Many of us can relate to the struggle to attend to emotions when immersed in a high stimulus and service oriented work environments (parenting young children included!). We rarely feel safe enough to express emotions to others and often lack time away from the stimulus to allow us to feel and integrate emotions as they arise. As a result, because we cannot tend to the emotion, despite feelings of urgency to do so, the stress response gets activated. When stressed, it hampers our ability to mindfully step back to navigate the perceived challenge in front of us. If the threat feels intense and we cannot respond to the associated emotion, we will likely react by flighting (anxiety and hostility), fleeing (depression and avoidance), or freezing (disconnecting and dissociating).
Consider the analogy of the phone as the emotional messenger. Emotions are telephone calls bringing us information. If we answer the phone, we receive information unique to us in that moment.
If we avoid answering the phone or turn the ringer off from a place of freeze, disconnecting from the feeling altogether, we block the message from coming through and lose the opportunity to connect to and tend to the felt needs of the body.
If we react to the ringing of the phone from a place of fight and/or flight, instead of answering it, we are likely to activate others by anxiously running around alerting everyone that the phone is ringing. We may even fuel shame by blaming ourselves for the ringing phone, or hit others over the head with the phone in anger.
If we habitually block the message, ignoring (freeze) or reacting (fight-flight) to the phone of our feelings instead of answering it, we miss an important opportunity to connect to the emotion to tend to the wound that lies beneath it.
There are two intertwining and equally important avenues to address our emotional challenges. Adapting the systemic/contextual stimuli and adapting how we respond to our internal stimuli.
Knowing that stress results from a need that feels threatened, it’s helpful to explore exactly what that need is. What we often find is that those events that really get under our skin, activating us quickly and chronically, relate to a past experience when that need was not met. As a result, the current situation gets emotionally fused with an event of the past (emotional transference). Stepping back enables us to de-fuse the situation, getting to the root of the threat so that we can properly tend to it.
The RAINN (Brach, 2013) framework provides a process to help us receive and respond to emotions. When we are empowered to tend to our emotions, we gain agency, buffering us from chronic stress and hostility both of which emerge when we feel out of control.
Recognize: We can recognize and cultivate an awareness of when we feel anxiety, resentful, disconnected, etc.
Allow: We can allow whatever (refraining from labelling them as good or bad) emotions emerge, staying with our body as they come and go instead of resisting, distracting, or dissociating from them.
Investigate: We can cultivate a sense of non-attachment by exploring the felt sense, following its ebb and flow, noticing how it presents in the body, enabling us to get a sense of the core fear beneath it.
Non-attach: Investigating enables us to see the emotion as an ‘other’, it is not me, it is simply a messenger for me to consider. Non-attachment diffuses the sense of threat as we are no longer identified and fused to the feeling.
Nourish: Once in a position where we can step back, we can come to the emotion from a place of agency. With agency, we can provide unconditional positive regard inwardly (self-compassion), the core ingredient necessary to enable the emotion to pass and the wound beneath it to heal.
Once we tend to the emotion on the personal level, we are far more likely to feel empowered to enact the changes necessary on a cultural and systemic level. A focus on the systems and contexts surrounding us is just as important as the inner work. Working on the outer from an empowered and whole place promotes agency and ensures that the contexts in which we live and work promote or at the very least do not prevent human flourishing.