Home Columnists Andrew McDonald: Dealing with difficult emotions

Andrew McDonald: Dealing with difficult emotions

You know the cycle. Something triggers a negative emotion in your mind and you start to fixate on the issue.

No matter what you do, the situation keeps coming back into your brain like a mindworm (ok, this word doesn’t exist; I’m borrowing from earworm).

It keeps finding a hole to wiggle through to take over your thoughts again and again. You start to fret about the problem and it just seems to grow bigger and bigger.

This is because the problem has triggered your fight or flight response. This instinctive behaviour is controlled by the amygdala, the section of the brain known as the reptilian zone. Now, compare yourself with a frog, a snake or a tortoise.

You’re clearly more intelligent. Your flight or fight response isn’t though. It comes from a time when humans were hunters and hunted in equal measure. In terms of time, that isn’t really all that long ago. Humans have been on Earth for around six million years.

We have only been able to enjoy the safety of not being regularly preyed upon for a few thousand. So this part of our brain hasn’t evolved out of existence yet. Actually we probably never want it to. Although the chances of a saber-toothed cat chasing us down the Parade in Kilkenny is pretty slim these days, we still need a danger signal.

Otherwise, when we are crossing the road and a car suddenly appears driving too fast, we wouldn’t react by quickly getting out of the way. However, most of the time, this response isn’t useful. In fact it can be very unuseful and actually make our lives a misery.

Anyone who suffers, or has suffered, with anxiety will know our flight or fight response is triggered constantly. It’s a miserable existence as we are always on edge. So what we need to do is learn how to deal with that.

The typical reply to flight or fight is for us to tense up and fight the emotion. The trouble is the emotion wants to fight. It is called the fight or flight response after all! So try accepting the emotion. Don’t judge it. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Just let the emotion be. Don’t question it. Don’t get wrapped up in the story of it. Allow the emotion to rest. See if you can pinpoint where in the body you feel the emotion.

It might be a tightening of the shoulders, a headache, your stomach might feel like it is churning. It could be something different. Allow that physical sensation to just be.

Again, don’t fight it, just accept it. Very gently try to breathe into it. Try to soften the edges of the body sensation. Don’t try to get rid of it, just smooth the edges of it.

Strangely, by not fighting the negative emotion, the negative emotion often meanders on its way again and leaves you feeling more relaxed. This is because, by accepting it, you trigger the prefrontal cortex part of the brain, the rational zone, the part of the brain which separates you from the frog, the snake and the tortoise we discussed earlier.

If you need help with this, there are countless guided meditations on YouTube as well as excellent apps like Insight Timer and Headspace.

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Andrew McDonald, Hypnotherapist and Mind Coach, can be contacted via www.kilkennytherapy.com or on 089 972 2991