When Feelings Take Us Over

Author: Traci Ruble, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Website: www.traciruble.com

First off, I think Tom wrote about such an important topic in his last blog post on introversion.  Check it out if you haven’t yet. Our culture seems to split off good and bad and right now extroversion is celebrated and we fail to deeply value the power of introversion.  There is power in introversion…who knew!
Let’s carry on the conversation I had with you previously about emotions.  Just like the culture doesn’t value introversion it also doesn’t value being emotional.  It is often seen as weak or irrational, too much, too needy, weird, crazy or inappropriate.  Often, clients come in to see me who have very big emotions and we have to weed through a lot of shame before we can even sit still and feel just the raw meaning and energy of their emotional world because they tell themselves they are crazy.

What happens if our feelings are so big they just take over?  We lash out in anger and may feel or look to the outside like a “nutball” or we completely implode into a catatonic, sobbing shut in or we start obsessing about every negative thing or every person who hates us in a trembling state of fear that “I suck”.    Maybe the vibe isn’t negative but it is just such a big expansive “look at me” energy that make connecting hard.  There is a huge amount of judgment about these states with little empathy both by the person feeling them and the culture at large. 

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy has been my beacon of light for working with these states along with old timer Alexander Lowen.   I have watched radical transformation as therapy goes beyond working with thinking and includes the body.  I had a parent friend tell me a few months back, “I don’t believe in depression.  You should be able to think your way out of any problem.”  Here is why that is not true and what you can do when the energy of emotions take over your whole body.

We respond to the world’s stimuli based on our biology and based on what we learned growing up.  The learning happened “procedurally” so just like you don’t think about putting your foot on the gas or the brake when you drive a car over time, the same is true with big feelings.  They start to happen because they are wired into our movements, our body sensations and then the thinking about the world and our actions, then, are directly linked to the patterns inside our body. 

We all have an emotional window of tolerance. Once we go beyond that window, we can’t think our way back. We quite literally have to feel, sense and move our way back into a place where we can think again and make a choice of action based on what is really happening in the present rather than the conditioned response from the past. 

Let me give you an example:  Imagine getting angry with your kid and going beyond your window of tolerance. You can’t think straight anymore. Here’s why: Your autonomic nervous system (the part of the nervous system you don’t have any control over) gets revved up. You are in fight or flight mode. Your body wants to complete the fight cycle, yet you don’t want to yell at your kid. How can you switch out of auto drive and back into manual?   We have to combine thinking differently with sitting in our present awareness of body sensations without judgement and try new movements repeatedly. 

With practice you learn a new way to drive your car – like switching  from automatic to manual – it is a repeated practice of thinking, feeling and doing. You don’t say inside “let’s put my foot on the clutch”, your body automatically knows.  In the case above, maybe you practice pushing against a wall to feel the strength of your body making a sound as your new automatic response or you push one hand against another feeling the push there.  In addition to learning new responses you also increase your window of tolerence so you can have bigger feelings and tolerate more stimulation inside your body without losing your mind.

What about you, what triggers take you out of yourself?  Without any labeling of good and bad, what are the sensations you experience in your body, how does it move, how fast is it, can you describe it?  Is it an active attack or critical “fight” tesponse, a fast moving away or avoiding and numbing “flight” response, a trembling and scared or terrified ” freeze” response,  a catatonic chest sinking opossum playing dead “collapse” response, or a boundary less  rescue- me “attach” response?    Each state has a specific way we can work with the body and movement to bring the whole body back into balance so you aren’t a slave to the emotions and their automatic behaviors.   It takes practice but once achieved you have a choice how you want to respond  to what you feel- you can  grab hold of the steering wheel rather than the auto drive taking over.