Our culture is all about “just stay strong” and “just stay busy” and we can pass through difficult emotions. There is research that helps us understand why it is helpful to name what we are feeling rather than passing over challenging emotions.
Our bodies are tracking all of the emotional signals we are experiencing and shifting nervous system activity, impacting hormonal system activity. What happens in passing over difficult emotions is an increased tendency to react and explode in the build up – like a pressure cooker. OR as many mental health professionals are seeing – an increase in depression and depressive moods.
One of the exercises that I do when I facilitate The Resilience Advantage from the Institute of HeartMath® is called Emotional Landscape. In this exercise, participants name emotions that occur in 4 different quadrants, related to the intensity of that emotion. This is often such an eye-opening exercise for people when they recognize how much time over a week they are spending in depleting emotional states without actively processing them or at least being mindful to what is so.
In a study out of UCLA, Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman found that subjects who put feelings into words makes sadness, anger and pain less intense. When we have fear and anger, the part of the brain called the amygdala shows increased activity. By naming these feelings and emotions the prefrontal cortex becomes active. This is the part of the brain that inhibits irrational behavior and helps us make better decisions.
Many times during COVID I found that underneath my anger was fear or worry. I learned this because I took the time to tune in to my inner world to name what I was currently feeling and in doing that, allowed the underlying deeper emotion that was driving the anger to surface. And then, on one occasion the processing of that emotion was to cry. I give you permission to cry as needed these days! Harvard Business Review recently had an article providing guidance for leaders to understand what to do when their employees cry at work. It is not an IF but a WHEN. I found this an encouraging sign of growth in Emotional Intelligence! Most don’t understand that relieving those pressure cooker emotions is what helps normalize neurotransmitters that stabilize mood and sleep. And having a safe place, space, and people to express is critical at this time. All of us need to listen to our own inner dialogue and be a listening heart for others.
One of the keys to listening in this way is to do so without offering advice, suggestions, or analysis. Offering advice is a subtle way of dismissing what was just shared. All of us are experiencing loss in some way and this is cause for grief. Grievers don’t need to be fixed; they just need to be heard. So, listen and express acknowledgement in some way, remembering the science that tells us that just having the opportunity to name our feelings, shifts the signaling from the amygdala, which holds patterns of fear, to the prefrontal cortex in which we are able to move forward into the next moment with a better ability to adapt and make wise choices.