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Carers' guide to making friends with our feelings

As carers, there may be times when we can easily be overwhelmed by our feelings. Or we may feel like we are on a rollercoaster of emotions, often spending our lives in reaction rather than response mode.

Illustration of two guys chatting.

If we’re reacting, we can feel out of control. Learning more about our feelings, can support us to “respond” rather than “react”. This may give us a little more control.

What if there were some simple, accessible ways to make friends with our feelings? Even the uncomfortable ones. And respond healthily to challenges?

Jill Pay (parent carer and life coach) explores ways to understand and experience our emotions in a healthy way. Supporting us to feel less overwhelmed and make choices with clarity.

Emotions – what are they and why do we have them?

All human beings experience emotions. They are energies which we feel in different ways. From childhood, we learn to recognise how each emotion feels. This helps us to understand what’s happening in our world and we begin to interpret the language of our emotions.

Emotions are our internal communication system. They inform us of what is happening in our lives and how we might respond.

Psychologist Paul Eckman identified six emotions all human experience;

Mad, sad, glad, scared, surprised and disgust. We’re focussing on the first four here:

1. Mad

This can range from mildly annoyed to fiery rage. This powerful energy gives us passion, drive and motivation. Throughout history, people who were able to channel their anger into positive actions have made changes in the world. Although this may not be possible for us in all situations, finding small ways to deal with strong emotions may help.

We can use this energy to give us strength and drive if we allow it to flow. However, if it becomes stuck, it can do more harm than good. The basis of depression is in fact sometimes attributed to anger turned within.

2. Sad

Anywhere from mild disappointment to absolute grief, sadness allows us to process loss – no matter how big or small.

It is important to feel sadness in order to heal the loss to a point where we have the memory but not the profound sense of loss. Grief is a process which takes time and it is important to allow it the time it needs.

3. Glad / Happy

Feelings of contentment to complete joy. We naturally feel joy and happiness. But for many reasons, such as social pressures or feelings of guilt, we may stop ourselves from feeling happy.

Feeling joy reminds us we are alive in every sense. It is uplifting and brings health to every part of us – physically, mentally and emotionally. Glad is our ideal state of being – so allow yourself to experience joy!

4. Scared / Fear

Feelings of slight anxiety all the way to utter terror. Fear is present in order to keep us safe. By repressing worries and anxieties, we can become stuck to the extent that we begin to live in constant “fight, flight or freeze” mode.

When this happens we become acclimatised to this heightened state and our bodies have trouble alerting us to real danger or a situation to be concerned about.

This means we no longer respond to take effective action to avoid the danger or protect ourselves and others.

Living in a constant “fight, flight, freeze” mode for a long time, can lead to poor outcomes for our physical health too.

Complex emotions

Complex emotions such as guilt, surprise, jealousy, or excitement are a mix of two or more of the “simple” emotions described above. Jealousy can be a mix of anger and fear, for example.

Helpful exercise: Practice recognising how different emotions feel, by “feeling” sad, angry, scared or happy – pay attention to the energy in your body, where it sits and how it feels.

Bottling up emotions

It is a well-known law of physics that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Only channelled and converted from one form to another.

I find it’s helpful to think of emotion as E-motion = Energy in motion. You can’t get rid of emotions but you can channel them in a constructive way.

It is important to state that there are no “good” or “bad” feelings. They all have validity and purpose, as explained above. However, often when we feel emotional our mind can tell us it’s wrong, by making up a story about it. Or we brace ourselves against a potentially difficult feeling. Then we become e-stuck!

Suppressing emotions

Think about a time when you experienced a strong emotional reaction, maybe fear. How many times did you relive the reaction, feeling spikes of fear even hours or days after the event?

The energy of that fear has become stuck and hasn’t been allowed to flow away. Why? Because we haven’t been taught how to experience our feelings in a healthy way.

Stopping ourselves from feeling our emotions is called suppression, which simply means that we don’t experience feelings fully when they are happening, and the energy becomes stuck. There are many reasons for this.

What might suppressed emotions look like?

Do you know anyone who when you are around them it feels like you are walking on eggshells? You fear an outburst if you say something that might upset them?

Those people have been suppressing anger over many years, and they are like an overfull bucket of anger – which will spill out if knocked even very slightly. If they could begin to process their anger, the bucket would gradually empty and they would become less reactive.

Why do we suppress our emotions?

1. Upbringing

Growing up we are often told that our emotions are “wrong” – big boys don’t cry, girls shouldn’t get angry, etc.

