02 Sep Three Ways to Deal with Difficult Situations Without Overthinking or Obsessing
There are a lot of unknowns right now. Will you go back to work or school? Will you be able to travel to see your relatives? Is it safe to see “that friend” or go to “that appointment”? Our bodies and brains tend to do one of two things—we either push the feelings of anxiety and fear away, or we obsess and overthink about the possible outcomes.
Neither of these are healthy to our physical and emotional wellness. Instead of letting these thought patterns take over, I want to invite you to try something new.
Research shows that when we notice we are getting an obsessive or anxious thought, pausing to purposely distract on something else (more on that below) can reduce the hold these thoughts have on our body and mind.
Emotions are our body’s way of getting us to take action, so suppressing or overthinking only leads to physical and psychological maladies. On a very primal level, our bodies are trying to keep us safe at all times. Back in the stone ages, we learned to listen to our guts because they would save us from attack—run away from the sabretooth tiger or get eaten.
People today are not necessarily running from wild animals anymore but reacting to an emotion or processing it, can still ultimately protect them from dangers, both physical and mental. With the speed of our days, it can be challenging to hear what our bodies are trying to say, but when we ignore those messages, we can still suffer greatly.
Research suggests that suppressing emotions is associated with high rates of heart disease, as well as autoimmune disorders, ulcers, IBS, and gastrointestinal health complications. Whether you are experiencing anger, sadness, grief, or frustration, pushing those feelings aside actually leads to physical stress on your body.
Studies show that holding in feelings has a correlation to high cortisol—the hormone released in response to stress—and that cortisol leads to lower immunity and toxic thought patterns. Over time, untreated or unrecognized stress can lead to an increased risk of diabetes, problems with memory, aggression, anxiety, and depression.
In other words, deciding to bury your feelings, ignore them, internalize them, project them onto others, or avoid them altogether can literally make you sick from the stress.
As a therapist, I get it—listening to our emotions is scary and can feel super weird. You’ve spent most of your life avoiding them, so why on earth would you want to feel them all at once? That’s actually unhealthy too. It can create too much confusion.
Instead, I encourage clients to educate themselves on the science of emotions (which you are doing right now) and practice a few of the skills below. The goal is to go slowly—this helps you gain confidence about what you’re feeling and learn to trust your emotions rather than suppress them.
Step 1: Breathe
Take a moment to become aware of how your body is feeling during the day. I try to set an alarm or reminder for the morning and midafternoon just to remind myself to check in and take a few deep breaths. No matter what you are doing, take a few moments. Are you tense? If so, where? Are you breathing in a deep way or in a shallow way? How does it feel to take a few deep breaths?
By doing this, you can begin to identify where feelings are stuck in your body. Then by diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing while your stomach pushes out on the inhale), you can activate your Vagus Nerve. This nerve is responsible for regulating emotions, and when we take deep mindful breaths, we are activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates our emotions and eases the physical strain our anxiety holds in our physical body.
Step 2: Deliberately Distract
Distraction is a core component of Distress Tolerance, and helps the mind loosen the hold it has over the intense situation or obsessive thoughts. In this video, I give you five tools that help regulate and distract the mind so you can come back to the difficult situation with more clarity and ease.
Step 3: Practice Mindfulness
When we learn to listen and tune into our bodies, our thoughts actually slow down and offer us more control. Our brains are quite amazing—studies show that a meditation practice improves reactions to stress and can actually change our reactions to emotions, improving our emotional and physical health.
I find that short, guided meditations (2-5 minutes) are a great way to get one’s mind off autopilot and reduce avoidance of emotion. You can do this with a teacher or through apps such as Simple Habit and Calm. You can also learn from an expert (like Light Watkins, for example), which helps you stay engaged and accountable to a daily practice.
Doing this daily (ideally in the morning, but whatever works for you) can help you become more self-aware.
Being mindful of and understanding your emotions improves your mental and physical health without a doubt. This is the true meaning of self-care and can help anybody improve their well-being. If you think that blocking or hiding your feelings won’t produce ill effects on your mind and body, you are wrong. While it can be frightening and uncomfortable to face your negative feelings, it will help you find a place of understanding and improve your overall quality of daily life.
I hope these tools help you.
Authored by: Emily Roberts, MA, LMHC