With the virus showing no sign of backing off from the world stage, it is no surprise that I have been meeting more clients with pronounced emotional ups and downs. We all have the natural tendency to have good moments fluctuate with bad ones. I had my own struggle in this area as a young professional. The restrictions of Covid placed on our daily lives have only made more of us vulnerable to them.
Emotional ups and downs are not unique to my clients or me. It is fair to say that most of us, who are functional and mentally stable, experience emotional highs and lows. Emotions come and go like waves in the ocean, an analogy I often use in treatment rooms. Our emotions are natural and healthy parts of our existence. They help us recognize the needs of our bodies. Tiredness or fatigue can show up as crankiness or anger even if we still feel we can push on. If we listen carefully to the message our bodies send us, we can locate the source of pain that blocks our path and find the passion that energizes us in each moment.
These waves should never be flat, just as no flat oceans exist. That would not be any healthier than exaggerated highs or lows. It follows then most of my clients, and the people in my life including myself, feel the impact of emotional waves at one point or another. What makes one group stand out more than another is the intensity and regularity of such highs and lows. When the highs show up as anxiety or out of control energy and are followed by the lows of depression, quality of life is severely compromised. In its extreme form, these highs and lows take over our life completely so that we no longer can function in basic daily routines. The body is exhausted by the demand of these emotional symptoms that no resource is left for the logic brain to function. This happened to my father while he was grieving my mother. He needed medication to balance the chemicals in his body so he could activate his executive functioning, while his limbic system was still adjusting to the loss of a long-term mate. However, one does not have to suffer debilitating depression in order to be a victim of such emotional ups and downs. Many of my clients experience the discomfort of such emotions while still managing to keep a full-time job and support their families. Yet the intensity and frequency of these fluctuations rob them of much of the joy and potentials in their lives. They keep them scared and away from the immense possibilities of what life could be.
Many of us have not learned emotional regulation or smoothing out our emotional curves in school or from our parents. If our parents have suffered from trauma, such as poverty, war, or failure to attach securely to their parents, they would not have had the knowledge to create that inner safe space to manage the intense emotions. They would have been left to the mercy of outside stimuli for calmness or joy. In extreme circumstances that deal hard emotional blows, their bodies would be taken over by those emotions, as my father did after my mother’s sudden death. In school, our teachers are usually burdened with a content-driven curriculum, which enriches our human brain without aligning it with other crucial parts of our neurology for happiness and balance. We can only know what was modeled and inherit what was experienced. It naturally becomes a muscle memory to go up and down, as if a roller coaster out of our subjective control. That would be exhausting and sad. The wonderful news is that we all have the innate resource within our body to take back that control. Regardless of the labels for your condition, whether it is major depression, cyclothymia, or general unhappiness/moodiness, we all can learn the techniques to activate that control, often without chemical intervention. It would take time and practice, and most of all, faith and dedication. I was a victim of such cycles in my youth and much of my early adult life. Every few days meant a renewed faith in a new direction; but inevitably doubt and sadness will return to halt my progress. It never stopped me from making a very good living with what I already knew; it did, however, prevent me from pursuing more of I wanted in relationships or career. When the cycle was in a more comfortable spot, I could feel anything was possible; when it sunk into its predictable low point, I felt powerless. A familiar sense of sadness would overtake my body and zap it of the willpower to take action. This only became better when I started to write. Having had enough success in my investments, I afforded myself the time to explore and gradually believe in my own creations. Writing down the stories and characters I created validated my existence. It weakened the doubt of my self-worth, which was badgered by an upbringing characterized by negative reinforcement. Whether the stories were well-written or not, I gave voice to my being in its unique form. That was just the beginning. My cycles had become flatter. The lows would come much less often. However, I was still trapped by the negative thinking style generated from my lows. Those schemas were the defense mechanisms I inherited from my parents who had adopted in their very unsafe childhood. My