Coach Cecilia Ding

Managing Emotional Cycles

     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.   

Slow down to feel safer

Emotions are the background murmuring of life.   They clue us into danger and discomfort.  They also distract us from every day living. 

They are no better or worse than our minds.  They are like the lines we see on our EKG graph.  They go up and down detecting discomfort, signals of impending death in our body.  Our emotions have no words.  It can only feel anger or sadness.  Not given ample permission for the latter, the danger detector in our body for loneliness, sadness, low self-esteem show up as anger. Anger is easier when projected.  Being angry with ourselves provides little outlet—unless we have been trained to breathe, meditate, jump or swim our way to better emotional regulation, or better yet to recognize the anger as sadness and longings.  However, most of us are not trained to do that. Most of our parents hadn’t either. So we more likely pass on anger and isolation than compassion and empathy,  generation after generation.  Many of us do mature at later age, learning to hold our own brainstem and limbic reactions in more objective light, so we can organize our prefrontal cortex to react calmly rather than mere puppets for expressing explosive emotions or carrying out impulsive decisions.   However, without learning to slow down and distance ourselves from the ups and downs in our emotional charts, we often are at the mercy of emotional waves that are out of proportion with the real danger we experience in life. 

 There are certainly many in the world who face real live/death situations that their body react to on a daily basis. As the more fortunate portion of human society, myself included, we face only limited amount of physical and emotional danger and have more safe days than precarious ones. While acknowledging our privilege, I do not want to underestimate the anxieties of a career, parenthood, couples’ relationships, sexism and racism, and all that come with modernity. All of those can still take a toll on any individual in a relatively wealthy society and peaceful times. Learning to slow down and step back from the demands of our fight and flight system can smooth out the curves in our day to day emotional rhythm.  While it might slow down our negative reaction(such as projecting anger onto others, worrying about things we can’t change, rushing to do things at the wrong time), it will increase the efficiency of our positive responses.  Without impulsive actions to drag us down with unpleasant consequences, we can better think, prepare and then execute what we need to do, whether it is a talk with a spouse, a discussion with a colleague, or the family planning with an elderly parent.   Slowing down does not mean avoiding but more measured and timely actions. 

Our brain steam and limbic systems are all vital systems in our body protecting us against danger.  They are so practiced at detecting danger in our history, both inherited or experienced, they have left behind residues of coping mechanisms that create impediments for an optimal life experience—however we would like to define “optimal”.  Once we are in a safe-enough environment, we can afford to act as an observer of our own fight/flight and emotional reactions.  Those observations will become the stepping stone toward the fulfillment of life potentials in us.  

Perhaps none of us could have a truly accurate measure of our safety level since death can come at any moment in any form. In that case, I wonder if we have no choice but to maximize the joy and minimize the sense of non-present danger in each moment. We could never stop living just just because we are afraid death might be coming.

Coach Ceci couple counseling

Managing Emotional Triggers in Couples

Emotional Trigger in Couple Conflict


As adults, we all still need validation from each other, particularly if we didn’t receive enough as children. Even if we have, we still need validation from others periodically. We are social beings after all. Even those we are introverted, self-sufficient and more enjoys being solitary, still want to feel loved and approved by the few or the only person close to them. That usually is our adult partner/spouse/housemate. In couple coaching, we have seen many minor disagreements can quickly turn into escalated arguments with shouting and plenty of tears. Aside from lacking emotional awareness and regulation, often small disagreement triggers something very painful in one of the partners, who in turn defends him/herself by saying things intentionally or unintentionally trigger something painful in the other. And this vicious cycle keeps going until the triggering becomes more intense and numerous so that the memory of this fight itself can become a trigger in the future for their relationship. I remember one session when the following scenario was described(printed below with their permission and to the best of my memory but not exact words):

Wife: I didn’t think he should ask our son for kisses all the time. He should give it, not ask him for it. That is like needy and expect the child to satisfy his needs. and I told him. I said it in a calm tone as an observation and opinion. But he snapped back and kept on talking about it as if I was forcing him to do something. He then called me a control freak and trying to control everything.

Husband: Yeah and then you yelled at me and gave me a nasty look that made me feel you were disgusted with me.

Wife: yes I got frustrated. Why did you say I was forcing you? Why were you so scared by my opinion. so I shouted:” Did I kick you? Did I punch you?” so how could he say I was forcing him?

Husband: I did apologize later on when you explained a bit more your reason. I was pretty patient and humble. I heard your point about this reminding you of the gender imbalance in society and in our relationship, where I might feel more entitled to things and expect more. And I apologized and said will try to do better.

