The Danger Zone
Halloween felt a little creepy this year. I don’t mean the kind of creepy that comes from scary costumes and horror movies, but because of the calm and quiet. Pre-pandemic, it was not unusual for me to have 100 kids or more appear at my door and for me to barely get to sit down for 2 or 3 hours in between visitors shouting trick or treat. In 2020, doors were shuttered and there was no trick-or-treating, at least in my area. This year, I pushed myself to decorate in an effort to feel more normal about the holiday season and I did get some trick-or-treaters, but it was, well, creepy.
My block was mostly dark, with only a few homes decorated. Peering up and down the block, there was no sight of anyone for long stretches of time. There was little laughter and no screams. It’s always been a loud holiday, with kids up and down the block having fun and causing a ruckus. Not this year. One of the moms that brought her children out said to me, “this is just not normal.” I replied that I agreed but that maybe it was the first step back toward normal?
I’m experiencing a mix of emotions as we enter the holiday season. One is the fear that there may not be a “back to normal.” Labor shortages, port container log jams, rising prices on almost everything, travel challenges and of course, the ever-present virus that’s wreaked havoc on us all for the past 18 months does not bode well for a “normal” holiday season. That adds the emotion of sadness to my repertoire, because I’m just tired of this whole thing. I thought by now things would be back to normal and I don’t want to have to think about masks and shots and shortages anymore.
There’s also some anger mixed in over other people’s behavior. The violence breaking out on flights and public meltdowns over mask-wearing and vaccination mandates are fraying my nerves. I find myself thinking “enough already” on a fairly frequent basis.
Which all brings me to the subject of the danger zone when it comes to our emotions. I believe everything I’m feeling is actually quite normal under our circumstances, but like most people, try to tamp the feelings down, and keep calm and carry on as they say. But I’m acutely aware that this is not a healthy practice, so am also grappling with how to release these emotions in a way that benefits me and others.
We are not only not taught how to deal with our emotions but are conditioned to block and avoid them in our society. When they arise, we either turn to unhealthy practices, like alcohol, drug use or screen time, or we try to dismiss them with adages learned over time, like “get it together,” or “toughen up,” or “get a grip.”
The problem with that is that unprocessed emotions don’t just disappear. If unreleased, they store up in our bodies. And just like a pitcher continuously filled with water, if you don’t pour some out, the pitcher overflows. I think that’s a lot of what we see happening in all of these aggressive demonstrations in public. People don’t know how to process their feelings and so they’ve been tamped down over and over again, resulting in an explosion of emotion which doesn’t serve them or other people.
It’s important to understand that we can’t stop feelings from occurring. I have heard many times from my clients that they know they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way and that’s simply not true. All feelings are valid because they are real and we are experiencing them. Emotions are generated in our mid-brain, which is a section of the brain that we have no conscious control over. Our vagus nerve responds by sending signals to the heart, intestines, and lungs to prepare us for action to survive. Of course, most of the events that trigger our emotions are not actually life-threatening, but our mid-brains don’t know that.
Emotions are physiological, not cognitive. When an emotion rises, specific chemicals are released by the brain, and we experience a physical reaction to them. When we attempt to tamp down our emotions, our minds and bodies use a variety of tactics to support those efforts, like constricting muscles or holding our breath. The more we try to obstruct the flow of emotions, the more stress we create on the mind and body, creating psychological and physical distress. Emotional stress is linked not only to anxiety and depression, but to heart disease, intestinal problems and autoimmune disorders. Headaches and insomnia are also frequent symptoms, both on the rise since the beginning of the pandemic.
Neuroscience suggests that the more emotions and conflicts we experience, the more anxiety we feel. And this is what can lead us into the danger zone. Unchecked emotions lead to actions that may cause harm to ourselves and others. From snapping at our loved ones to punching a flight attendant in the face, those pent-up feelings overflow in ways that are almost always destructive.
Even though we can’t stop our emotions from being triggered, we do know that understanding how they work helps us better manage them. While it’s normal to avoid painful or conflicting emotions because we don’t like discomfort and because we’ve been taught to do so, we can respond to them in a way that helps us heal versus causing more distress.
Emotional avoidance will not make things better and the longer we try, the worse things get, so it’s much healthier to shift our process toward the mindful practices of acceptance and observance. I don’t like some of the feelings I’m experiencing but instead of avoiding them, I can accept that I’m experiencing some discomfort. Further, I can observe what’s really going on and then name it to tame it. Am I really feeling fear about things not returning to normal or is there a more specific emotion occurring? Am I sad? Is anger an accurate description of what I’m feeling as I witness people behaving destructively?