next step came from my therapist/coach. She was the one that helped me connect my mind with my body. She introduced me to mindfulness. While I had practiced mindfulness before, I was not yet able to integrate it with my emotional tides. Mindfulness is a practice that tones our triune brains to be more present. It enabled them to collaborate during the ups and downs to slow down and optimize our reaction. Over the years that I practiced, particularly during periods of extreme pain and sadness, I slowly developed the innate ability to exam those times from a safe distance within a refuge created for within myself. This was a resource that was eternally renewable. Whenever the body’s senses were sounding alarms through negative emotions–sadness, anger, frustration, I have learned to recognize it as a call to reset. Regardless of how busy I was, I would always find a few minutes to close my eyes and center on my breath. Each time I connected with this safe space, I became more capable of integrating those emotions with my cognitive functions in real-time. I identified the source of sadness, shame, or fear more quickly. They often have roots from incidents long ago that resembled the present moment. It shortened the time such emotions overtook my executive functions. This has improved the quality of my life by increasing my productivity(less time stuck in negative thinking activated by mood swings), bettering my relationship(less impulsive reaction to the negative emotions of those close to me), and giving me the courage to encounter new challenges(conscious of the fight-flight activation in real-time and using mindfulness to soothe the fear).
My journey, like my clients, is ongoing. As we connect old emotional scars with present reactivity, we will lessen its impact on our daily life. Thereafter, we will be ready to continuously challenge our 3-part brain in new adventures. As we age, experience loss, encounter new fears and earn more wisdom, our emotionality and human cognition will continue to develop and mature. Our lives will be more mini emotional waves that we can soothe with our internal resources and occasional larger splashes. During those more threatening tides, I encourage everyone to remember the following 3 C steps:
1. Calm: Use a form of mindfulness that has spoken to you in the past to provide safety to your animal brains first(it could be breathing exercises, yoga, or nature walking, journaling, anything that calms your body and slows down the heartbeat without negative side effects). Let your go-to exercise connect your startled limbic system and brain stem(animal brains) with your cognitive functions. Your human brain can let them know objectively the challenge you are facing, rather than being taken over by emotions the animal brains are generating out of reflex. 2. Correction: After the intensity of negative emotions lessens, there will still be residual anxiety, sadness, or negative thinking that had come up in the past during these moments. This would be the moment to do some cognitive behavior exercises or talk to a coach/therapist about schema that had defined these moments in the past. These exercises can help recognize the negative patterns past experiences had trapped you in. Exercise or your therapist can help you recognize your worst fears, demystify them or discover existing resources you have to manage those feared outcomes.
3. Coordinate: Finally, there are often times those residual negative thoughts or emotions can take on a life of their own. It won’t stop coming up in our minds even long after our animal brain had quieted down. This is when our mindfulness can step in and connect our 3-part brain again. This time it is not the human brain who will be saving the scared animal brains; rather it will be the animal brains who can bring the over-wrought human brain to recognize your body is safe in this very moment. The mindfulness will bring you into the present rather than being stuck in the reaction to the past or consumed by the worry about the future. This will allow you to free up much-needed energy from nervousness. You can then deploy more resources toward prioritizing, planning, and enjoying the moment until more effective action could be taken.
I hope you will take this as a starting point of making your life freer from emotional tidal waves. Emotions are a necessary part of our lives but should not determine the direction of our path. There are many therapeutic orientations that are aimed at resolving past trauma and achieving more balance between our senses and our mind–such as Somatic Experiencing by Peter Levine, EMDR by Dr. Shapiro, Mindfulness, Brainspotting, and Tapping. While therapists might disagree on the ultimate effectiveness of each one of these techniques, it is reassuring to know there are resources available for our healing long after we have become an adult. Our brains are not static. It can grow and change after we have matured or even after we believe our physical organs start to decline. Seek out the help you deserve whether it is through reading about these resources or locating help suitable for you.
I believe in you and me. We can do this together, even if while remaining apart.