After a traumatic experience, it may feel like triggers are everywhere. Sights, sounds, smells, places, or even thoughts that remind you of what happened can suddenly send you spiraling. If you get too heavily triggered, you may even flashback and feel as if the traumatic event is happening all over again.
No wonder avoiding triggers can become a habit. Nobody wants to be retraumatized. At least to some degree, avoidance can be necessary and helpful at times, but what happens when it becomes your main strategy for coping with triggers?
When we avoid things that cause us anxiety, we’re essentially teaching our brains that we can’t handle whatever it is we’re avoiding. Your brain learns the following:
Triggers = Anxiety
Avoidance = Instant Relief
Instead of draining triggers of their power to cause panic, avoidance heightens the association between triggers and danger, which increases anxiety and makes you want to avoid even more. And the more you avoid, the more limited your life becomes.
So how do you keep avoidance from taking over your life without getting overwhelmed and retraumatized by all the triggers? It takes a balance. By working with a therapist, you can begin learning new tools for managing triggers, that way avoidance is no longer the only means of relief.
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Being a therapist has a lot of perks, one of those being the countless opportunities for introspection. Being able to sit with negative, painful, and intense emotions is a part of the job description. I will shamelessly admit that at one point, this was my Achilles heel. In my early days of therapy, witnessing clients experiencing difficult emotions was uncomfortable for me. My instinct was to “fix it.” I wanted to make it better, make it go away, paint over it with an inspiring phrase or motivational quote, deflect, or better yet, lighten the mood with a good ol’ joke. Not cool.
You see, the problem was that I had an unhealthy relationship with my own emotions. I was unable to tolerate distressing emotions and had in turn developed a number of strategies to avoid dealing with my emotions. This made me less understanding, empathetic, and emotionally available. Choosing to work on my relationship with my emotions has enabled me to better understand myself and others and has improved my capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.
When we attempt to avoid, suppress, control, numb, or deny the existence of our emotions, paradoxically, emotional distress is maintained and sometimes intensified. Maybe you have heard the saying, “don’t think about a pink elephant.” Ironic process theory states that deliberate attempts to suppress a thought often lead to an increase in having the thought. So, if you were told to not think about a pink elephant, ironic process theory predicts that you would experience an uptick in the amount of pink elephant related thoughts. This concept can be applied to emotions as well. When we attempt to avoid our emotions, we increase our own suffering. Haruki Murakami once said, “Pain in inevitable, suffering is optional.”
So how do you cultivate a healthier relationship with your emotions? It begins with self-awareness and understanding your responses to negative emotions. By examining your own behaviors and looking out for clues that indicate your relationship with your emotions could use work, you can begin taking steps toward creating an emotionally enriched existence. Here are 2 warning signs that you may be on the outs with your emotions:
Overuse of distraction techniques.
I love a good distraction, but you know what they say, everything in moderation. Being busy can be a great thing, but the ‘why’ for your busyness is important. If you are keeping yourself busy in an attempt to avoid experiencing painful or negative emotions, you may be doing yourself a disservice. You can’t outrun your emotions. Emotional avoidance reinforces that idea that worry, doubt, anxiety, anger, sadness, discomfort, etc. are “dangerous” or “bad,” therefore we must avoid them or run away from them. This belief reduces your ability to tolerate pain associated with many of life’s challenges.
You judge yourself harshly for feeling bad.
Feeling bad is a part of the human experience. You are allowed to have bad days, you are allowed to feel sad, angry, lonely, anxious, rejected, afraid, envious, or whatever emotion is coming up for you. Experiencing a difficult emotion does not make you “weak,” it makes you courageous for being vulnerable enough to own that experience. Growing up, were you told to “suck it up, get over it, man up, quit your crying, stop overreacting, just be happy,” or any version of these phrases? Many of us were, which has proven to be detrimental in adulthood. These phrases can communicate the belief that you shouldn’t feel how you feel and perhaps your feelings are “wrong.” These phrases can lead to an inability to trust your own emotions, believing that they will lead you astray if you give them a voice or acknowledge their existence. You are entitled to your emotions and giving yourself permission to feel your feelings can help to normalize your emotional experience and prevent further pain from self-criticism.
Your relationship with your emotions is similar to any other relationship you have had. It is a relationship that requires kindness, attention, nurturing, curiosity, understanding, awareness, and respect. Improving your relationship with your emotions involves embracing the emotions that come and allowing them to be, which ultimately helps you to develop a capacity to tolerate unpleasant life experiences.
Have you ever let your kid’s backpack go too long without being cleaned out? It’s like the creature from the black lagoon’s habitat in there! There’s no telling what you may find but you can be pretty sure it will be horrifying.
Kids also need to clean out there emotional backpacks on the regular!
I got caught talking so my teacher wrote my name on the board.
So I stuff embarrassment, anger and injustice (because my friend started the conversation) into my emotional backpack.
I finally figured out that math concept I’ve been faking that I understood for days but couldn’t celebrate because I wanted everyone (including my teacher) to think I already got it.
So I stuff frustration, deferred pride & self-hatred into my emotional backpack.
My best friends were pulled for a special project and I wasn’t so I had to hustle all of recess to find new kids to play with.
So I stuff sadness, loneliness and feelings of inferiority into my emotional backpack.
Some kids like to verbally unpack their emotional backpacks and a feelings chart can be helpful. You can ask which of these feelings did you feel today? Encourage them to list more than one and then say, “It was important enough for you to carry (enter their feeling word here) with you all day & you brought them home. What do they want to say?”
Some kids like to creatively unpack their emotional backpacks. Encourage them to build paint or journal their feelings. A prompt that might help would be, “It sounds like you felt really proud of yourself today but you didn’t get to shine. Can you show me that shine with your markers & glitter or magnet tiles.”
PSA: Playdough is great for cleaning up glitter
Some kids like to physically clean out their emotional backpacks. You can offer the opportunity to write out difficult feelings and tape them to a punching bag, trampoline or bury them in the back yard.
Cleaning out our emotional backpacks should help mitigate meltdowns, sibling squabbles and rigidity after school.
Parents might want to try cleaning out their emotional work bags too!