Emotional Awareness and Processing Emotions Through Hard Times

by Fitcoachion | Last Updated: April 7, 2020


There is so much about our current situation that is challenging. There’s the obvious: job loss, financial insecurity, fear about the virus itself, uncertainty about the future. We’re living in a state of limbo, waiting for (more) bad news while trying to figure out what, if anything, we can do to reassert control and order over our lives.

If you’re feeling… well, like you don’t even know what you’re feeling, you’re not alone. All of us are experiencing this massive disruption to our lives, and the collective fear and uncertainty that go along with it, for the first time. We’re learning to navigate and adapt in real time to a world that feels foreign.

It’s normal to feel adrift, to run the gamut of emotions, and experience conflicting emotions sometimes simultaneously.

Emotional Awareness as a First Step Toward Working Through Emotions

It feels like emotions just happen to us. Especially strong negative emotions can feel like they overtake us, inhabiting our body without our permission. To some extent that’s true. What we call “emotions” or “feelings” are our subjective experience of our brain and body’s reaction to a situation. We can’t control the initial physiological response. However, we can shape emotional experiences—how strongly we feel emotions, how the thoughts we have about why we’re feeling a certain way, and how we cope. This process is called emotion regulation.

The first step in any kind of emotion regulation strategy is awareness. We must recognize that we are having an emotional experience and then discern what, exactly, we are feeling. Anger, frustration, and fear all feel bad, but they are very different emotions that should prompt different responses if we are trying to help ourselves feel better.

Mental health professionals suggest that simply naming our emotions, bringing awareness to how we are feeling, can be a first step in coping with emotional upheaval. Putting words to our inner states is one of the goals of therapy. It’s also a tool you can use to help yourself in the moment. When you’re hit with strong feelings, and you don’t know what they mean or what to do about them, simply pausing to say, “I’m feeling _____” can offer a bit of relief.

I’m not suggesting that naming your emotions will magically fix everything, of course. That’s not reasonable. However, it is a tool you can add to your coping toolbox. If you’re like me, you need all the tools you can get right now.

Naming emotions, or affect labeling

Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel has coined the phrase “name it to tame it.” He explains that emotions come from a region of the brain known as the limbic system. Using language to describe our emotions recruits a different part of the brain, the cortex, which is less stress-reactive. By naming the emotion, we actually “calm” the activity within the limbic system that is triggering such strong emotions.

This is supported by fMRI research conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues. They have shown that “affect labeling” (naming feelings) increases brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, which houses the part of your brain that regulates emotions, and correspondingly decreases amygdala activity, which is the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response. Other studies similarly confirm that affect labeling is an effective emotion regulation strategy. Simply naming what you are feeling attenuates negative emotional experiences. It can be as effective as other well-studied regulation strategies like reappraisal and distraction.

Creating Distance

When we’re in the throes of a powerful emotional experience, especially a negative one, we can feel completely out of control. Taking a moment to name what you’re feeling forces you to pause. You have to step outside of your experience to create enough distance to “see” what is happening.

The self-reflection process puts you in the state of “observer” rather than “feeler,” even if just for a moment. Shifting to an “observer” perspective can be enough to break the powerful hold the emotion has over you, turning the out-of-control feeling into a strong-but-manageable feeling.

Now that you have loosened the emotion’s grip, and you know what you’re dealing with, you can move on to coping—self-soothing or asking for help from others.

How Are You Feeling?

Ok.

Fine.

Not great.

Can you be more specific? Many of us struggle to put words to what we’re feeling. It’s usually easy to distinguish between good and bad, but going beyond a few basic emotions requires us to build our emotional vocabulary as well as our connection to our inner selves.

