The fear of emotional overwhelm

Ann, a new reader of this blog, recently sent me a message on my MaryAnn’s Bodywork and Changework Shop Facebook page that she is doing the trauma releasing exercises, and I thought I would move the discussion here so more people can participate:

hi maryann!

i have just discovered your blog online. thank you for sharing your story and advice to the world. i feel a kinship to you, as i am in the third month of my trauma releasing process.
i practice spring forest qigong (5 yrs)

i have done tre exercises 3 or 4 times a couple of months ago and now i can do them at will.

as fear and anxiety are aspects of myself that i am reclaiming/ integrating… i tend to stop the tremors that seem to want to happen a lot now because my mind wants to understand what is actually happening and will this clear the messages from the subconscious. i have apprehension that the amount i release will then need to be felt consciously afterwards and maybe i shouldn’t do them a lot so i can maintain a balance/ keep up with the processing of the emotions…. or do they just go away?…i saw that you posted to do them as much as they want to come out at first. any thoughts?

i have read that the symptoms come back if you stop…so how do they clear?

maybe they get pushed out in a continual cycle that allows you to consciously release what you can… the release just keeps them suspended for a time?

well, that’s enough thinking… any thoughts?

you are lovely.

heartfelt gratitude.


p.s. the other day i tremored, kicked, wailed, spoke in about 6 different languages… very grateful i have read waking the tiger as i guess you do need to release the things you would have done when you froze. in the english parts i said “no, i said no!” and i didn’t just “say” it. and at the end of it i went back into english and i said “NO. YOU GET OUT OF ME!” it felt awesome.

A little later, Ann sent the following message:

in re-reading this i could sum it up as : fear of emotional overwhelm 

Well put, Ann. To Ann and everyone else who has ever feared being overwhelmed emotionally, whether by grief, anger, or some other emotion (even bliss), I just want to say that this is very, very common.

We all have emotions. Infants and toddlers seem to have a very full range of them and express them freely and with their whole selves.

And at some young age, we begin to receive messages about emotions: which ones are good, which are bad (or positive and negative, if you prefer), which ones are not okay to express in public, maybe which are not okay to even have, which ones are harmful to repress or bottle up.

Maybe we’ve been on the receiving end of someone’s rage, bad boundaries, or lack of feeling, or have felt/not-felt those ourselves. Maybe we’ve felt emotional pain so strongly we’d do anything to avoid feeling it again, including numbing out for years.

No wonder we get messed up emotionally.

It can feel unsafe to let go emotionally, as if we could die or crumble or never come out on the other side. We fear our own emotions, especially the strong ones, because part of us wants to be in control, and emotions can be very intense.

Ann, it seems to me that needing to experience a balance between release and conscious processing is a belief you have acquired. Try on this belief and see if you like it: allowing the emotion/trembling/etc. to flow through you IS clearing the subconscious. You don’t have to understand it for it to work!

And if understanding does come, it will come AFTER you clear the channels and return to a calm state in which other parts of your brain can come online to create whole-brain insight.

I also imagine you experimenting with releasing as much emotionally/physiologically as you feel comfortable with for a few days, letting your conscious mind work at its own pace, and seeing for yourself what happens. That cannot mess you up—it’s just you discovering what mix of emotion and thought, conscious and unconscious works best for you.

I remember feeling rage about 10 years ago for the first time since I was about two, because it wasn’t acceptable in my family or in much of society. I was alone, remembering something I hadn’t thought about in years, when suddenly I had a different understanding of it that brought up hot, intense anger.

I didn’t know what was happening at first, so I kept allowing it to happen because I was curious—and alone. I am sure I got red in the face. There was definitely an upward surge of hot energy toward my head and a stiffening of my posture. I stopped in mid-stride.

Right after I was feeling the most intense anger, my inner witness was marveling, “So this is what rage feels like! I get it how steam comes out of Elmer Fudd’s ears and the grimace and posture he makes!”

It actually had a very, very cleansing effect. It renewed my self-esteem and motivated me to protect my interests. Afterwards, I felt like I had on a cloak of protection. It was actually near the beginning of my trauma recovery process, but I didn’t know that then.

Interestingly enough, fully allowing that rage to flow through me and feeling it completely took maybe 30 seconds. A very slow 30 seconds, to be sure.

Imagine: I had spent years denying/repressing my anger, and when I let it ripple through me, it only took half a minute of intensity, and the benefits were enormous and lasting.

Lesson 1: Emotions have two components. You experience them in your body, and they change you (you resolve an inner conflict, and then you take action: set a boundary, express a concern, reframe your identity, make a decision, right a wrong, and so on).

Lesson 2: You can allow yourself the experience of feeling the emotion fully without having to take action right away. That can come later. Unless the situation is life or death, you can let it settle before doing anything. That provides time for other less emotional parts of your brain to add their gifts on the wisest course of action for you to take. Meanwhile, you’re not bottling up something toxic.

Lesson 3: This is easier said than done. We’re all here in the School of Life. We mess up, we learn, we forgive, we grow.

So this is the thing. I can’t really tell you what’s right for you, but maybe these lessons can help you get through the labyrinth.

