Step 1 – FEEL
“Recovery is about taking one step at a time. Taking off your sunglasses to look at reality is a big move,” Holding My Breath – Letters to the Father I Never Met (excerpt)
Creating an emotional and physical space to feel is the first step towards wholeness. Survivors of trauma(s) often haven’t been given the opportunity, or permission to feel. Maybe it wasn’t safe to feel. Fear can freeze our feelings. This creates a feeling of being emotionally stuck. Then anxiety can take over. Anxiety is the “core symptom common” in people struggling with “panic disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobias (e.g., social phobia), post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”[i]
Experiencing trauma and/or neglect often increases anxiety. This heightened anxiousness motivates our need for control. Feelings associated with trauma can feel overwhelming. Trying to stay in control we often suppress our strong emotions. Suppressing our feelings increases negative behavior. Negative behavior like drinking more than you want to, repetitive drug use, overeating, and cutting. Some suppress feelings escape by hitting, throwing or yelling. Others turn their feelings inward. Inward feelings may include excessive sleeping, isolation and lack of friends and/or pleasurable activities. Ignoring our feelings creates a greater sense of emptiness. Toxic patterns in our lives can prevent us from experiencing the wholeness we’re designed for. Like planning a trip – feeling is where your journey begins. You can enter wherever you’re at.
Why take time to feel? We know that our feelings lead to our thoughts. And, our thoughts determine our behavior. Keeping our feelings closed off, or staying busy so we don’t have to think about how we feel increases our defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is a psychological term describing our unconscious emotional reactions. They’re automatically deployed in times of perceived threat. Trauma and chronic chaos in our lives increases the use of these defenses. Defense mechanisms can be:
- Blocking of thoughts and feelings – Putting up a type of emotional wall that blocks our true feelings from consciousness
- Repression and/or dissociation – Pushing down hurtful feelings or unconsciously distancing our feelings from consciousness
- Isolation of affect – Isolating our feelings from our thinking
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Our brain knows what it needs and pulls it up for our protection to cope with threatening events.[ii] But they are for temporary use. Utilized over long periods of time weakens our resilience. Resilience is the ability to tolerate intense emotions using positive strategies, like taking a walk or journaling. [iii]
Human beings need physical and emotional care after experiencing a traumatic event. A soldier of war who loses an arm in battle will die from loss of blood if they don’t receive treatment. The same applies to our emotional battles. Getting help immediately is best. Delaying care increases emotional distress. This can lead to mental and physical health disorders. That’s because these defenses used are not flexible. Good mental health is referred to as self-actualization. It’s knowing our potential and demonstrating it in positive ways. This takes self-awareness, adaptability and flexibility. The emotional and behavioral rigidity created from not getting help can prevent us from having stable relationships or keeping a job long term. Rigidity like, ‘I must,’ ‘I have to,’ or ‘I should’ – increases our anxiety.
Relax for a minute. Know you’re not alone – many of us are on the journey to wholeness with you. Pay attention to what you’re thinking about right now. Write it down in your journal under a column titled thoughts.
- What are you feeling?
- Draw a picture of it – use colored pencils, markers or paint
- Name the feeling. Write it down in your journal under another column titled feelings
- Go to this link to view a list of feelings – Try and be specific
- Where in your body are you experiencing this feeling?
- Tighten that area counting to 60 then release
- Repeat this 3 times
- Observe the difference in this area of your body
- This exercise teaches your brain to know the difference between stressed and relaxed muscles. Practicing this exercise increases areas stressed areas in our bodies to relax.
- When we’re feeling certain ways our bodies give us cues. Increasing our awareness to these cues gives us the ability to make different choices – like a sign on the freeway letting us know what’s ahead
- Awareness to these cues gives us choices – like pulling over to think first, or exiting instead of reacting
- Draw a stick figure of yourself
- Mark on the stick figure where you’re experiencing that feeling in your body
- Write the name of what you’re feeling next to it
- Keeping a log in your journal of what you’re thinking and feeling. Also write down where in your body you’re sensing these particular feelings. These exercises will increase your self-awareness. Attending to our feelings gives us greater power to control the actions our feelings create.
Spending time with horses creates space for us to feel. Horses are social like people. Responding to our actions can provoke intense feelings. These can be used as mile markers on our journey toward healing.
[i] Perry, BD Neurophysiological Aspects of Anxiety Disorders in Children. In: Textbook of Pediatric Neuropsychiatry (CE Coffey and RA Brumback, Eds.). American Psychiatric Press, Inc, Washington, DC. In press (1998)
[ii] Perry, BD Neurophysiological Aspects of Anxiety Disorders in Children. In: Textbook of Pediatric Neuropsychiatry (CE Coffey and RA Brumback, Eds.). American Psychiatric Press, Inc, Washington, DC. In press (1998)
[iii] Arlene Montgomery, Neurobiology Essentials for Clinicians, W.W. Norton and Company, NY, New York, 2013.