Archives for posts with tag: emotion regulation

My husband and I are on vacation on the Oregon Coast, just the two of us. We are having a marvelous time. We’ve hiked on the beach, in the forest, and along cliffs above the coastline. It is just the break we needed. An ideal vacation in an idyllic location.
It only makes sense that 100 percent of every moment of the vacation should be positively perfect, right?

If you’ve ever traveled or even lived for more than one minute, you know this is untrue.

It seems that during nearly everyone of our vacations, I am irritated with someone in my family, including myself.  Yesterday, I had hiked seven miles along the coast. We drove to little towns and through amazing farmland. I was tired and in need of getting out of the sun. We got back to our hotel on the beach. If we hadn’t already made plans to eat on the picnic table overlooking the beach near our room, I would have changed into my nightgown. My husband said, “Hey, let’s go fly a kite!”

I am a person of inertia. Once I am at rest, I have trouble changing gears. The day before, John had convinced me to go out at night to see the sunset after I’d already collapsed for the day. I got myself going and was so glad that I did. So in the spirit of being a good sport, I said, “Okay”, put on my shoes, and followed him to the beach. My husband asked me to hold the kite while he walked away, un-spooling the kite string. As he was getting farther and farther away, drowned out by the sound of the ocean, I thought, “What does he want me to do? What is HE doing?”

I have flown kites in my day. He was doing it “wrong”. The first attempt failed. Then I asked him, “What do you want me to do?” He explained the game plan. Communication, yes! Now we had a plan. I was game, so I thought, despite the fact that he was doing it “wrong”. I’m not unreasonable. The kite flying was his idea. That made him in charge and me, the helper.

We made our second attempt and it failed. Then I did something I rarely do. I accepted that I was too cranky. I didn’t tell myself, “You are being silly. It’s just a kite. You have no reason to be annoyed.” I told my husband, “Honey, I’m tired. I’m going to go rest for awhile.”

I rested for about a half hour and then we started to make a beautiful fresh seafood dinner. When I brought the food outside, I saw the kite flying, tied to the arm of a patio chair. We had a wonderful dinner. I don’t think John even knew that I was getting cranky. I let me be me, I didn’t invalidate my feelings, and gave myself the space I needed to return to being an excellent traveling companion.

This may seem like a small thing but I know that small irritations can turn into a bad day and bad behavior on my part. Invalidation, makes emotion bigger, rather than smaller. All emotions are understandable even if we don’t like them.

I know that my life is going to contain upsets, big and small. Sometimes I will make things better, sometimes I will  make them worse, and sometimes, nothing I do will change anything. But I am grateful that yesterday, I was able to take a step away from my expectation of perfection and just gave my imperfect self what I needed.

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Last week I had dream that I was in a car accident and ran over four people with my car. I was horror struck. The dream did not last long. It was interrupted, as my nightmares increasingly are, by a lucid though. “You are dreaming. No one is hurt.” I immediately opened my eyes. My heart was pounding very fast. As I looked around the room, I quickly became calm. It was just a bad dream.

It may have just been a dream but my horror was real. And my horror matched my thoughts. But my thoughts did not match actual concrete actions and events. Yes, I had real feelings. Yes, I had real thoughts. But no, the action I was carrying out was sleeping. My location was my bedroom. I had not been driving or hurt anyone.

Feelings and thoughts do not always align with our actions or external realities. We think about thoughts and feelings as being unreal if they do not align in this way. Feelings and thoughts are real. They have some reality. They have meaning.

A tricky part of life is knowing when to take thoughts and feelings at face value and when I need to interpret them as a communication to do something else like eat if I am irritable because I’ve skipped breakfast or to take better care of myself if I am getting my feelings hurt easily because I am working too many hours.

One of the skills we have been learning when emotions and thoughts seem to be out of synch with other realities is called, “Checking the Facts”. Our instructor prefers the name, “Checking Your Thoughts”. I prefer the latter as well.

I have to say, this is one skill in which I excel. I am typically able to come up with alternative explanations for situations when I sense that I have jumped to conclusions or when a situation is upsetting but the pieces just don’t seem to add up.

Sometimes, in my quest to be restrain myself with thoughtfulness and understanding, I have a different problem. I over explain and over understand. I work too hard to find the whole truth.