This is important because our response to our feelings could be based on misunderstanding what those feelings are. We have a very different reaction to anger than we do to sadness for example. If you’ve never given much thought to what your emotions mean and what they lead to, check out the Atlas of Emotions created by emotion scientist Dr. Paul Ekman and supported by the Dalai Lama. The Atlas represents what researchers have learned from the psychological study of emotions and provides a simple interactive tool to build your vocabulary of emotions as well as gain greater control over what triggers your emotions and how you respond. You can find it at atlasofemotions.org.
Reflecting on how I’m feeling right now, I’m definitely experiencing some discomfort, but I’m not sure fear is the emotion I’m actually feeling. I’m quite comfortable with change, but also quite naturally uncomfortable with uncertainty. So I’m not really afraid, but more at unease because I don’t know what to expect.
I am sad because I’ve experienced loss, as we all have. We’ve lost our routines, which are so important to our brains. We’ve lost a sense of freedom and spontaneity. Many have lost loved ones or jobs or homes. That’s sad and it’s natural to feel as we grieve for what we’ve lost. Sadness is part of the grieving process and as we go through that process, our sadness will subside. It’s not comfortable to go through that process, but by accepting that we need to move through it, we create less resistance and support ourselves by remembering that it will get better.
As for anger, upon reflection, that’s not really accurate either. It’s disappointment I’m feeling, which is really closer to sadness than anger. I’m disappointed that we’re in this situation, disappointed in how some people and institutions have responded, and sometimes disappointed in myself for struggling. On the range of emotions, anger feels more powerful than sadness, so it’s easy to see why my mind chose that as a description for how I feel. But this is why it’s so important to really observe what’s going on internally. Disappointment is really a form of judgment and I have tools in my mindfulness kit to minimize those, including curiosity, open-mindedness, acceptance and empathy. For remaining sadness, I can allow myself to go through the grieving process. And for any uncomfortable feelings I’m experiencing, I can practice more self-compassion.
For negative emotions in general, it’s helpful to remember that they are useful and important. They’re warning signs that we might be in danger or might need to take action. Instead of trying to disconnect from the feeling, take some time to analyze why you might be feeling that way. Perhaps you are in some sort of danger, mentally or physically, and you need to get out of a situation or confront it. Or you may realize that the situation is not actually dangerous but that it has triggered you because it reminds you of a past experience that was dangerous. If you cannot process the feelings you’re experiencing on your own or if you have had past trauma that is contributing to the negative emotions, the discomfort could act as a prompt for you to seek professional support.
There are several fairly simple steps you can take to be proactive when navigating negative emotions. Be mindful of negative self-talk. What we say to ourselves matters greatly in how we feel, so when you observe that you’re saying things like, “I’m so stupid,” or “I can’t do this,” reframe the statements to be more positive. Reframes like, “I don’t understand this, but I can learn,” or “I don’t know exactly how to do this yet,” can change the chemicals released from the brain which in turn helps us work out of a negative stance.
Another powerful action you can take is to simply surround yourself with positive people. Emotions are contagious, so just hanging out with people with positive outlooks can help boost your own thoughts, which in turn affects your emotions.
Another aspect of this is to focus on the positive characteristics of a challenge or obstacle. There’s always something to be grateful for, whether big or small. Dinner plans cancelled because the restaurant had to close due to a Covid exposure saved both gas money and calories. A company announces layoffs are coming - time to evaluate strengths and think about options in case a new job is needed. Vacation plans scrapped due to flight cancellations or concerns about catching Covid in another country - lots of money saved that can be used toward a more extravagant vacation next year.
Practicing mindfulness is one of the most powerful skills available to manage emotions. Staying in the present moment reduces our tendency to dwell on past negative experiences or worry about potential future challenges. Notice what there is to be grateful for in this moment. There is honestly always something, even it if is simply being grateful for a mind and body that are here for us. Odds are, however, that you can come up with more. A job, a family, a beautiful day outside, a friend, a pet – we always have a lot to be thankful for and we just forget to notice sometimes.
We are definitely living in weird times and we can definitely find many examples of what’s going wrong. But we have the ability to switch to looking for what’s going well. So I had a creepy Halloween. That’s actually supposed to be a factor of Halloween, so I’ll reframe to say I did indeed have a scary Halloween but am perfectly safe. Will the holidays be “normal” this year? I have no idea, which is of course what triggers me. But as the emotions rise, I can sit with the discomfort for a while instead of trying to avoid them. I can accept that right now, this is what life is like. And I can go inward and observe and analyze how I’m really feeling in order to name my emotions, which ultimately helps tame my emotions. You can too. And that keeps us all out of the danger zone.
Be safe, be kind to yourself and remember that this too shall pass, even if we don’t know when.