A Skill for Coping With Intense Emotions + Finding Empowerment

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I woke up feeling highly emotional and clouded yesterday. The kind of feeling where you struggle to pull yourself out of bed. Like, I can’t imagine how today is going to happen and it’s truly going to take everything in me. You know that story.

But I did. I sat down to meditate around 6 AM like I have been.

Except this time, I could not sit still.

And I can honestly say, I haven’t experienced this in months.

My perfectionist side said I had to force myself to sit and stay for the rest of my practice. Otherwise, it “doesn’t count”. But I know that voice all too well (hello, disordered eating and exercise brain).

So, I forgave myself.

I gracefully surrendered, walked away from my altar and went to lay in bed. The moment I found stillness in my bed, I felt a wave of deep emotion wash over me. Grief, anxiety, fear.

And I allowed it. I sat with all of that. Just holding. Not pushing away. Not masking.

A practice I have not always welcomed.

For a long time, I had learned to cope with difficult emotions through food, substances, procrastination, shopping, TV, intellectualizing my feelings—you know all of the good process addictions we love to use to avoid the pain of whatever is surfacing.

With much practice and mindfulness, I learned overtime that those suppressants actually fed the unpleasant emotions. They cause them to grow and fester. They can even begin to manifest somatically.

What you resist, persists.

I learned that actually feeling my feelings was much less unbearable than feeling so sick from binge eating or from being hung over from one too many glasses of wine.

The idea of experiencing intense emotions was actually much more terrifying than the actual experience itself.

So once I accepted the grief, anxiety, and fear into my physical and emotional body, it slowly melted after a bit. I softened. I began to feel a little lighter.

But there was still a part of me that really wanted to just stay in bed and endlessly wallow.

That’s where implementing the skill of opposite action action came in. I originally learned about opposite emotion action (or emotion) during training I had in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy).

Similarly, in the yogic teachings, there is a principal of cultivating the opposite. This happens in asana, pranayama, meditation, yamas, niyamas, etc. This can be found in the second chapter of the yoga sutras. In the teachings, this cultivating of the opposite is called, in sanskrit, pratipaksha-bhavana. Which is a fundamental concept in all of yoga.

Opposite action sounds very much like the name itself. It’s making the conscious decision to skillfully act opposite of the current emotional urge you’re experiencing. Kind of sounds weird initially--I know. But the idea comes from this: “Taking opposite emotion/action is an effective way to change or reduce unwanted emotions when your emotion does not fit the facts.”

So this is where I personally believe things get a bit subjective. We have to use our best judgment, channeling our highest self, to determine when our own emotions may be getting in the way or preventing us from being effective in our lives.

Maybe our emotions don’t fit the facts of the situation we’re in.

Or maybe our emotions do fit the facts but the intensity or duration in which we’re experiencing them aren’t justified by the situation.

Or maybe our emotions do fit the situation but we can’t change the situation.

This is when we can implement opposite action.

So take my morning as an example. I woke up, allowed myself some time to feel through my emotional wave. I held space for that. And this did help me feel quite a bit better. But then the desire was still there of “well, I really wish I could just stay in bed and screw the day…”

So I take inventory: my original emotions did fit the facts of my situation. I’ve been holding a lot of anxiety, grief and fear around a certain personal situation in my life. A situation that I cannot change.

So, from time to time, when those emotions become too much, I need to take opposite action so I can function effectively in my life!

It’s a Monday morning. I have clients to email, work to be done, laundry to be washed. Would it have been effective for me to stay in bed, continuing to wallow, even though that emotional urge feels so real and fits the situation?

My answer is no.

This doesn’t serve my highest being. Accomplishing my work, showing up for my clients, etc. is what would make me feel effective and empowered, even if I don’t feel that immediately.

Sometimes we want instant gratification, even when it comes to our emotions. And it’s honestly not that simple. Sometimes we have to do what we know is best for us, deep down, and make it happen without the immediate results. Then, with some time, we start to feel better and a bit more regulated.

This is opposite action.

So, what did I do? I got up out of bed, got dressed, cleaned myself up and dove into my work. And actually had a super productive morning!

Do I still have some emotional residue from when I woke up? Of course. But I can hold that, acknowledging it AND go on to do what I need to do as a way to make myself feel empowered.

One of the most challenging things to accept as human beings is that we are not our emotions. Trust me, I just paused as I typed that last sentence out because it took me SO long to believe and understand this.

Our emotions may feel very real and intense. They are certainly apart of our make up as human beings. But they do not define us. Understanding this and using tools like opposite action created an enormous spurt in my personal healing.

I finally felt liberated and empowered. I wasn’t allowing my emotions to control me.

It’s a fine balance of honoring our emotions, nurturing them, holding space for ourselves AND detaching when they are no longer serving us or keeping us rooted in fear.

When intense emotions are getting the best of you, choose to act and live from your highest purpose and being.