Many individuals are experiencing intense emotions as a result of our current social and political realities. Not only is it in our daily media, but I’ve also seen it on my Facebook feed and interactions with friends. Plus I’ve also heard rumblings and name calling in places like church and other community gatherings. No matter which side of the fence you might be on, people are distressed and are leaking their unresolved and intense emotions everywhere they go –everything from slight irritation to hatred and from concern to panic– all signs of being in the stress response. I don’t think any of us want or need more stress in our lives. So what can we do? How do we get relief from these intense emotions?
First, let me clarify one point. If a threat is imminent, it’s important to know you will not have an option. Your brain and body will do everything in its power to keep you out of danger –automatically! Trust it. It works. You do not need to spend your life preparing for a catastrophic event. Not only is it a waste of energy to try and live in a state of high alert, but it is also unhealthy. Thankfully we can develop more awareness and sensitivity about our emotions. It really is the only way to prevent being hijacked by them.
Changes in Chemistry
I think many people still do not understand how easy it is to provoke a change in our body’s chemistry. You might be surprised to learn that it only takes the slightest change in our perception to cause a shift from homeostasis to the stress response. It’s important then to keep in mind that our chemistry changes under the slightest of provocation. It doesn’t even have to be real. Our brain reacts equally to our thoughts and imagination as it does to reality. We can change our chemistry by eating too fast, rushing to get things done, or thinking too far in the future. On the positive side, when we become aware of our ability to change our chemistry we can lower our blood pressure, reduce anxiety, manage pain and experience more confidence. Tuning into and refining this ability is the next step toward expanding our awareness and consciousness. Thankfully, it is a skill that everyone can develop.
Emotions like terror or panic are meant to be temporary, not to be a way of life. “They are signals to help us react to a physical threat.” (Karla McLaren) Other emotions like fear and anger are not meant to trigger the same response. Instead, each emotion arises for a very particular purpose. “Fear helps us maintain calm and focused awareness. Anger helps us to observe and respond to boundary violations from the outside world.” (Karla McLaren) There is a big difference between the purpose and intensity of our different emotional states. Our sensitivity to the difference is what helps us to live more fulfilling lives.
When intense emotions trigger our attention, we often become defensive. Our primary goal then shifts from connection and cooperation to identifying strategies specifically to save ourselves. (Our voice, standpoint, position, interpersonal boundaries or self-image.) It is a myopic orientation, not a collective. When we feel defensive our focus narrows, we scan, compare, look for what’s wrong and make quick judgments. It’s easy to mistake the rush of feelings one gets from this response as being more powerful, but that doesn’t mean a person is thinking and acting in a way that is in their or others long- term interest.
Four Minutes Not A Way of Life
I once heard that the stress response, also commonly referred to as the “freeze, flight and fight response,” is meant to last only four minutes. Not hours, days and years. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Four minutes is just the time we typically need to get out of harm’s way. That is its only purpose. Unfortunately, many individuals are living their daily lives in a chronic state of distress, without ever being faced with imminent and physical danger. When we mistake our level of risk, it puts our well-being at risk, both individually and collectively. What good is it to live in a defensive state? If we are busy making others our adversaries, how can we connect? Sadly, not everyone recognizes the ripple effect of being “stressed out, angry or scared.” Nor does everyone know how to shift out of these modes when they realize it. Thankfully, learning how to move out of these intense emotional states is achievable. Everyone can learn to become better interpreters of their emotions. I have found Karla McLaren’s work to be incredibly helpful in achieving that. Here is a link to her website. http://karlamclaren.com/
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, said it best. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We all have the power to improve our lives that are waiting to be discovered, practiced and integrated. We now have enough evidence to know our physical health and mental well-being are put at risk by prolonged exposure to the chemicals we secrete from our intense emotions. It makes a lot of sense then that the next evolutionary step for humans is mindfulness. Accessing the “space” is the pivot point where we can observe what is truly going on. It is here, in a single pause, that we can witness and then have a conversation with ourselves about what we perceive. We can identify and question whether our perception is real or if a past event is triggering us or if it is the result of our brain’s natural ability to anticipate and prepare for the future. When we can witness our thoughts and emotions, instead of being caught up in them, we begin to feel relief from the chemical response provided by intense emotions.
I’ve included a link (below) to a recent Huff Post entitled, “The Zen Master’s Advice On Coping With Trump” as an additional resource to assist those who are suffering. I am not suggesting it is the only answer, but it surely is a perspective worth entertaining and trying. Besides, who can argue with the power of love and compassion versus anger? Really? We all know that love opens the door to healing. It’s up to each of us to become clear-headed, openhearted and aligned with our values — this is the real place of power that enables a person to channel their energy toward lasting solutions.