When hiking today, I encountered two hills which reminded me of how we can experience emotions. Sometimes the cause of feeling emotionally overwhelmed or upset is clear: a big event happened in our lives, and it was hard. Similarly, the first hill I encountered had a noticeably steep incline, so I set my focus, anticipated the difficulty, and was kind to myself as I drew on all my energy to help me with the climb.
Coping with the ‘big hills’
Life is full of ups and downs and sometimes we must face major losses, transitions, or challenges. What’s something big that happened in your life recently? How did you respond? A month ago, I made the decision to leave my counselling job of 18 years to focus on my private practice and family. I like to settle into places and set deep roots-- and avoid change as much as possible-- so I knew this was going to be both exciting and challenging for me. I anticipated and experienced grief, doubt, and uncertainty. I responded with kindness, encouraged patience (to see this through) and gave myself time to feel all the feelings.
If you have ‘big hill’ on the horizon allow yourself the opportunity to plan and prepare in advance (when possible). Ask, ‘what do I need to get through this difficult time?’ Seek out safe supports and resources. Afterwards give yourself time to process, heal and recharge. Ask, ‘what do I need to recover and who can help?’
Coping with the unexpectedly hard ‘small hills’
The second hill on my hike appeared small, but as I climbed it, I felt winded and tired for what seemed to be ‘no reason’. However, as I looked back, I could see that this small hill was in fact, a long and gradual incline which required stamina and pacing. This reminded me of how seemingly small life stresses or events can pile up in our lives and we ‘randomly’ feel upset, irritable, anxious, lonely, or down.
Feelings, however, are rarely ‘random’ or for ‘no reason’ even if it can seem that way. Often when we’re struggling it is a cumulative effect of difficulties or we have other factors increasing our vulnerability.
Often when I speak with people in a counselling session about their ‘random’ emotions, we uncover that they’re dealing with more than they realize, particularly when you add all the ‘small’ things up. The breaking point might be something minor in and of itself, but when you notice that it was piled on top of an overflowing plate of responsibilities and challenges, it is understandable why it was all ‘too much’.
Why else might emotions be bigger than the difficulties appear? It could be that the triggers for your emotions are connected to big traumas or fears. For example, a friend not answering a text message might trigger deeper fears of rejection, abandonment or not feeling good enough. Emotional intensity is also affected by our personality or degree of sensitivity. If you’re an introvert and have spent a lot of time with people you’re going to be more vulnerable to feeling overloaded or stressed. On the contrary, if you’re an extrovert that has had way too much alone time, you might feel depressed, discouraged or uncentered. Some people are ‘highly sensitive’ to their environments, which means that they are more deeply affected by internal and external noises, demands, and feelings. If a highly sensitive person watches a distressing show (e.g., a scary movie, real life crime drama, or the news), particularly after a work or school day filled with stress, they’re more likely to shut down or become overstimulated. When assessing how much you’re dealing with emotionally, think of your mind like a sponge and consider how much it has been absorbing today, this week, or the past few months.
Ways to understand the ‘random’ emotions:
1. Notice the load you’re carrying. This can be done through a body scan where you mindfully pay attention to each part of your body and notice for signs of tension. I generally find mine in my jaw and shoulders.
2. Take stock and reflect on your all your sources of stress or difficulty. This can be done through a simple list, a journal entry or through a ‘brain dump’ exercise. Acknowledge and give yourself compassion for all that you’ve been carrying!
3. Use the insight of your emotional, mental, and physical load to allow yourself to pace yourself and focus on one thing at a time.
4. Clear the clutter. Use an ‘Eisenhower Box’ to organize the list of stresses by separating each item into a category: a) urgent & important, b) non-urgent & important, c) urgent & and not important, and d) non-urgent & not important. Prioritize tackling that which is in category ‘a’ and let go of those in category ‘d’.
5. Practice compassion and be patient with yourself. Talk to yourself as you would a good friend: “You’ve been dealing with a lot and are naturally overwhelmed. What do you need?”
6. Refill your cup regularly. When the stress has been and continues to be ongoing, you need to recharge your batteries just as you would your frequently used electronic device. Self-care looks different for everyone and might include taking time alone, seeking out distraction (and caring) with friends and family, engaging in enjoyable activities or movement exercises, or helping others in the community.
Whether you’re dealing with the big, steep hills or long, gradual hills of difficulties in life, it can be helpful to be supported through these experiences. Consider scheduling an appointment with your counsellor or myself so we can tackle (and understand) your stress together.