Wife: Yes, he expects others to do more for you than he is willing to do for others. (to him)True, you apologized, and I actually felt validated. (to me) I actually thought he really got it. I was grateful and was going to thank him, but then he wrote me this nasty letter when he told me I had a terrible look on my face when I yelled at him, that was like the one I always complained of about my dad. He told me to really examine that problem. And told me he wanted to leave me then. And he asked for compassion. Where was the compassion in his letter then? He referred back to my painful childhood experience with my dad, without giving me any compassion and threatened me with abandonment, which was already an issue in our relationship. I have given him a lot of compassion in the past when he was in the wrong and hurt me, and when he often tried to manexplain me about how to interact with my son. I didn’t always agree but I didn’t blow up at him or felt he was forcing me to do something.

This was unfortunately not an atypical sequence of events. The issues might change, but the process remains similar. This was a relatively emotionally aware couple who were better able to express their feelings and reflect on reasons for their emotional reaction. That was why they had a moment of reconciliation even in the midst of escalation. However, what they couldn’t possibly do during the intense back-and-forth was realizing how much the hurt they felt was less about each other than the triggers they were experiencing within themselves. With further sessions, we realized the husband was threatened by the idea he was as needy as a father as he felt his own father was(trigger No.1). He snapped at his wife when he was really fighting the fear of becoming his own dad. The wife, as she correctly explained, was experiencing the anger for what she felt was unfair give-and-take in the marriage overall(trigger No. 2). Even as she realized it was her emotional trigger, she couldn’t physically stop herself from being angry and hurt. Those emotions were in turn reflected in the look that possibly resembled her own dad, as the husband described. However, contrary to the interpretation of “disgust” the husband had, it was one of sadness and frustration. Not having equal distribution of labor or responsibilities made her feel invalidated and uncared for. It felt all the more poignant in the context of the gender discrimination she had felt in society at large. The husband on the other hand, because of the abandonment issue he had with his own mother(trigger No. 3), projected the anger he always felt about his own mother onto the current significant female in his life. That was why he couldn’t help writing an angry letter to his wife even though he understood her complaint about the inequality in their marriage. He had to fight back the pain of being unloved by telling her what she inherited from his dad and he wanted to leave. The letter then triggered her own painful childhood memories(trigger No. 4) and the abandonment issue within their marriage(trigger No. 5). At that point, they were both overwhelmed and shut down for 2 days.

Help for improving emotional triggers management in Couples

Those closest to us are also most skilled at hitting our emotional points because they know us so well. While no one truly intentionally wants to hurt the loved ones, when we are in a defensive mode, we instinctually go for where it hurts. I compared this back and forth to a fistfight in one session with them. It started out as an innocent discussion. When he felt the words jabbing at his sensitive points, he threw back a light punch. It was a reflex. That was much quicker and easier than saying: “This reminded me of my struggle with my father, it hurts to think I might have become like him. Please reassure me you still love me.” And then the wife felt hurt by the punch and instinctually kicked him in the knee(shouting at him). It was not planned but was much easier and quicker than saying:” I need you to see how certain imbalance in our relationship reflects a larger social issue, and it makes me feel unloved. I need you to reassure me I am loved by more actions of giving and less of taking.” So each time one reflexively defends self from the other’s punch, the punch gets harder and hurts more. It can’t stop until one is too hurt to fight back. Unfortunately, that is also when permanent emotional ruptures damage the relationship and overall trust in the long run.

Fortunately, with some training, many couples can rebuild a strong foundation and healthy emotional awareness. For example, through Emotionally Focused Therapy sessions, this couple was able to slowly reshape their instinctual responses and build new emotional experiences that repair the hurt they felt during the more negative ones. They not only learned to recognize better their own emotional triggers but also learn about each other’s. This was crucial. We will always have emotional triggers from time to time and none of us can be emotionally undefensive 100% of the time. It helps when there is a partner who can recognize the pattern for the other. When one forgets to demonstrate their vulnerability(in other words recognize the emotional trigger and let the partner know they are hurting) and instead strike out defensively during a conflict situation, the other partner could help by not reacting to the punch. He/she is more likely to calmly wait for the pain to subside and then approach the subject with less emotional reactivity. By then the reacting partner is also more likely to have had a chance to release the defensive energy and talk without attacking.

This is, of course, not overnight. It will take 9 to 12 sessions for the average couple who still love each other but lost their emotional connection, and more if there were higher conflicts or longer history of disconnect.  A detailed discussion about EFT is beyond the scope of this blog. It is a very scientifically proven and methodological process that will take a whole book to describe.  I believe it is worth it for people who believe good things are worth fighting for.  Partnerships of any kind are not easy, let alone one that was supposed to last a lifetime. The rewards from what I have seen in clients who made the commitment, and including my own, are fantastic.

Other Ways to Learn about Handling Emotional Triggers

There are many ways to improve our own interaction with our emotional triggers. I described above an example of how it was managed in a couple coaching situations. Other ways including individual CBT therapy, coaching, group therapy, and at-home meditation exercises that could help us become more emotionally aware and react to our emotional triggers more calmly. The overall goal is to reduce the pain and negative impact those triggers have on our relationship with ourselves and others. This allows our rational brains to stay online and engage with each other in a more open and compassionate way.