Your mind won’t stop racing. You just keep replaying the events over and over in your head in an endless loop. You entertain various hypothetical scenarios, all of which make you sick to your stomach. It becomes the only thing you care to talk about and it’s nearly impossible to stay present without your mind lingering back to it. Whether the event is in the past or the future the nagging situation is impossible to shake.
Your loved ones want to help but they know they can’t take away the pain so they typically offer advice like, “Just forget about it” or “Just do something else to distract yourself.” Unfortunately, there is a fundamental flaw to this advice: it robs you of having the full human experience and simultaneously strips you of an opportunity to grow. Additionally, we know that distraction is a temporary fix for a chronic problem.
One of the most unfortunate parts of culture today is the disapproval and rejection of uncomfortable emotions. While there is hope that the stigma around mental health is dissipating, the social protocol on how to support a friend in a healthy way is not yet mainstream.
So, how can you help yourself when you’re in a mind-wrenching thought cycle? The first step is simply to understand that there are no “good” or “bad” emotions. They are simply emotions. They don’t need a qualifier and they should not be villainized. Having feelings is part of being human.
Next, you have to address the source. While this may seem counterintuitive, you need to lean into the uncomfortably. There is no such thing as moving past an emotion, you have to move through it. This means you have to sit and feel what you’re feeling.
While there are many ways to calm anxiety or pain, here is one tool that seems to work effectively.
Imagine your thoughts and actions like an accordion. On one side is your initial thought, impulse, or trigger (the thing you can’t stop thinking about) and on the other side is the response, action, or emotion (how you’re dealing with the former). When your thought accordion is pushed together it’s easy to jump from one side to the other. For example, your loved one makes a cheap joke at your expense and it hurts your feelings and instead of taking a moment you immediately spit back something that you know will hurt them equally. Alternatively, take the same situation, but a different response, you don’t say anything back. Instead, you just ruminate on it or swallow the pain. This is also a response.
When you pull apart your thought accordion, you give yourself the opportunity to disassemble the components of your thoughts and emotions. Victor Frankl referred to the two sides as the ‘stimulus’ and the ‘response’. He stated that “ In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This process requires you to slow down and take a deeper look at what is really going on internally.
Step 1: Simply acknowledge you’re feeling activated.
It’s happening again, you’re spinning out and it is causing you to get emotional.
Step 2: Ground yourself in the present.
Wherever you are use your senses to remind yourself you’re safe.
Stomp your feet. Feel your feet connected to the ground. Look down at your feet and see you are present.
Look around list 3 things you see. (The cat, the couch, my water bottle)
Notice what 3 sensations your skin your feel. (Sweaty palms, jeans around my waist, the air is hot)
List out 3 sounds you hear. (The crickets, a candle crackling, water running)
Take a deep breath. Remind yourself “I am present. I am not trapped in my mind. My physical being is right here.”
Step 3: Now move your thoughts to observe your body.
What am I feeling in my body? (tension, stiffness, shaking, electric)
Where is it living in my body? (It feels like a weight on your chest, your fists are gripped tight, you feels like there’s something stuck in your throat)
Breath into that space. Deep inhale through your lungs down deep into your diaphragm. Full exhale. Repeat two more times.
Think: ‘Okay I’m feeling tension in my chest.’
“It’s pressing down’
‘But I’m okay. I’m here.’
‘Nothing is pressing down on my chest.’
‘Emotions are normal.’
Step 4: Get curious about your emotions.
What emotions are coming up? (sadness, anger) Let’s take sadness for example.
Ah, I’ve felt this before. Okay, what does sadness feel like?
When have I felt sadness in the past? (Even venture back to childhood if you want)
What needs were not met when you felt this way the last time?
This is where you will practice being gentle with yourself. Emotions like fear, shame, anger, and grief are some that require understanding and acceptance. Once you uncover the root emotion, just sit and feel it for a little while. Remind yourself that it is okay to have the emotion.
Step 5: Now that you’ve taken a clearer look at your emotional state you can begin contemplating what activated you.
These answers include only facts.
Who did it involve?
What was said to me or what was done to me?
Step 6: Interpreting the story.
How did I interpret this situation?
What story am I telling myself?
Your mind’s job is to make sense of the world around you. So, when something happens that doesn’t seem aligned with how you currently see the world, things can get a little wonky. Your mind works to construct a narrative based on your experiences developing meaning for what just took place. This is a perspective. It doesn’t mean the story is completely untruthful, but it is also not completely truthful. It is one of many perspectives that can be taken on the same situation.
Focus on which conclusions you were drawing?
What did your mind connect to make sense of your reality?
What is this story saying about your identity or self-worth?
What inside me needs to be acknowledged that hasn’t been given a voice?
Step: 7 Make a decision.
Once you’ve completed the six steps above (the process can be done multiple times until you feel like you’ve discovered the root of the problem and your needs are met) move forward confidently understanding this principle: The only thing you have control over is your mind, your thoughts, your emotions, and your actions. That means it is your choice what you think about. You may not be able to control the initial thought but you can control how long you dwell on it or where you allow the thought to lead. Spinning out is not serving you so find an empowered, productive, and/or considerate way to deal with what you are feeling. Marcus Aurelius said “You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you.” Additionally, you have no control over the events that are outside of yourself. Realizing this will help release some of the control you want to have to change things. Situations may not change, but you are able to take care of yourself despite that.
What is in my control in this situation?
What can I do about that?
Step 8: Pivot to Respond Better Next Time.
Questions to ask to take care of yourself:
Do you need to create a boundary with someone else or with yourself?
Do you need to practice self-care?
Do you need to ask for support?
Do you need to have a conversation?