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.

ann 

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.

A changework and bodywork session

One evening this past week, I received a special honor. I got to do changework and bodywork with someone who has done changework and bodywork with me. I’m not going to provide any identifying information out of respect for her privacy. Think of this as a case study: it really happened, but you will never be able to tell whose experience it was, and in any case, it doesn’t really matter.

I’m writing this session up to illustrate what I am offering in my private practice: changework combined with bodywork.

Most everyone is at least familiar with what bodywork and massage are. Changework is less known. You can think of it as a kind of coaching, with applications for managing stress, becoming more relaxed, changing your stories, shelving beliefs that no longer apply, clarifying, removing obstacles, getting unstuck, achieving goals, knowing yourself, expanding, transforming emotions, and more.

I have some training and experience I can draw on, but mostly I listen to understand and offer support for a client to explore and find movement toward resolution. Sometimes just being really listened to makes a huge difference. Sometimes a client just needs another point of view. Sometimes a question or two can open up a whole new direction. Sometimes a technique can help.

When a positive shift has occurred, we move into the bodywork part of a session — to literally embody the change.

My client had overdone it with some physical activity and then made a ducking, twisting movement — and her back started spasming. After several days, the spasms were entirely gone and she went back to work…and they returned. She understood then that the spasms were probably tied to something else.

She had already done significant work on this before we met. She examined what had been happening emotionally before the injury occurred — especially in regard to work, because the spasms resumed when she went back to work.

She had been feeling irritated about some of her clients not taking care of themselves despite all she had put into their sessions. (This experience is pretty universal among health care providers.) She was just being with this awareness, not knowing what she was going to do about it, when she overdid it and started having back spasms. She put resolving this issue on hold.

Once she identified the unresolved issue, bringing it into the light, she made some changes in her work, and a deeper level of healing began.

She was still feeling like more exploration was needed when she came to me.

I asked how I could help, and she said maybe we could do a little tapping — EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique. I shared with her a version I like, and she tapped away as we talked.

With EFT, you identify what you are feeling. Behind the irritability, she recognized that she felt sad about not being able to help.

I asked if she could really know that she wasn’t helping these clients, and she said no.

Sometimes people have to step in the hole again (or a thousand times; see Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies) before they walk around it.

When someone finally makes a decision (or the decision makes itself) to walk around the hole, changing has become more attractive than not changing. Her clients’ experiences of her own healthy vibrancy, her work, and her commitment to well-being are of course part of the force-field that makes changing to healthier habits more attractive. It just might take them awhile to really be ready, though.

On her own, she came up with an inspiring course to take — if some of her clients are choosing the shadow over the light, and she’s resisting them doing that, then maybe now is a great time for her to examine her own shadow side.

Brilliant. Perfect for the season, too, as the nights get longer.

Then she got on the table, and I gave her a deep massage, which she had not previously experienced. She loved 9 points (TLC people, if you’re reading this, you’ll know what I mean). I reached some back muscle tenderness and melted into it.

She blissed out on the table, and I finished working on her, and we talked a little more, and she slipped away into the night — until we meet again.