When we suffer from stress or trauma, a common reaction is to avoid or push away emotions. After a while, this creates an unhealthy pattern. We develop a fear or intolerance of emotions, so every time something like anxiety comes up, we react. The reaction builds over time. We may become more and more anxious or frustrated about our anxiety, anger, or depression etc. The self critic may also join in, making things even worse.
So, here is the original feeling or emotion, and now we have amplified this by saying “I don’t want this “. Our reactions to the emotion now include the five key survival strategies of the reptile brain- fight, flight, freeze, collapse or attach. The problem is, the more we apply these strategies, the worse things become.
The unwanted emotion eventually becomes a tsunami instead of a wave, and comes up in ways we don’t expect. The emotion starts hijacking us. We may even notice our life shrinking as we struggle to avoid contacting the emotion.
So how do we stop this vicious cycle? The science of neuroplasticity has the answer. Rather than fighting or fleeing from the emotion, if we can mindfully learn to “make friends” with it, gradually with support, over time the emotion becomes more tolerable and manageable, and less overwhelming. We “rightsize” the emotion instead of supersizing it by avoiding it.
For those with stress and trauma, learning how to tolerate emotions is even more important. Steven Porges, an eminent neuroscientist goes further. He says we can’t heal stress and trauma until we are in the “window of tolerance”. By this he means we must be calm, grounded, and centred BEFORE the work of healing can occur. Otherwise our brain is not functioning well, the thinking parts are offline, and we can’t learn or process emotions properly.
So in the healing process, it is important not to rush through emotions, try to “fix” them, talk about them without feeling them, dismiss them, or deny them with intellectual explanations. Instead, we aim to Mindfully explore them, gently, just a little at a time, always returning to the window of tolerance to “rest and digest”.
A good therapist can support this process by being calm, aware and comfortable with their own emotions, as well as yours. Therapist and patient together can collaborate to invite curiosity and wonder, respect and understanding of emotions, and unlock the wisdom they hold for us on the journey of healing