We never know the whole truth or the full story. I have been working for many years on this, especially when it is a need to master reality to reduce my own anxiety and I just end up creating more anxiety to myself and others by being a know-it-all. My dear husband of 25 years gets the brunt of this, I’m afraid. We will have some kind of minor misunderstanding based on a different recollection of an agreement. Usually, this is an agreement during which I remember him agreeing to do some kind of chore at home. I’ll ask him about it and he says, “That’s not what I agreed to do. I agreed to do _____.” Then I start feeling guilty because I had been annoyed with him. Then I feel anxious because I stress out about forgetting things and dropping the ball. So I start doing an inventory.

“But John, don’t you remember. You said that you’d stop at the store to pick up ice for the party. You were just finishing a phone call with your mom when we talked about it. You said you’d do it as soon as you got your shoes on. I asked you if you were sure that you could do it. You said yes, I asked you to pick up two bags of cubes, not solid ice. Also, I was wearing a blue dress, that one I picked up on our last vacation to the San Juan’s. You know, it was the time we took the ferry that had a public puzzle set up that was so fun.”

Okay, I am exaggerating and that situation is fictional but representative. Is it really necessary for me to go on in this level of detail?

Is it really helpful?

Is it really that big of a problem that I need it to be acknowledged and fixed immediately?

This brings me to the next skill I am practicing. It is called, “the wave”. Basically, it’s allowing oneself to feel uncomfortable feelings in their entirety without trying to fix them. It is a type of exposure in cognitive behavioral terms. All feelings go down if you let them.

Yikes, this is one of those passive skills. I. Am. A. Problem. Solver. This is one of the hardest things for me to do. To sit with my own distress without trying to fix it. To sit with the distress of my loved ones without trying to fix things for them.

But I am getting better. I am accepting, bit by bit.

We had our weekly “how to keep your shit together” class last Wednesday. We are currently completing a unit on emotion regulation, which basically centers on what to do when an emotion is so big that it needs to be reined in. The list of emotions that need regulating from time to time don’t include things like contentment. Instead, the list reads partly like the list of the Seven Deadly Sins with a surprise or two added: Jealousy, envy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, guilt, shame, and LOVE, yes love. (Think of those times you may have had to break off a friendship because it was unhealthy.)

An emotion only lasts 30-40 seconds. Can you believe that? That’s not a very long time. They seem to last longer, sometimes hours or days, due to our response to them. If we are angry and start yelling, the yelling is going to keep the anger refiring in our brains. If we are sad and keep thinking hopeless and helpless thoughts, we also keep the sadness going.

We learned a particular emotion regulation skill, which is called, opposite action. It basically means finding a way to act in a way that is opposite to how your feelings prompt you to act. So if you are angry, instead of lashing out, you might be just a little bit nice by saying calmly, “I need to take a break from this conversation”, and leaving the room to calm yourself down. If you are feeling ashamed, it might mean that instead of isolating yourself, you go out in public and behave as if you have not violated whatever social norm your feelings are telling you that you have violated.

Opposite action is used when an emotional response does not line up with the facts of the situation or when our emotions are so high as to prevent us from functioning effectively. In respect to the former, have you ever felt guilty about something even though you’d done nothing wrong, but figured that you must have done SOMETHING because you felt guilty? That’s an example of an emotional response not lining up with the facts.

Opposite action also requires taking it all of the way. It means not only behaving in an opposite way but also making sure your nonverbal communication, your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are opposite. Yes, this means faking it and there’s even the expression, “Fake it ’til you feel it.”

The acting part of this may rub people the wrong way. Personally, I kind of think about it like when we teach children to smile and thank their auntie with apparent sincerity when given a gift that they already have or don’t like. There are things we fake in order to prevent hurting other people. If we can use opposite action to disrupt the patterns we have of negative thoughts and behaviors, we can prevent ourselves from hurting our own feelings or of others. So this kind of faking makes sense to me.

It’s also kind of like a job interview. We may really want the job or we may not really want it. We may feel really nervous or unworthy. We may be struggling financially. But we put on our best face, stand up straight, act cordial and confident, and give a firm handshake. We act as though we like the person we are being interviewed by and are excited about the prospect of the job. And sometimes in the course of the interview as we learn more about the position and we may even start having some real enthusiasm or interest.

Everyday is like an interview with life. Each day I will work for jobs like compassion and  joy.

 

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I grew up in a semi-rural area, which was really the suburbs. But my parents had acreage and our neighbors had horses, goats, cows, and of course there was Louie who had 200 pigeons. Ourselves, we had a lot of animals, too. I remember when we got our first kittens, Tom, George, and Fred. Tom was an orange tabby who grew up to be a true alpha tom cat. He got into fights and was often bruised. Bumping into one of Tom’s sores was the shortest way to getting assaulted by his razor sharp claws. I’m not exaggerating, either. He once drew blood when he scratched my arm while I was wearing a winter coat. George was a cute gray cat and that’s all I remember.