Use an Emotions List or Emotions Wheel

Cheat sheets are perfectly fine when you’re working through a tough time. If you often feel tongue-tied when it comes to describing your emotions, consider consulting an emotions wheel. Here are two versions:

His wheel is organized around these eight emotions. Visually, you can see that each emotion can be felt with more or less intensity, creating new emotional experiences. Anger, for example, might be felt as rage (high intensity) or annoyance (low intensity). More complex emotions arise from combinations of the basic one. For example, in his model, joy and trust combine to create love, while disgust plus anger breeds contempt.

I find the emotional pairings idea to be useful for discerning what I’m feeling especially when it feels like I’m experiencing multiple emotions at once. It can help to try to break the feelings apart and see where they are rooted and how they are interacting.

Neither one encompasses the whole range of human emotions, of course, but emotion wheels can be good tools for growing your emotional vocabulary. Even if you’re struggling to name your exact feeling, it’s a good exercise to consider what “family” of emotion you are feeling and also what you aren’t feeling.

Is What You’re Feeling Right Now Grief?

If you haven’t suffered an acute loss due to the pandemic, your gut reaction to this question might be “no.” Grief isn’t just something we feel after a death or a great personal tragedy, though. Grief is a response to loss, and we all have experienced losses already. If nothing else, we’ve lost personal freedom and autonomy, being able to go where we want and when. Students and parents are navigating the loss of a school year. Some of us have lost jobs. We’ve lost our sense of “normal.”

What we’re experiencing right now is a type of ambiguous loss. Nobody knows how long this will take or what the new normal will look like once we make it to the other side of this. Pauline Boss, who researches ambiguous loss, says the nature of the ambiguity makes it especially pernicious. We question whether we have a right to feel how we feel. (For the record: YES, you do have the right to feel whatever cocktail of emotions this situation stirs.) Then there’s the comparative suffering—am I allowed to feel bad if other people have it worse? We may be reluctant to call it grief because we know this is temporary—but this keeps us from honoring what we’re actually feeling, so we don’t fully feel it and work through it.

I’m not saying you are for sure experiencing grief. You might not be, and that’s ok. However, I’d encourage you to check in with yourself and see. This is not a label that might initially come to mind but which might feel relevant.

Tools We Can Use Once We Name Our Emotions

Self-Compassion

At a time when so much is out of our control, one thing you can always do is offer yourself compassion. Self-compassion is a powerful tool for helping to relieve the suffering associated with painful experiences and troubling emotions.

Kristin Neff, who pioneered the field of self-compassion research, identifies three components of self-compassion. The first is mindfulness, which entails being aware of our suffering without getting too wrapped up in it. This is where naming comes in.

In self-compassion practice, it’s enough to just recognize that you are having a hard time: “This is suffering” or “I’m struggling right now.” However, you can enhance your mindfulness by going deeper and naming the emotion, making it more specific: “This is fear.” “This is sadness.” “I’m feeling angry.” “I’m feeling hopeless.” Another way of mindfully observing without being completely wrapped up in the emotional experience is to say to yourself, “My body is telling me that I’m experiencing ______.”

In addition to mindfulness, the other components of self-compassion are recognizing the common humanity of your experience and offering yourself kindness. Both can offer you some measure of peace once you’re aware of what you’re feeling. For example, you might say to yourself, “I am feeling anxiety about whether my family will get sick. [Mindfulness] This is a normal reaction to this situation. Lots of people are also experiencing this same type of anxiety. [Common humanity] I wish peace for myself. [Kindness]”

Self-compassion is especially helpful in times like these where we have limited control over the causes of our negative emotions. Next time you are feeling a strong negative emotion, try pausing, naming the emotion, and offering yourself kindness. The wonderful thing about self-compassion, too, is that it gets easier the more you do it.

For more guidance, self-compassion experts Chris Germer and Kristin Neff recently put out an article on practicing self-compassion during these crazy times. You can find it here.

