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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