As a therapist who makes her livelihood by encouraging people to explore their feelings, I’m often amazed at the variety of ways we’re taught to avoid them, often from a very young age. Growing up in my family, my mother sometimes offered me cookies when I was feeling upset. To this day, I often find myself reaching for chocolate when I’m stressed. As children, we often aren’t taught healthy ways to vent our anger, sadness, or frustration, so as adults, we can take our pick of ways to tune out: watching TV; surfing the Internet; staying constantly busy; shopping…you name it.
The problem with avoiding our feelings is two-fold: First, by numbing ourselves to uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, we’re also closing ourselves off to more pleasant emotions, such as joy. Second, bottling up unpleasant feelings can take its toll on our well-being over time. We may never learn how to work through losses, so we become “stuck” in our grief. Or our body may react to bottled up anger and frustration by releasing cortisol, a stress hormone that wears down the immune system.
The answer? First, become aware of the ways in which you avoid your feelings. This mindfulness is the first step, so the next time you notice you just have to check Facebook or dig into that pint of ice cream, take it as a cue to check in with yourself first. Is anything bothering you? Next, find a way to transfer the distressing thoughts or feelings from inside your mind to some outward expression. Consider the following:
Keep a journal. Truly let go; write in a free-flowing stream and don’t worry about grammar or spelling. Studies by psychologist James Pennebaker, Ph.D., found that people who wrote daily about their deep emotions reported feeling better and had fewer doctors’ visits for nearly half a year afterward.
Channel your inner artist. Cathartic release can take many forms, such as scribbling in dark colors and tearing up the paper afterward. Or flip through a magazine and cut out collage images that speak to you. It’s not the final product that’s important, but the process of externalizing your feelings through colors, shapes and images.
Shout it out. Pick a vent buddy you can call or email when the going gets rough. If you’re in therapy, this can be a wonderful way to supplement your work with your counselor, because you’re also developing additional sources of social support in your life. Agree with your friend on ground rules up-front, such as keeping everything confidential and refraining from giving each other advice.