I found this quote on Tricycle Daily Dharma, and it’s perfect for this post:

The ebb and flow of life is not unlike the sea. Sure, sometimes it’s calm and serene, but at other times the waves can be so big that they threaten to overwhelm us. These fluctuations are an inevitable part of life. But when you forget this simple fact, it’s easy to get swept away by strong waves of difficult emotions.— Andy Puddicombe, “10 Tips for Living More Mindfully”

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the best books I’ve read about emotions and their messages, The Emotional Hostage: Rescuing Your Emotional Life by Leslie Cameron-Bandler. It’s an oldie but goodie that helps you decode the purpose of each emotion and use your emotions to live more authentically.

Four constructive things to do with your anger

A recent Tricycle Daily Dharma quotation is timely, and I’m sharing. It’s worth exploring anger for what it actually is.

Because we imagine anger is never a good thing, it is easy to think we should practice simply not being angry. But that approach is too general and abstract. It’s important for each of us to be precise, to be real, to be personal and honest, to find out exactly what my anger is. To do that we need to ask ourselves lots of questions about its actual nature.

It is quite a fabulous skill in life to handle anger well — to feel it and not suppress it, and to use it constructively. I’m definitely not saying I’m the most skilled at handling my anger, but I have come to recognize some of its complexity and discovered a key that helps me manage it constructively.

Watch some angry cartoon characters display anger in this video. You may never see anger in humans in the same way again!

First, anger is a body sensation. You can see it in the cartoons. For me, there’s a stiffening, a rigidity that I experience, often in my neck or back. My spine lengthens as I draw myself up to my full height. When it’s more intense, I feel prickly sensations and sometimes heat.

Only rarely have I experienced what Elmer and Daffy do so well, the red face, the steam coming out of ears, the grimace, the fists, the in-your-face stalk, the growl.

I dream about being Bugs Bunny, but when I wake up, I’m Daffy Duck. ~ Chuck Jones

  • Next time you’re angry, if you can, take a moment and notice what you’re feeling in your body, how your state has changed, what your mind is telling you to do. Just notice.

Anger has degrees of intensity. Anger includes a family of emotions that range from annoyance to rage. There’s a huge difference between asserting oneself when annoyed and abusively vomiting one’s rage on someone.

  • How angry are you on a scale of 1 to 10?
  • Can you describe it explicitly — outraged, irritated, mad, hostile, slow burn, furious, exasperated, chagrined, huffy, miffed, pissed, petulant, sullen, piqued?

Anger needs release. Anger builds toward action. This is where I think most of the problem lies. It’s not the anger itself, it’s what people do to release it that can be so destructive. People can emotionally and physically abuse others because they know no other way of releasing their anger. They finger-point and blame — and most of the time, other people are just doing the best they can, unable to read your mind.

When you’re angry, a different part of your brain is operating than the part that is able to have a dialogue, listen respectfully, and negotiate a solution. Respect that. Allow it. Just remember that.

What you do depends on the degree of your anger. If you feel annoyed, irritated, or dismayed, a few concise words can convey that with minimal damage. If you’re feeling really angry, like at least a 4, it’s more about you, not them.

Also, sometimes people feel their anger and recognize its intensity, but then they swallow it because they don’t want to be destructive but don’t know what else to do. That feels really miserable and isn’t a good solution to “the anger problem”.

  • So…here’s a new skill. When you feel so angry that you might say something you’ll regret, don’t even try to converse. Instead, move your body and make noise. Pace, stalk, make fists, punch a pillow, grimace, wave your arms. Dance with your anger. Growl and howl. You can even let loose a nice juicy string of curse words (or fake or foreign curse words) not aimed at anyone.

The other person witnessing your nonverbal anger may find your anger beautiful, or at least entertaining to watch (if they stay out of your way, right?).

Examine your anger later, when you’re calm. What triggered it? I’m guessing it was probably something you didn’t like, an injustice or injury, or a sense of invasion.

  • Ask yourself and the other party (if they’re willing) some good questions. Did someone violate one of your rules? Did they fail to read your mind? Could you have contributed to it? Did you communicate your preferences with clarity? Or could your rule conflict with their rule? Did they assume something about you that wasn’t true? How do you move forward? There’s a lot of room for understanding when you get to this stage of anger.
  • Also, was there another emotion behind the anger, like fear or hurt?

This is the best thing about anger, in my opinion. You learn more about yourself and the other person, and you’ll improve your communication skills. Sounds like a gift, doesn’t it?


As long as I’m posting about an emotion, I want to recommend a book that I found very helpful for understanding the emotions and the purpose each serves. It’s The Emotional Hostage, by Leslie Cameron-Bandler. It will help you decode your own emotions and those of others, understand the clear messages that each emotion conveys, and resolve your relationship problems more easily.


1/30/2012. Just encountered this quote from the Dalai Lama about anger:

When we are angry we are blind to reality. Anger may bring us a temporary burst of energy, but that energy is blind and it blocks the part of our brain that distinguishes right from wrong. To deal with our problems, we need to be practical and realistic. If we are to be realistic, we need to use our human intelligence properly, which means we need a calm mind.