It’s April and the winter is behind us. There may still be remnants of snow on the ground but the season has passed; it’s somewhere off in the distance. The lows that come with the darkness of winter are slowly shifting and the sun is beginning to shine through. Spring is in the air and we’re making it to the other side!
The frozen ground slowly softens, the snow turns to rain, and the trees soak in the rays of the sun. April is a time to thaw! As the seasons change outside, I begin to wonder what is happening for us internally. What do we need to thaw from? What parts of ourselves have slowly frozen or been numbed over this winter season?
In my time at grad school where I trained to be a therapist, I researched the strategies we use to emotionally regulate uncomfortable feelings; attempting to understand the patterns that we use to feel okay when unpleasant emotions surface. For some of us, we have been given the ultimate gift of naturally knowing how to respond to terrible feelings in a healthy way. For most of us (myself included), we have learned ways to keep ourselves safe and in control when uncomfortable emotions like anger, sadness, or fear rise to the surface…..we avoid, we numb, we run, and we freeze the parts we no longer want to feel anymore.
Freezing always has a purpose. It preserves and at times it protects. There are moments when responses like avoiding or numbing are highly functional; we may lose our jobs, we may negatively impact our kids, we may fail that exam if we don’t “keep it together”. However, when we continue to deny our emotions a voice or a space to be heard, research suggests that we increase their potency. The very thing that we avoid or numb gets bigger and more powerful! Feelings like anger transfer from one situation and begin to overflow into multiple situations…. suddenly we find anger taking a comfy seat right in the middle of our lives and we’re exhausted.
Emotions always have a reason for being there. They act as a guide and tell us how to respond. Despite our attempts to push away uncomfortable feelings, emotion often lingers until we create space to resolve it. Unfortunately, numbing or freezing just keeps it temporarily quiet.
So how do we deal with emotion in a healthy way without falling apart in our daily lives?
- Let it Out– When feelings are stuck inside, they weigh us down, spiral, and often make us feel worse! Find a way to express emotion instead of numbing or avoiding it. Many people find writing, dancing, drawing, singing, or playing an instrument a great way to connect to emotion and release it. When we externalize our experiences using something like journalling, it helps to lower the discomfort we feel internally
- Get Curious– We’ve all been in that place where we would prefer to do anything but feel negative emotion. We may find ourselves watching countless hours of Netflix, elbow deep into our favourite snack, drinking more often, or perhaps engaging in behaviours that don’t align with our values. Get curious about it! When we slow down and create time to reflect on our emotional experiences, we are better able to understand our reactions and thus move closer to resolving them
- Location, Location, Location!– Life is busy and somehow continues to keep us busy if we don’t intervene. Find a physical place where you can intentionally process your emotions and feel comfortable enough to connect to difficult feelings. That may be sitting along the lake, walking through the trails, or simply finding a room in your house. Let this place be your place!
- Know Your Limits– Sometimes we stay away from exploring negative emotions because we feel like we may get swallowed up or lost in our experiences. When we know our emotional limits, curiosity becomes less scary! Deep breathing is a great way to slow down the wave of emotion when it gets too high. Practice some breathing exercises in advance so you know you have a tool to pull yourself out of the wave if need be. For some of us, parts of our story may seem too difficult to explore on our own. Seeking a professional may be helpful when it comes to pacing
- Emotional Hygiene– Just like we need to shower and brush our teeth, our psychological health needs daily habits to help prevent emotional difficulties. Research indicates when we have adequate/consistent sleep, healthy nutrition, and regular exercise, we are more equipped to respond to emotional triggers in a healthy way. Reflecting and exploring through emotion can be hard work…so treat yourself! Find self-care activities that rejuvenate you while you do courageous work
- Support– Emotion can be difficult to navigate alone. It is important to have someone who you can trust to support you as you walk through hard feelings. Sometimes another perspective or a simple “I’ve been there too” may help us move forward. Whether that be a close friend, partner, family member or therapist, find a safe person to journey with you
We know it’s cold outside when the breath in our nostrils freeze, our fingers begin to tingle, and our toes go numb. Sometimes we don’t realize how cold it really is until we come back inside. What parts of ourselves need to come back inside or soak up the sun? What emotions have we sent outside to the cold to freeze? This is your time to thaw. Your time for new soil and for new growth. Perhaps some of these parts have been numbed for years. Listening to those frozen places may just be the very thing they need to feel warm and normal again. The season is changing; maybe yours is as well…
-Written by Caleb Gunning, MA, Counsellor