We are not what we are often led to believe we are or what we think we are. We are so much more than that. When you ask “how can I control emotions?” I would respond with another question “Where do you think your feelings and emotions come from?”
We are led to believe that our emotions are caused by external circumstances: a bad day at work; a loss; a poor marriage; even the weather. But all of these things are outside of us, and emotions are definitely inside. How can the weather make us feel good or bad? This may be obvious enough, but it is the same for the bullying boss or the angry spouse.
We construct our world from the inside-out. In any moment the world we are experiencing is inside our heads. This can be obvious in the case of a film for instance. When we watch a really good film, our attention becomes so focused we cease to be aware of our surroundings – the cinema almost ceases to exist and we feel as if we are in that film, perhaps identifying with a specific character, we can almost experience what that character is experiencing. This is inside our minds entirely. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean, I am not Elizabeth, but perhaps in a way I am, because in that moment I experience myself as Elizabeth wielding her sword. This is the result of my mind creating my moment-to-moment experience, as it does in dreaming and as it does in daily life.
The snag with the way our minds work is that we are so often focused on the past or the future and not on the present moment. Walking to work, I am thinking about writing this blog, and I do see the trees I walk past, even though the images of the trees have entered through my eyes.
And what about something as ordinary as the weather? I remember when my daughter was little, she used to draw pictures of rainy days. I worried a little that maybe this was a sign that she was depressed, but when I asked her why she always drew rain in her pictures, she said simply that she liked rainy days because she could splash in the puddles in her wellingtons. And of course she wanted to include a rainbow – no rainbows without rain! My initial perception that the rain pictures were a cause for concern was rapidly replaced with relief that it was simply her preference for rainbows and splashing in puddles. I might have said that the rainy pictures made me worry – that would have been outside-in thinking and I would have been wrong: it was my understanding of the situation that made me worry.
But what does this mean for the question of how to control painful emotions?
For a start we have our own innate inside-out healing mechanisms. For instance what do you do when you have a cold? There are so many approaches to this little health problem:
- pop some pills – maybe paracetamol or night nurse, or ibuprofen to get rid of the headache – and hope you can get back to work the next day
- lie in bed moaning and refuse the soup your partner so lovingly made for you
- beg the doctor for antibiotics even as she is telling you that this is a viral infection
- drink more water and hot drinks
- sleep more
- eat a little something to sustain you
The difference is whether you are looking at this as an outside-in problem, or an inside-out problem. Don’t get me wrong: I know that antibiotics are essential to saving lives in some circumstances – such as TB and pneumonia. But in the case of the common cold, it is your own inner healing capacity that will get you well again. So the stress must be on supporting your immune system with fluids, sleep and healthy food. This is inside-out healing.
Mental health turned inside-out
It is always our experience, our thinking, our perceptions that give rise to our feelings: whether they be anxiety, fear, calm or joy. Knowing this we have far more control over our feelings than we ever imagined possible. It may not be possible to turn off anxiety just like that, but knowing that it stems from our own experience means we can use the mind to generate a new feeling. Just focusing on the breath, and making the out-breath longer than the in-breath, will start to generate feelings of calm. (We call this 7/11 breathing, 7 for the in-breath and 11 for the out-breath, but 3/5 is just as good). And of course it is impossible to be calm and anxious at the same time!
We can also help to get anxiety under control by looking at a situation from a different viewpoint. If you are starting a new job, or about to sit an exam, for instance, it is natural to feel some anxiety. Instead of saying to yourself “oh my God I’m so anxious about starting this new job tomorrow,” tell yourself “this anxiety is good – it shows that I care and that I want to do well.” And then remind yourself that the anxiety is a result of your thinking about the new job, not a direct result of the new job, and if it starts to get too big, you can replace it with calm with your 7/11 breathing. After all how can a new job make you anxious? At that moment (the evening before), it doesn’t exist; it is just something you are anticipating.
This approach to anxiety and depression is powerful because it puts you back in control. When we think “I am depressed because of what happened when I was a child,” we have no control – we cannot change what happened in the past. And that is outside-in thinking – attributing the depression to something external. When we understand that it is our internal representation of events that is giving rise to the depression, we begin to take back control. The events won’t have changed – we can’t change what happened in the past – but we can change that internal representation. Sometimes a little reframing goes a long way. Perhaps that internal representation includes the idea that we attract disaster, or that we are no good. These ideas are not an essential part of the event; they are ideas and beliefs that we have attached to it. And we can let go. Let go of those beliefs, let go of the emotional response, let go of feelings of anger, fear, the “why-me?” questions, the feelings of injustice.
This isn’t always easy of course; it may require a bit of work, but it is well worth it in the end. And it is something I can help you with, using coaching from the Inside-Out model. By understanding the inside-out nature of life and by learning to relax, I can support you in becoming more fully yourself, able to live life to the full and to handle whatever life throws at you. In the case of severe trauma, there may be a need for more support in this process, which is where the Rewind Technique has proved so valuable.
Sorrel Pindar, Health Coach & Registered Osteopath
For my guide to managing stress and anxiety please fill in our contact form mentioning Anxiety Guide in the Message box.
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