Dealing with negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, worry, or frustration isn’t much different from dealing with a headache… at least it isn’t if we do it right!

The Compass, August 2022

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Dealing with negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, worry, or frustration isn’t much different from dealing with a headache… at least it isn’t if we do it right! What do we do when we feel a headache coming on? We first acknowledge that we feel some pain or discomfort, and immediately go to work on trying to cut its length and strength, and to figure out what’s causing it, and then we follow a few simple steps to decrease its intensity.

What we do not say is, “I’m scared of headaches! I hate headaches! I don’t want to feel this, so I’m going to act like nothing is wrong, and then I won’t have to deal with it!” That would be completely counterproductive. The headache would likely grow in intensity, disrupt our day, and take us further from feeling good again.

Just like a headache tells us something is not quite right in our body; our negative emotions are doing the same thing. When we are experiencing negative emotions, the thoughts and feelings are clues from our body that something is amiss. We wouldn’t ignore a headache telling us we need more water or that the music is too loud, and we also should not ignore the clues from our body telling us that something emotional needs to be addressed. The problem is that all of us have been taught how to deal with a headache, and none of us have been taught how to deal with our feelings! Just like with the headache, we can follow a few simple steps to help process our big emotions and start to feel better.

One of the easiest ways to do this is an exercise called, “Name it to Tame it.” Just like we name a headache so we can start trying to tame it, we name our emotions in order to tame them as well!

Research shows that putting a name or label on what we are feeling literally and immediately starts to calm the activity in the brain in real and tangible ways. This is best understood by a quick view into the brain. In the prefrontal cortex (the front of the of brain) the right side is where we process and store big emotions, imagery and the physical sensations that accompany them. The left side of the brain is where we process language, reasoning, rational thought, and sequencing. 

When we are feeling big emotions, the right side of the brain is in over-drive, and because our brain has a limited amount of power to use at any given time, the intricate functions of the left side are not prioritized. The higher-level thinking skills of using words and rational thinking are momentarily laid dormant as our big emotions and the sensations that accompany them are using the majority of our brain’s energy. What this means for us is that these emotions and sensations will feel bigger and scarier because we are not using logic to make sense of them.

When we feel these big emotions start to overtake us, the first thing to do is to name the exact emotion we are feeling. As soon as we start to put words to our emotion, we recruit the left side of the brain, and some of the power that is being used on the right side must be diverted. This will immediately start to calm the big emotion because we just don’t have as much brain energy to feed it! Next, we want to continue to divert energy from the right side to the left, and we do this by naming the accompanying sensations in our body. 

These first two steps might sound something like this. “Okay, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety right now! I know I am feeling anxiety because my heart is racing, my face is flushed, my hands are clammy, and there is a lump in my throat making it hard to swallow.”

After the first two steps, we want to continue to use our left brain as much as possible, thus starving the right side of much of the energy it was previously using. We can do this by using basic reasoning and sequencing. After we have named our emotion and its accompanying sensations, we then put words to the “why,” and then put the “why” in chronological order.

These next steps might sound like, “I am feeling anxiety because today was pretty awful. I am feeling stressed because I had so many things to do, and the day didn’t go as planned. First, I had to take the kids to school, but I got a flat tire. I had to get the tire fixed before going to work, which made me late. I missed an important meeting and then I had a lot of work to do to catch up. I knew I would have to take some work home, but I also remembered my daughter had a volleyball game. I went to the volleyball game and now it’s 11pm and I’m still working.”

As we follow the first four steps, we have now used the left side of our brain to name the emotion, name the sensations in our body, name why we might be feeling them, and then list the reasons in order.

The last step in this simple process is to do an easy breathing technique to calm the upset in our body. We can breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, and hold for another count of four. Doing this several times will slow down the heart, which should also help with all the other physical symptoms.

At this point, we should find that we are feeling much less emotional! This is because our brain is now using both the left and right sides to process what is happening, and the brain energy is more equally divided. As we move on from this situation, the memory will also be stored more equally in the two sides of the brain, so that if this feeling and memory were to come up again, it should be with less intensity. When that happens, we follow the 5 easy steps again, and every time we do, the intensity of the emotion should be diminished until we find that we can think of the memory or experience, without any of the accompanying big negative emotions and sensations.

The beauty of this technique is that it can be used by people of any age. In younger children, we can help them follow the steps out loud as we ask questions to get them to use the left side of the brain to find the answers. As adults, we can do all 5 steps internally in a few short minutes, and no one around will be any the wiser. The next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with big emotions, try these steps to Name it to Tame it!

Step 1. Name the emotion

Step 2. Name the physical sensations

Step 3. Name the “Why” of your feelings.

Step 4. Put the “Why” in chronological order

Step 5. Use the simple breathing technique

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