Note that number four on their list is “Being with Difficult Emotions.” They say, “Isolation is not natural for human beings. Just being alone with ourselves for an extended period of time usually brings up challenging emotions. Labeling what we’re feeling while we’re feeling it calms the body, finding the emotion in the body anchors the experience, and responding to ourselves with compassion is the connection we’ve probably needed all along.” (emphasis added)

If you’re struggling with self-compassion, try this guided self-compassion break.

Journaling

Psychologist James Pennebaker began conducting research on expressive writing almost four decades ago. His early studies were inspired by research suggesting that trauma can manifest as physical health symptoms when we keep it locked inside. He thus began a program of research looking at why and how writing about our traumatic experiences helps physical and mental well-being.

Thousands of studies have since been conducted by Pennebaker and others trying to understand exactly how this works. To be honest, we still don’t really understand the mechanisms, but meta-analyses confirm a small but robust effect: writing about our feelings improves well-being.

It’s certainly worth trying. Keep in mind that there are myriad ways to journal, from writing pages and pages to doodling to making lists. In the research on expressive writing, different strategies seem to work better depending on the person and the situation. You might feel better if you purge all your fears and anxieties onto paper. Or, it might be more helpful to focus on the positive things that are coming out of this experience or, along those same lines, to keep a gratitude journal.

Play around and see what feels right to you.

Final Thoughts

Your emotions are likely to fluctuate. That’s not a sign that you’re coping poorly. It’s a reflection of the stress you’re under right now. Working on developing a self-compassion practice can really help with that. (Read that self-compassion article I linked above! Here it is again.)

Still, you’re going to have ups and downs. I certainly don’t mean to imply that naming your emotions will solve all your problems, nor that it’s a substitute for seeking professional help if you’re really struggling. If you’re having significant trouble coping, please seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Your primary care doctor can provide guidance and a referral as a starting point. Situations like these can be especially difficult for people with a past history of trauma. If you’re feeling triggered by current events, don’t wait to seek help. If you’re not able to reach out to your doctor or therapist, the CDC has a list of mental health resources, including a distress helpline. All the therapists I know are practicing remotely right now, so care is still available.

Please take care of yourself during this time and don’t add to your distress by judging yourself harshly for your emotional responses. The goal here is non-judgmental awareness, knowing what you are feeling so you can move forward from a place of self-understanding.

Be well.

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References

Boss, P. (2007). Ambiguous Loss Theory: Challenges for Scholars and Practitioners. Family Relations, 56(2), 105–111.

Burklund, L. J., Creswell, J. D., Irwin, M. R., & Lieberman, M. D. (2014). The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 221.

Gallo, I., Garrino, L., & Di Monte, V. (2015). The use of expressive writing in the course of care for cancer patients to reduce emotional distress: Analysis of the literature. Professioni Infermieristiche, 68(1), 29–36.

Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2012). Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1086–1091.

Lieberman, M. D. (2019). Affect labeling in the age of social media. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(1), 20–21.

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428.

Lieberman, M. D., Inagaki, T. K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M. J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 11(3), 468–480.

Niles, A. N., Haltom, K. E. B., Mulvenna, C. M., Lieberman, M. D., & Stanton, A. L. (2014). Randomized controlled trial of expressive writing for psychological and physical health: The moderating role of emotional expressivity. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 27(1), 1–17.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162–166.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive Writing in Psychological Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226–229.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain. Guilford Publications.

Smith, S., Anderson-Hanley, C., Langrock, A., & Compas, B. (2005). The effects of journaling for women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology, 14(12), 1075–1082.

Stanton, A. L., Danoff-Burg, S., Sworowski, L. A., Collins, C. A., Branstetter, A. D., Rodriguez-Hanley, A., Kirk, S. B., & Austenfeld, J. L. (2002). Randomized, controlled trial of written emotional expression and benefit finding in breast cancer patients. Journal of Clinical Oncology: Official Journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 20(20), 4160–4168.

Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124.

Weir, K. (2020). Grief and COVID-19: Mourning our bygone lives. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2020/04/grief-covid-19

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