Moving through hard feelings

Dec 18, 2023 | Change, Stress

Sometimes life is hard

Life can’t always be “rainbows and butterflies.”

When it’s not, the feelings that arise can be challenging – and worse around the holidays.

Plus the pressure to be upbeat is real, whether it’s self-imposed, from others, or just societal expectations.

But feelings, when we avoid them, tend to stick around. Then we can end up stuck, exhausted and feeling alone.

The good news is that we can shift hard feelings if we change our approach.

Feelings are energy and information

We don’t choose our feelings. They arise naturally as energy and information to guide us, in response to people and situations.

Professor Lisa Barrett Feldman at Northeastern University and colleagues have published findings that essentially say our emotions are what our brains make of them.

First, the brain processes information through the nervous system about changes in the state of the body, such as a raise in heart rate, a holding of the breath, or sweaty palms.

Second, in order to make sense of the physical changes, the brain scans its neural networks to find relevant pre-existing ideas, beliefs, or experiences – essentially prior information to help it interpret the meaning of the body’s changes.

With this interpretation and connecting to prior neural pathways, a feeling arises to guide us.

For example…

Let’s say you have been taking on a huge workload. You haven’t said no or complained.

Then your boss gives you another project to complete by the week’s end.

You nod and say nothing. But when she leaves, tears well in your eyes, your heart races and your stomach is in knots.

The brain notices these changes, and connects to prior times this has happened where you’ve had to stay late and skip meals to get the work done. It also remembers that the last time someone said no, they got yelled at – and you hate conflict.

You are likely experiencing overwhelm, anger, and fear – or some version of these feelings.

But you don’t feel safe to express them, and don’t know how to make them go away, so you suppress them and try to power through.

Ignoring a feeling doesn’t change it

Just because we decide not to give attention to a feeling, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

The energy of the emotion remains.

While we might get our conscious mind off of it, the feelings remain in the neural pathways, the nervous system and body.

Maybe we try to numb or distract ourselves with t.v., comfort food, alcohol, or some other activity – totally understandable.

But holding in or resisting feelings can take a toll on the brain and nervous system.

In fact, research shows that controlling our emotions takes effort and can deplete our energy. So while it might seem counter-intuitive, holding in or suppressing emotion is the opposite of what we need to calm the emotion and improve self-regulation.

Accepting a feeling can improve it

review of recent studies found that the act of accepting a feeling – that is, allowing a present-moment experience to “arise, unfold and pass”  – is key to improving difficult emotions as well as improving emotional regulation.

Another study looked at the brain activity of hard feelings. The study found that neural activity in the area of the brain associated with strong emotions and reactivity (the amygdala and limbic area) calmed down when people put their negative feelings into words.

At the same time, a part of the brain associated with cognitive control (in the prefrontal cortex) increased.

So naming and accepting the emotion can help us, and our brains, to calm it and change it!

Movement is improvement

When we acknowledge a hard feeling and give it space to be there, the energy of it can begin to move. From there, it improves.

This doesn’t mean we have to express the feeling to the person causing it, but it does mean we need to let it be there, ideally by naming it and slowing down enough so the energy can move in the body.

When we do this, the charge of it lessens, and we’re able to see and think more clearly. I’ve experienced this myself, and I’ve seen it time and again with clients.

Just remember, feelings are always information and are never permanent. And while they can be challenging, they’re not wrong.

Photo by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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