“As a child, I often felt fearful and was told ‘there is nothing to be afraid of’, which rather than reassuring me, led me to believe my fear was wrong. As I grew I continued to suppress my fear and in early adulthood regularly experienced panic attacks.”

A healthier way of supporting a child might be to say: “I see you are afraid; I am here and you are safe – just take a breath.”

Often adults may try to control (or dismiss) children’s feelings. Either because of their own discomfort or because they don’t agree or see the need for that response.

2. Overwhelm at the thought

We may also suppress our emotions because we think they will be too much to handle – we may brace ourselves, keep ourselves busy, ignore or hold our breath, to stop the feeling flowing through. This is not always a conscious choice.

“I was so busy caring for my disabled child and her siblings, that I didn’t allow myself any time to ‘think’ about her diagnosis. I didn’t have time to fall apart and I just didn’t want to feel that sad. It kind of felt disloyal to have a ‘negative’ emotion. Years of burying my feelings took a massive toll on my mental health”.

Illustration of woman self-reflecting.

Seven steps to experience emotions healthily in the moment

Experiencing emotions healthily is very easy and it is essential to prevent overwhelm, outbursts and general emotional chaos. Try taking the below steps to help deal with strong emotions:

Step 1 - Acknowledge your feeling(s) – whatever they are. Silently say to yourself “I feel …” If you are feeling joy or excitement – that counts too! Step 2 - Consciously take a deep breath or two and then keep focussing on breathing steadily. Take deeper breaths if the feeling gets stronger. Notice where in your body you are feeling the emotion. Even in a public space, you can do this – your breathing can be quiet! People really won’t notice. If you need space, then remove yourself to somewhere more private.

Step 3 - Remember you are supporting the energy of the emotion to keep flowing through – stay with the process until the feeling passes. You can keep doing things while processing emotions unless they are strong enough to stop you in your tracks.

Step 4 - If thoughts distract you, just focus back on your breathing. The mind is very effective at storytelling, however, the important thing here is to breathe through the emotional energy.

Step 5 - If the feeling returns – take a few more conscious breaths. Repeat this as needed.

Step 6 - Take care of any immediate personal needs and then carry on your day. Pause to notice any physical or emotional needs you may have. Perhaps a glass of water, a toilet break or a snack. Or maybe a hug or a phone call to a friend.

Step 7 - Emotions after the event. If you experience an emotional response sometimes after an event, treat it in the same way – this is very healthy. For example, coming to terms with a diagnosis will bring up the feeling(s) again and again. Each time we support ourselves to connect, we support ourselves to move forwards.

Carers’ tips for experiencing strong emotions

We also asked members of the Mobilise community to share their top tips for experiencing those strong emotions healthily.

Almost 31% of us shared that “talking it out with a family, friend or support service” helped.

What helps your most, when experiencing strong emotions? Data

Other tips carers suggested included:

Experiencing the backlog of suppressed emotions

Of course, it’s helpful to know how to support ourselves better going forward - but what about the years of suppressed emotions we need to sort out?

“Labelling my ‘grief’ over my daughter’s regression, after years and years of suppressing it, was exhausting and liberating in equal measure. I felt so much lighter physically, like I could float away. But also like a fragile shell. I needed time to heal and the support of good friends and family. It was a hugely positive turning point for me. Grief is not a dirty word or bad emotion - but it is uncomfortable”

There are a lot of tools out there, from talking therapy to peer support. From CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and hypnotherapy, to journaling or art therapy. There are plenty of ways for us to start identifying, labelling and feeling those feelings. A good starting point is our GP.

Allowing ourselves to experience strong (and long held) emotions, can leave us very fragile. Be kind to yourself, and find the right support.

Below are some resources that may help you on this journey:

Managing versus experiencing emotions

You may notice that I don’t talk about “managing” emotions. “Managing” emotions is a mind thing – often making our feelings seem “wrong”, because our mind tells stories which may not reflect what we are actually experiencing.

Allowing our brains to suppress strong feelings can lead to unhealthy outbursts and feeling overwhelmed. I prefer to describe emotional health as “experiencing” emotions because that is how you allow your emotions to flow, and prevent build-up of anger, fear or resentment.

As the saying goes;

“what you resist, persists”

By experiencing your emotions you have better control over how you respond to a situation; and the clarity to use the emotional energies for their true purpose, finally making friends with your feelings!

About the author

Jill Pay is an Independent Trainer-Facilitator and Life Coach, and former Breaks & Activities Service Manager at Camden Carers

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