Responding from a place of connection: Exploring difficult emotions and thoughts
Today is another day. Some of us are counting what day it is in our “social distancing” while others have lost count of days and things have become blurred. Blurred are the lines between work and personal life. Blurred are the lines of what is “socially acceptable” now. Some of us may even find sleep and eating being scattered and lacking structure. This is a time of confusion for us all, at the same time what may be clear is our current emotional state. Many of us may be feeling frustrated with the situation and with all of the new responsibilities (e-learning anyone?). While we may continuously hear the importance of self-care and relaxation, particularly during this time, we may hear less often the idea of staying with these emotions. Acknowledging, validating, and staying with our emotions, no matter how difficult they may be, is important to our mental health. Not only does this action communicate our own acceptance for what we feel, but it also helps us process our emotions, which, in turn helps us respond to the situation from a place of connection.
Research evidence shows that our emotions are connected to our thoughts and if we slow down to notice our emotions, we may also find ourselves gaining insight into our thoughts, and vice versa. Through this path, we can respond from a place of reflection rather than instantaneous reaction. The benefits of responding rather than reacting to our emotions are countless. Not only do we gain a sense of connection to our emotions, we take into account long term effects and stay in line with our core values within our actions. Moreover, we may find these difficult emotions may dissipate more rapidly when we don’t try to push them away but, instead, simply feel them. Here are some steps we can take to slow down and explore our emotions:
- Pause and notice: Within our busy days, even a few minutes of slowing down and noticing what we are feeling and thinking about may in itself be just enough for us to feel better. It may feel like a contradiction to say that we should attend to the emotions and thoughts that give us discomfort, and yet this is also the path to gaining insight and allowing us to respond rather than react to those around us. You may simply pause and notice “Oh, hello anger,” or “I’m very irritated with how things are going.” Remember, thoughts are not facts!
- Ground yourself: Find a way to separate yourself from the strong emotions and thoughts through grounding exercises, such as using your senses to notice other things around you (e.g., smell, touch, hearing, visual). Sometimes simply feeling your feet on the ground or engaging in a brief body scan practice may help bring a sense of balance. Other times, we may benefit from visualizing something pleasant to help us ground ourselves.
- Accept and Validate: By accepting and validating our emotions, rather than avoiding or pushing them away, we communicate that it is okay to feel this way. This is paramount in our own sense of self-worth, as well as modeling emotional awareness and acceptance to our children.
- Investigating emotions and thoughts without judgement: Once we’ve found a sense of acceptance and a place of neutrality, it is then that we can take the time to explore our emotions and thoughts further. It is in this space of calm and neutrality that we can bring a sense of curiousity to our thoughts and emotions. It is in this space that we can ask ourselves “What is it that upset me so much?” and “What else is happening here?”
These steps are here to guide us in processing our thoughts and emotions and making thoughtful choices. However, it is important to note that this does not mean that we are indifferent or passive about these emotions. Rather, we are being present with what we are feeling and thinking, which allows us to respond from a place of connection and balance, rather than reacting to what is going on around us. Jon Kabat Zinn’s analogy may be a helpful reminder of this: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” May we find a sense of balance and connection during these unprecedented times.
Dr. Marina Heifetz, Ph.D., is a Child and Adolescent Psychologist at the York Hills Centre and the Clinical Director at the York Region CBT Clinic. She has been a Clinical Director for Special Olympics’ Strong Minds program since 2016. Dr. Heifetz specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families experiencing a range of developmental and mental health conditions, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), anxiety and mood disorders, disruptive behaviour disorders, learning disabilities, and parent-child conflict. She also has a special interest and experience in mindfulness and in supporting individuals with developmental disabilities through research and clinical work.