Small Ideas for Strange Times
Small Idea #4: Feel your Feelings
So, how are you feeling? I’ve asked this question of several people lately and their replies have all be similar: A combination of peace and gratitude and fear and sadness (or anger). In other words, our feelings are all over the place.
Given that none of us have ever been in this exact situation, it’s very hard to know how we’re “supposed” to feel. In fact, my best guess is that the only thing we’re “supposed” to do right now is feel our feelings, whatever they may be, while paying attention to what’s generating them.
For example, I’m most aware of feelings of calm and safety when I take stock of the positive things in my life – and there are plenty. For the past twenty-one days I’ve been home in my comfortable surroundings. I have enough food. I have endless entertainment options. I have good books. I have the companionship of my husband. I have the ability to check in with my far-flung family and friends by phone or Zoom whenever I want. Everyone in my orbit remains healthy (thus far). Spring has arrived where I live. The connections and communities that matter most to me are continuing to gather via technology. I have more time to immerse myself in the gifts of my faith, a source of calm and hope. In short, aside from not being able to go places I would normally go, life isn’t at all bad.
At the same time, I’m deeply saddened by the rising infection and death count. I worry for the safety and well-being of health-care workers. I’m anxious about when I’ll next see my elderly mother. I’m concerned about the scores of people whose living conditions are dangerous or oppressive. And I’m frustrated by the fact all of this is entirely out of my control and there’s no end in sight. Given the circumstances these feelings are legitimate. They correspond with actual events. I’m grieving the loss of security and stability. I’m letting go of plans and expectations. I’m empathizing with people I don’t know in situations I can’t imagine. These feelings are appropriate and necessary. But if I let them dominate my emotional system they’ll quickly overwhelm me.
So, as I fluctuate along the spectrum of vastly different emotions, I’m leaning into my tried-and-true tools for managing my feelings and trying some new things as well.
1) Journal. I’ve mentioned this before and it’s worth mentioning again. Writing about our thoughts and the feelings they generate is an excellent way of lowering the temperature on racing thoughts and debilitating feelings (I experienced this very thing as I was writing the previous paragraphs about what’s behind my sense of calm and what’s behind the troubled emotions I experience from time to time). Journaling allows us to bring order out of chaos by giving our emotions a voice. Our emotions want to be understood and expressed. Writing about them is a healthy way of giving them what they want.
2) Pay attention to the thoughts behind the emotions. A few days ago I found myself feeling ugly inside. I was overly fixated on doom and gloom scenarios, angry at what I perceive to be a lack of clear leadership in this crisis, and immune to the positives in my life. What was going on? This: I was watching too much news and spending too much time on social media. So I pulled back – way back – on both of those things and my thoughts cleared and my mood brightened. Taking control of the things that influence our thoughts – which, in turn, affect our feelings – is essential at times like these.
3) Do more of what soothes the soul. I’ve mentioned this before, too. I have a long-standing early-morning practice of reading the Bible, praying, and meditating. During this time I’ve supplemented this practice with other things that reinforce my beliefs and deepen my awareness of God’s presence in all things. I’m turning to poetry, music, nature, and the prayers and wisdom of ancient Christian mystics to reinforce my spiritual grounding. This takes intention and it’s worth the effort.
4) Remain connected. I’m so grateful for the blessings of technology that allow us to remain in community even while we remain physically distant. The groups that sustain me have continued to meet via Zoom. I can phone, text, or email my friends and loved ones. I’m able to access my faith community on YouTube. And I can write notes to the many people who are alone and for whom technology is inaccessible. All of these acts of connection are a source of joy to me. I find I’m not alone in how I’m feeling. I can learn from others about how to cope. I can remain engaged with the world beyond my small corner. I can be nourished in my mind and spirit at a time when it would be so easy to give in to loneliness and negativity. Now, more than ever, connection is vital to our emotional well-being and to the well-being of those around us.
5) Reach out for help. If anxiety or depression are overwhelming you, you’re drinking more than usual, or you’re in danger of relapsing, don’t hesitate to seek the help and support you legitimately need. Therapists, psychologists, and coaches are meeting with clients by phone or on-line. Support groups are continuing to meet online. The stress is real. The dangers are real. And help is available.
How's your emotional health? What works for you in maintaining emotional balance? What kinds of things trigger negative feelings? How might you exercise greater control over your emotions?