Handling Problem Emotions


Handling Problem Emotions

Fear and anxiety There are many reasons why you might have fear and anxiety. Fear tends to be about a definable situation and is functional as a warning signal. Anxiety is more free-floating and it can be hard to pin down a specific cause. Chronic anxiety may be a circuit in the crisis center (limbic system) of the brain that keeps being activated in the absence of a definable threat. This can happen because a state of fear that you experienced early in life has conditioned you to keep recycling the same unnecessary and unpleasant activation. This is a miserable experience that I would call still having a lousy childhood. You do not have to live the rest of your life with it.

Sometimes the thing you fear is actually dangerous to you and you do need to figure out how to protect yourself. Sometimes the discomfort you are experiencing is a case of your past leading you to an inaccurate evaluation of the current situation. We can sort it out together.

Anxiety is the What if disease.  It is happening in the mind and the body at the same time, and by starting at either the mind or the body I can help you reduce your tension. There are many ways to bring anxiety to a manageable level. A valuable technique is deep slow diaphragmatic breathing. Although this kind of breathing may be hard to master without any help, it is usually quite teachable. Good breathing doesn’t make problems disappear, but it does help you calm and center yourself and think clearly.

Fear and anxiety are like an alarm bell. It is miserable to be subject to a lot of false alarms. Working together, we can learn to distinguish a real danger from a false alarm. Once you can sort that out, you will handle real danger in the present more effectively and can get fears that come from the past out of your present life.

A developmental task for every child is to learn how to regulate emotional arousal. There are a number of ways that accomplishing that task can get derailed. If your parents were not soothing people who had a calming effect on you, your developing nervous system could have become defaulted into chronic overload. You might now find yourself without an effective governor. It is not your fault if that happened, but improving the situation falls to you. I can help you learn how to self-soothe. I might add that addictions by and large are attempts to self-soothe that cost too much.

Panic can be an avalanche that is very hard to stop. You may feel like you are loosing control, can’t breathe, and are going to die. It is frightening and can limit both your enjoyment of life and your ability to function.

My approach to panic is in two parts. First there is the immediate practical need to regain control of your mind and body at the moment that panic grabs you. There are many ways to become grounded and stop panic in the moment. We can together find the right combination of tools for you.

The second need is to understand what is triggering and maintaining the reaction of panic. That takes longer, but can result in you becoming less susceptible to going into panic in the first place. You do not have to resign yourself to being ruled by panic and fear of panic. Life that is not full of panic is an entirely different and more rewarding experience.

Happiness is more of a problem than you might think. Many people don’t recognize happiness when it sneaks into their minds. If you had no real model of happiness available when you were growing up, you may mistake crisis for normality. You may find that you push aside what really makes you happy and just move on to thinking about the next problem.

There is a certain comfort we derive from what I call the family-iliar. You may not be happy, but at least you know just what to do. This is a snare in which a person can get trapped for a long time. Learning to recognize happiness and make a place for it in your mind can be quite an issue.

Insecurity is the cliché of psychology. The frequency with which you hear this word reflects the wide spread existence of the state of mind it describes. With some help, you can go further than just saying, “I’m insecure.” Or “You’re insecure.” You can actually understand the nature of insecurity and work towards a way of seeing yourself and your world that makes you feel secure. Wouldn’t you love to hear someone say “She’s (He’s) secure”, about you and know it’s true?

Vulnerability It might help to study this dread idea. Many people equate vulnerability with weakness. However vulnerability also means accessibility. Vulnerability is actually the ability to be impacted. If you make yourself invulnerable, you may feel safe, but you become untouchable. If you are in a relationship with an invulnerable person, you know it feels like being alone. The key is to learn how to let valuable communication and love in while keeping poison out.

Your wall Related to insecurity and feeling too vulnerable is the wall you might have put up to protect yourself.  If your wall keeps everyone out, you are safe in a drab sort of a way, but very alone. If you let toxic people in, you will get poisoned. Either way, the goal is to develop smart gate-keeping at your wall. You need to learn to tell who bears gifts and who carries poison.

Sadness and Depression   Sadness is a clean sharp feeling that pierces us deeply. It is the vehicle by which we register a loss and grasp its consequences for our life.  Sadness is the feeling that marks a grieving process.  If handled respectfully, sadness can move us on to a better place. There is so much pressure in our society to be on all the time, that people  can get pushed out of their grieving before they are ready and can wind up depressed for a long time.  A funeral is perhaps society’s most concrete way of harnessing this emotion, giving those present a chance to share sadness and get it through their heads that their precious person (or pet) is gone. Sadness keeps us from getting stuck in fantasies that we can somehow undo our loss and that we will recover what we had.

It can be loss of a loved one, a body part or function, an opportunity, status, resources, innocence, safety, dignity, practically anything we value.  We go on acting as though we will wake up from a nightmare and the loss won’t have occurred.

Depression is a stew of hopelessness, self-anger and numbness. It is a sticky feeling state in which things seem irritating and/or meaningless. If it goes on too long, it can mutate into despair.  Depression is often the result of our being unable to tolerate the sadness that results from our loss.  We numb ourselves out.  The problem with the numbness of depression is that we lose the ability to appreciate the good things in our lifes.  Sadness is held at bay at the cost of losing joy and meaning.

I envision sadness as the boatman ferrying us across the river that divides us from the shore of I have this to the land of It’s really gone.  Sadness is a sharp pain deep in our heart, but is clean, clarifying and honest.  It is the bittersweet appreciation that we had something really precious.  Sadness may move very slowly and incompletely, but it does evolve.  Depression is sticky and irritating.  It is more stuck.  Just as a trauma survivor may find their future compromised by their inability to process what has happened, a person who cannot tolerate sadness may be proceeding without understanding where they really are on the map of their life.

Guilt can be quite a burden. I distinguish between healthy guilt and toxic guilt. Healthy guilt is your heart reminding you of what your values are. It helps you keep your behavior between the white lines on the road. Toxic guilt has to do with misjudging where your power and responsibility end.

If you feel responsible for how everyone around you feels, you are probably suffering from toxic guilt. Getting rid of toxic guilt requires sorting out what you really are and are not responsible for. It requires wrestling with why you might set a reasonable standard for everyone else in the world and a higher impossible to reach standard for yourself.



Shame is a feeling that if people really knew you, they would not respect you or want to relate to you.  Shame can really drag you down.   It is the master toxic emotion.  It is generally the result of having been humiliated and made to feel small as a child. If you cannot stand criticism, if it cuts you to the heart or sends you into a rage, you are probably suffering from toxic shame.  Shame often underlies chronic anger as anger can be used as a shame shield.  If you are sitting of a feeling of being unworthy of respect and affection, life is not enjoyable.

Getting rid of toxic shame requires a healing process from the wounds of past shame and humiliation. Neither beating up on yourself or on other people will bring lasting relief. Unfortunately severe and constant self-criticism reinforces the feeling of not being OK. When we reach the point where criticism doesn’t make us feel small, our whole existence feels easier. A key to real recovery is learning how to take criticism less personally and to come to realistic terms with your own human imperfection.

I find a real irony of shame to be the way shame causes people to see themselves in an inaccurately negative light.  This is a very painful state of affairs.  Most people that I work with find that they come to appreciate themselves  more than they thought possible, when they get a more accurate sense of themselves through therapy.  They learn how to separate out who they are from what happened to them.  You could describe it as the process of growing your story from that of a victim to that of a heroic survivor which is what most of us are.

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