Fred, as I recall was a black and white cat. One of the early discoveries about Fred was that she was female. Kitties, even litter mates, live a soap opera existence. And our cats were not spayed or neutered. To make a long story short, before long our tribe of three cats expanded to a family tree with may inbred branches. My mom may deny this in the comments’ section but at the highest number, we had 21 cats. You might ask how this could happen but these were outdoor cats and we lived in the woods. Cats go back to being feral really fast.

I remember one of our feral females who had litters and litters of kittens. We called her appropriately enough, “Mama Cat”. Mama Cat would have her kittens in the woods or behind the wood pile. If she had them behind the wood pile, we had a chance. A kitten behind the wood pile might be tamed. We used yarn hanging from the end of a stick. We would throw the yarn to the back of the pile and then pull it out gently as the kitten snagged it with his/her claws. Repeat 150 times and we had ourselves a pet! If not tamed while a kitten, the cat would just be a feral creature who could only be lured into close proximity with the sound of a bag of Little Friskies cat food being hauled from the front door to the feeding trough (a metal baking pan) next to our barn. But even so, those cats would eat but would not socialize with us. They were truly wild animals.

When our daughter was three, we found a sweet little stray adolescent tabby kitten. We tried but were unable to find the owner. Given that he was a stray in eastern Washington, he was probably abandoned there. Ollie became part of our family. And then when he was three years old, he went kind of nutty and paranoid. For whatever reason, his whole world view changed. He was  like a cat returning from a tour of duty in the middle east who had PTSD. Ollie was aggressive to visitors and responded to the many cats who roamed our neighborhood by marking our house. And he did this for years, despite the behavioral interventions and his medication. (He took fluoxetine, the generic form of Prozac, for the record. I joked at home that I was going to write an autobiography, And Even the Cat Took Prozac.)

Ollie got really nervous at times and he was unpredictable. The only thing we knew is that if anyone outside of the immediate family was visiting, he might have one of his paranoid anxiety attacks with hissing, biting, and scratching. He could be scary. Ollie was also an alpha tom, or would have been, had we let him be an outdoor cat. He was enormous. There were a couple of folks who fancied themselves “cat whisperers” and tried to get in his face, despite our warnings not to do so. They got hissed at and scratched. When Ollie was panicked like this, even we couldn’t touch him.

After he had settled down a little, I could help him calm down more by placing my nose on his. This is a calming behavior for cats as long as they are not freaking out. They can be soothed by this very close contact if they are just a bit on edge. It is important to know the signs of cat anxiety and arousal before going nose to nose with a cat, especially an unfortunately mentally ill one like our Ollie. (And by the way, the veterinarians still talk about him, even the ones who never saw him as a patient. His legend lives on at the Lien Animal Clinic.)

It occurred to me the other day that dealing with negative emotions the ones that roil and churn in our guts and our hearts is a tricky business. Sometimes we can’t go nose to nose with then until we calm the Hell down a little. Focusing on them can become a rumination, a hopeless, helpless funk, or a tirade. At those times, we need a little distance. But if we distance ourselves from our painful emotions for too long, they take on a life of their own. They become feral and seemingly impossible to tame. And they are truly painful, especially at first, to confront after a long absence of distraction and denial.

Cats give signals when they need space. Their tails twitch. They climb onto high surfaces to make themselves bigger. If you miss those cues, they will up the volume by sending a low hiss and standing their fur on end. And they will flatten their ears. Do not go nose to nose with a cat with these signals! Give them some time.

We all have our own signals and as for myself, I have used life experience and more recently, mindfulness to identify times when I am too raw to go nose to nose with my thoughts and feelings and need to do something to get myself back into control like deep breathing, walking, or getting myself into the woods. Then I can start going nose to nose with myself. And I can stand myself and my feelings at these times.

I may never be a cat whisperer but I have gone many years without getting scratched going nose to nose with a kitty. Maybe I can keep learning how to do the same getting up close and personal with myself.

Ollie, sunning himself on the deck. He was pretty sick and weak by this time, but still finding enjoyment.

Ollie, sunning himself on the deck. He was pretty sick and weak by this time, but still finding enjoyment. He died a few weeks after this photo was taken. He was a beautiful boy and we loved him.

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