audible from a few blocks away.  Another delightful symphony produced by city life.  At first, the cars and pedestrians around me were hesitant but continued to their destinations knowing that they still had moments before they would have to stop to let this ambulance pass.

As the flashing emergency vehicle approached the intersection that I was standing at, a rare thing happened. Everything, everyone stopped.  I had always seen this happen, obviously, since the law requires you to stop at the sound or sight of such a vehicle, but I never noticed the quiet that results.  Now I’m not talking about actual quiet, since the blaring siren was loud enough to urge the woman next to me to hide her ears beneath her hands trying to produce a type of faux-earplug.

The quiet that surrounded us at that intersection was the quiet of a crisis.

I have only experienced a few crises in my life, but they all produce that same still yet acute quiet that I saw on the corner this morning.  Cars came to a halt, people walking on the streets instinctively stopped their movement and looked at the approaching vehicle, the world for a second became completely centered around this ambulance.  Centered around this symbol of unrest, of emergency.

Such a quiet is not peaceful for it stirs within you a worry for the outcome, a desperation for resolution, and an anticipation of its passing.  Crisis in life can come as an unexpected death, the recurrence of an illness, the dissolution of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the questioning of your own purpose.  Crisis can look different, but crisis always results in the same.  A chaotic quiet.

A quiet that is self-centered, survival focused.  One of my crises was my own acceptance of my on-going battle with anxiety and depression.  For months, my life was like that scene at the intersection.  Nothing else moved or mattered except my sickness. No one existed except myself in relation to this crisis.  Everyone and everything revolved around navigating around my own crisis.  But see, unlike the ambulance that speeds quickly past freeing the surrounding world to return to its noise and routine, crisis feels like a slow motion switch has been hit and you are waiting, watching, hoping that the ambulance passes next week, next month, next year.

Crisis is an unbearable quiet that demands not only your attention but your entire world. As I was waiting this morning, thinking about this idea, though, I became encouraged in a way that only a person not experiencing such a crisis at the moment can.  I was encouraged by the passing of such quiet and the world resuming to its own rhythm and pace.  For it always does.

Yet during a crisis you can’t see that.  You spend most of your energy reorganizing your life around this crisis that you get to the point where you can’t even imagine losing that quiet in your life. You begin to love the self-focused quiet. But that quiet fades. And you return to a more aware world where things happen that are good and bad but that are, in the end, bigger than yourself.  And you find equilibrium within the noise once more.

We must remember that equilibrium when crisis is far away.  We must learn to live in this noise without the fear of yet another pause of crisis.  We must learn that crisis is not a permanent state, but it is, just like the ambulance, just a passing moment of stillness, of navigation, and of quiet.

Such an idea reminded me of one of my favorite songs, Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell.  As you listen to this song and read the lyrics, remember that life changes, it is fleeting, it is filled with both noise and quiet.  But what this song reminds us of most importantly is that you are not alone in this silence. All around are other people preparing for crisis, in their own crisis, or emerging from a crisis.  We must take heart.


Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell posted on youtube by GregLaswellMusic.

A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend