The imposed social isolation and focus on the negative news surrounding the COVID-19 virus spread may work as triggers for the fight or flight response. If you have a history of unresolved childhood trauma, you may feel even more vulnerable and experience the following effects of social isolation:
Fear: a nagging sense of collective fear may put your body in a state of hypervigilance, which, in turn, makes you more susceptible to feeling stuck in an excessive worrying and anxiety loop.
Abandonment feelings: not being allowed social contact could also work as a trigger for feelings of existential loneliness, rejection and abandonment. Even if these feelings do not make sense rationally, they do emotionally for those who have suffered abuse and/or neglect and, therefore, deal with the effects of their childhood trauma.
Anger: anger tends to follow abandonment feelings because it serves as to regulate them or give us back a sense of “self-esteem” and personal power. Being forced to isolate and cope with the negative emotions that arise from it without much emotional support can make you feel disappointed, resentful or even very angry for no apparent reason.
Lack of motivation: when the air is filled with negativity and there is little movement and fun in our lives, it becomes harder to find the energy to complete the simplest of tasks.
Lack of concentration: having your body on high alert for most of the time makes you limbic system or “emotional brain” hyperactive. As a result, our brain areas interconnected with the role of attention – as the pre-frontal cortex – do not get a chance to operate properly.
If you identify with the above to some degree, increasing self-awareness and keeping a very strict personal care routine could safeguard your emotional health during this challenging period. Practices that enable you to achieve that include nurturing the inner child via meditation and visualisations, daily exercise or physical activity, contacting friends and/or family and eating a healthy/low carb diet based on plants and whole foods. Reducing considerably or even avoiding the news while keeping an objective and positive outlook for the near future, as well as avoiding contact with pessimistic and fear driven people who refuse to see beyond an extremely biased and negative outlook may go a long way to making you feel more centred and calm. In addition, watching comedies, reading inspiring literature or watching uplifting talks and videos tend to put a smile on our faces and do wonders to improve our mood.
Mental health is all about emotional connection and acceptance. Our habit of judging and neglecting negative emotions, as well as our obsession with controlling them, often makes us more unhappy and unbalanced. If you are tired of fighting against yourself and the way you feel, and would like to rebuild a healthier relationship with your emotions, here is how to accept negative emotions:
1- Connect with the body
Emotions are expressed in the body. Therefore, anyone who wishes to fully connect with their emotions does so, primarily, through a reconnection with the body. You can achieve that through exploring bodily sensations such as those of tension and lightness. If you struggle to identify emotions, exploring your bodily sensations will give you a good sense of the impact your own thoughts and experiences have on you.
2- Become consciously aware of the presence of negative emotions
Instead of diverging your focus away from negative emotions or doing your utmost to repress or control them, become fully aware of their presence. You can do that by moving your attention towards them and creating a mental map of where they are felt in the body through direct observation of their intensity and movement, as well as the effect they have on you.
3- Observe them without judgement
Most of us were raised in a culture of emotional neglect in which “negative” emotions are thought to be an inconvenience that should be dealt with as soon as possible. Such attitude tends to be unproductive, however, since it has the potential of creating an even bigger problem. Avoiding, denying or repressing negative emotions are dysfunctional behaviours that often lead to emotional and physical problems. To prevent that from happening, just let them let them be and resist the urge to do something about them.
4- Validate their right to exist
Because all emotions are part of us, when we deny their wisdom and value, openly rejecting them through repression, avoidance or denial, we do so to the detriment of our own selves. Even when they do not seem coherent at first glance, they have a right to be brought to awareness. Every time you recognise a negative emotion with openness and respect, you become whole and complete in yourself.
5- Befriend your body
To become more tolerant of negative emotions, it is essential that you see your body as a friend. Self-love and acceptance is only viable through a strong alliance with our whole selves, mind and body. To befriend your body, change your beliefs about “negative” bodily sensations and emotions by regarding them as normal expressions of the self. Seeing them as fleeting also helps you approach them with patience, understanding and kindness.
The benefits of focusing your attention on emotions go beyond emotional regulation and wellbeing, but also help enhance your concentration abilities and regulate impulsive behaviour. To get the most out of the above, be mindful of how you feel and do what you can to remind yourself to think and act differently when worrying excessively or feeling anxious.
Despite enabling us to identify our needs and act in our best interest, anger is a misunderstood emotion. Because we tend to see anger in all-or-nothing terms, it is often perceived as a dysfunctional emotional expression. While anger tends to be connected to relationship problems and even abuse, it is not at all times experienced in its extreme form or linked to irrational behaviour. Anger also comes in a wide range of feelings and intensities, each with its own function and message, some of which are very powerful and motivational. To help you gain a greater understanding and respect for you anger, this article is dedicated to exploring it in detail.
The role of anger
Be it in its passive or more active form, anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone. When angry, we are reacting to an attack – real or imaginary – to our self-esteem, which leads us to feeling rejected, ignored, isolated, hurt or criticised. Anger also works as to give us back what we have lost from that (perceived) violation, namely, the respect and love for our own selves. Furthermore, anger is there to help us regain a sense of control over ourselves, as well as the negative emotions that surround it, such as sadness and fear. For that reason, anger also helps us regulate feelings of inadequateness.
Feelings related to anger
Frustration, irritation, resentment, annoyance and rage, for instance, are all forms of anger. When we are exposed to a great threat to our self-esteem for a long period, anger may be felt in its highest intensity and turn into hatred.
How anger is felt in the body
Like fear, an angry reaction is triggered by the amygdala. When we become angry, our brain prepares us to fight an enemy or flight the scene. As you will notice on the below list, the bodily sensations associated with anger are also the ones we tend to experience when taken by fear, another emotion connected to the fight or flight response:
Increased body temperature and blood pressure
Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
Adaptive and maladaptive anger
Adaptive anger is like any other negative feeling that is experienced in a functional manner. When we experience anger healthily, it lets us know that something is not right and, then, it fades away after a little while (on average, 20 minutes). In that sense, healthy anger is productive, because it serves a specific purpose at a particular point in time, so it is short-lived and context dependant. That type of anger also directs our focus to change, or helps us start contemplating it. When we are stuck with maladaptive anger, however, it is neither felt nor regulated in that fashion, but it tends to last longer (build-up anger) or shorter than needed to create awareness and motivate us to act, or it is used as a sole means for regaining a sense of power and safety. Our failure to process and deal with the problems highlighted by our anger – when it arises – might result in behavioural, physical and mental health problems, such as relationship difficulties, migraine headaches and depression.
What your anger says about you
The anger warning reminds you that your needs are not being met. The nature of those needs may vary, from feeling loved and valued, to emotionally balanced, in control or safe. Anger highlights vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, like a reminder of our limitations as individuals. Therefore, we feel angry when we cannot meet our goals for happiness and wellbeing. When our core beliefs are too rigid and do not match objective reality, we feel let down and angry, not only at ourselves, but at others and even life itself. The relationship we have with our anger – be it by repressing it or becoming reactive and acting out – is also connected to a history of unresolved childhood trauma.
Before rushing to judge, deny or hide your angry feelings, check in with yourself and try asking the following questions:
What needs have I got that are not being met?
What feelings of inadequacy may my anger be masking?
Is my anger productive or maladaptive?
By understanding your anger and registering its message, you start building a healthier relationship with it and yourself, so that all that energy that it so effectively triggers can also be directed to learning, better relationships and personal growth.
Even though most of us agree that self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem, fighting that self-sabotaging tendency is not as straightforward. That is because very few of us were raised with enough love and respect in order to build a solid base for our self-esteem, or an organic sense of unconditional self-love. Western upbringing is often the opposite of that, but largely affected by transgenerational trauma and controlling, perfectionist and punitive beliefs. Such values do not foster a healthy relationship with the self, but make a child feel like a third class citizen already from an early age. That process is noticeable in the internalisation of our parents’ critical voices, which become our “inner critic” or “gremlin”. Naturally, undoing that negative programming takes time and conscious effort. To help you understand what keeps you stuck on that self-hate mode, here is how we perpetuate self-despise:
Name-calling oneself with words of negative connotation such as “stupid”, “fat”, etc., is more harmful to your self-esteem than you think. Words stick, hurt and can easily become your truth. Moreover, the habit of saying them to yourself – even in a playful tone – is usually a sign that you are failing in loving and accepting yourself unconditionally. Labelling is one of your critical voice’s most powerful resources to shame and put you down. It is virtually impossible to value yourself when your self-appraisal vocabulary is mostly belittling and denigratory.
Despite corresponding to a self-sabotaging way of thinking and behaving, perfectionism is very common and widely accepted. Contrary to popular belief, however, always striving for excellence is not a positive trait, but a tendency that, in the great majority of instances, promotes intolerance and self-hate. We are not made for getting everything absolutely right, 100% of the time. The complexity of human beings – or the great variety of our emotional and physical states – does not allow us to be constant and express a single and unchanging pattern of behaviour. Insisting on “always doing your best” (and self-criticizing every time you do not achieve that goal) is like cognitive punishment for being human.
3- Emotional intolerance
Do you blame yourself and others for feeling anger, shame, sadness and fear? Do you feel ashamed for having and expressing negative feelings, inadequate or even angry when others allow themselves to honour their feelings in a non-abusive manner? If yes, you are emotionally intolerant. Emotional intolerance leads to self-contempt and a judgemental attitude, be it exclusively towards your own emotional states or others’. The habit of rejecting your human qualities, such as the ability to connect with yourself, the world and others trough emotions, makes you feel empty and inauthentic in the long term. As time goes by, you start feeling increasingly more alone and disconnected. As your disappointment in yourself grows, you keep the vicious cycle of self-hate alive, even when conscious of its dangers.
4- Unresolved childhood trauma
Excessive self-criticism, intense feelings of shame, inadequateness and sadness, as well as built-up anger are amongst the most common effects of developmental trauma. If you have never taken the time to process, both psychologically and emotionally, the adverse events that marked your childhood years, it is much harder for you to feel competent and loveable. Due to the insidious, prolonged and complex nature of childhood trauma, it tends to remain untreated for a long while, affecting the victim’s sense of worth, self-protection and self-preservation. There is no better environment in which to learn how to hate and despise oneself than that of toxic families. Abuse and neglect are renowned for leaving a lasting impression in trauma victims, compromising – if not addressed and terminated – their ability to value, protect and like themselves.
5- Rigid beliefs
Rigid beliefs are deeply connected to low self-esteem and other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Dysfunctional behaviours, such as the ones mentioned above, are created and kept by inflexible thinking filled with cognitive errors such as “all-or-nothing”. Firstly, you are much more complex than a single word is able to define. By the same token, making a mistake or not being able to hide your disappointment, for instance, does not make your whole self a failure. Rigid beliefs such as “I am boring” (labelling), “I can only feel proud of myself when I stand out” (perfectionism), “expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness“ (emotional intolerance) and “If I trust others, I will get hurt by them” (unresolved childhood trauma) rob you from your right to develop a rewarding relationship with yourself and others. It is as if only a negative, global and unchanging perspective were accurate.
If negative and critical remarks against yourself and your performance come more naturally to you than tolerant and self-compassionate ones, it is time to turn your focus to nurturing self-esteem. To fight that dysfunctional tendency, try out the following:
No more labels: stop being mean to yourself. Have a zero tolerance with labels and start catching and correcting yourself when you use words of a global and negative meaning.
Value your efforts: become a “glass half-full” type of person. Quickly step up to defend your efforts, and literally shut up your inner critic.
Stop judging “negative” emotions. Experiment with observing how you feel with curiosity. Do not fight your feelings, but embrace them and learn from them.
Heal your trauma wounds: if you suspect to have suffered childhood trauma, seek the help of a professional to reorganise your narrative and manage the effects of trauma.
Restructure your beliefs: choose flexible beliefs that reflect the adult and confident you, who is open to love and a fulfilling life.
Despite being extremely common, “trauma” often sounds too strong or scary a term to be included in our personal narrative. That is because trauma is largely associated with life-threatening experiences such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, accidents and war. It is, however, something that affects most of us and not only car accident victims or soldiers. In fact, trauma is so pervasive, that research has revealed it to affect the greatest majority of the population.
So if that is indeed the case, how do you know if you are one of millions of people who are suffering from trauma?
A traumatic event is any situation that is so deeply distressing to an individual that exceeds his or her ability to cope. Those negative experiences are not processed in the brain in the same way happy or “normal” memories are. Because those traumatic memories are not integrated into our memory network adaptively, they affect our psyches in a negative way. Trauma victims/survivors often struggle to let go of the past and manage their emotions effectively, as if they were still in the same vulnerable position they found themselves when the negative event/events took place.
As individuals, we experience life in unique ways. Pain itself is subjective. What can be traumatising to one person might not affect another as deeply. Overall, trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable, as well as our unconscious faith in the goodness of all people. It also vehemently challenges our idealised core beliefs surrounding safety, be it of ourselves in the world or in the presence of those who we know, love and that are supposed to love and protect us. In spite of our need to organise reality in a fixed and predictable manner, human experience is much more complex than our beliefs care to explain. When anything happens that strongly disturbs our foundations, there is a high probability that the whole self will suffer.
Bearing in mind all of the above, any upsetting event may be considered traumatic. We are particularly vulnerable as children to being traumatised by negative experiences that compromise our ability to keep an inner sense of safety. Since survival is primarily about finding protection against harm to the self and body, not feeling loved, seen, heard or acknowledged by parents, relatives or close friends can result in trauma. An unkind comment made by an angry parent, feeling humiliated by a teacher’s abusive remarks or being bullied by a troubled classmate also has the potential to unsettle a child’s or teenager’s sense of wholeness and inner goodness. If his or her pain is systematically ignored or not dealt with openly by an empathic, consistent and concerned caregiver, it may affect his or her own ability to cope with and overcome that pain.
Regardless of the frequency, intensity or characteristic of a stressful and traumatic event, its effects are very specific and real. When it comes to suffering from any type of trauma – be it “big” or “small”, of a psychological/emotional or physical nature, single or complex – what matters is how you feel as a result of what happened, and not necessarily what caused it. The list of trauma effects is extensive. If not recognised and dealt with proactively, they tend to impact one’s body, mind and relationships negatively for a long period of time. Unresolved trauma leads its victim towards an unhappy and dysfunctional path that tends to end in mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, addictions, depression, built-up anger, guilt and shame, amongst others.
So if wondering if you are suffering from trauma, I recommend not focusing on judging if what you went through “is bad enough” to be considered as such, but on how you are feeling. Have you struggled over the years to deal with intense emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, shame and anxiety effectively? Do you feel easily overwhelmed by them? Do you feel that life seems harder on you that it is on other people? Do you find it hard to know who you truly are? Do you struggle to build safe and stable relationships? Is it hard for you to talk about or even remember painful memories of your past? If you can identify with the points raised here and have answered yes to at least some of the above questions, there is a high probability that you are suffering from trauma and its effects.
Thankfully, they are treatable. If you would like information on how to heal from trauma and its effects, please contact me and learn how Attachment-Focused EMDR can help you regain control over yourself and improve quality of life.
Our emotions connect us to our selves, brains and bodies, as well as to the world around us. Without emotions, it would be impossible to understand what goes on outside and inside us. It would also be quite challenging to build relationships or identify what is good or bad for us, likes and dislikes. As obvious as that sounds, a great number of us is discouraged to express and even feel negative emotions such as sadness and anger already at an early age. Parents who cannot tolerate their own feelings of inadequateness and who tell their children that “boys don’t cry”, or that being angry is not “ladylike”, for instance, contribute towards the creation of the dysfunctional belief that emotional discomfort does not serve any purpose and should be avoided at all costs. As the child develops, he or she learns unhealthy coping strategies to “deal” with negative emotions, such as through repression, avoidance, denial and self-medication. As an adult, he or she is much more inclined to suffering from mental health problems such as addictions, depression and eating and anxiety disorders.
To help you change your beliefs about negative emotions and start building a healthier relationship with yourself and your own feelings, here are 5 reasons why negative emotions matter:
1- They keep you out of trouble
Negative emotions such as fear and disgust, for instance, warn you that something is probably not right and it deserves your attention. Your negative emotions comprise a very sophisticated alarm system that can detect potential danger to your health and wellbeing. Most mental health problems could be avoided if we listened to them more attentively. Any type of pain or discomfort, be it of a physical or emotional nature, is a call for some kind of reassessment. When you register that message and promptly respond to it by making the necessary changes to regain a sense of wholeness and life balance, your chances of thriving in whatever environment gradually increase. If you fail to notice your negative emotions or make an effort not to, however, be it in a conscious or unconscious fashion, you expose yourself to potential harm to your psyche, body and emotions.
2- They let you know what is important to you
Negative emotions help you connect to your true self. They assist you in focusing on what matters to you, by letting you know what does not. Felling unmotivated about the prospect of doing something or interacting with someone, for instance, may indicate how you truly feel in relation to the role you play in your life. An intense negative emotion has the power to give back a sense of autonomy and control over what might have been lost through a tendency to intellectualise suffering and not respect one’s own feelings and personal boundaries. Trusting your emotional compass is key, especially if you feel disconnected to how you think, feel and act, as well as life itself and others.
3- They help you connect emotionally with others
We communicate with others largely through body language and the language of emotions. That exchange is so automatic, quick and subtle, that it often occurs without our full awareness. When you shut out the channels that link you to your own negative emotions, you damage not only the relationship you keep with your own self, but also the ones you nurture with others. Being able to notice and respond to other people’s emotions, especially when negative, is vital to help you create an emotional and affectional bond with whom you love and care about. The inclination towards ignoring, normalising or even dismissing another person’s negative emotions, for instance, has the potential to ruin friendships and loving relationships, while being emotionally attuned to somebody else’s feelings strengthens and extends the life of healthy relationships.
4- They make you whole
As human beings, we experience a great array of emotions. Anger, sadness, disgust, anxiety, shame and guilt, as well as all other negative emotions, have a function. To reject them – as if they were useless or worthless – is to deny our own humanity. It is also an irrational and inconsequent behaviour that can have a detrimental impact on our overall health and relationships that we value. Acknowledging and allowing yourself to feel, express, tolerate and process negative emotions as well as positive ones, is what makes us congruent and coherent beings. Being true to your feelings (which does not mean being controlled by them) sends out the message that you are a perceptive, confident and conscious adult, who honours who you are and understands what life is all about.
5- They help you grow
Emotions, be them negative or positive, are invaluable sources of wisdom because they foster personal growth. They teach you what behaviours are productive and warn you against the ones who make you feel stuck and stressed. As you test and learn from your behaviours through your emotions, you become more skilled in finding your sense of self-direction, as well as more self-aware and independent. Emotions also help you navigate the social environment and connect with others through their pain and vulnerability, as it has been mentioned above. Emotions hardly ever lie, and even if they do, that in itself still has a purpose. Exaggerated or out of place emotional reactions also signal when something is not functioning as well as it should, or that a problem has not been properly addressed or dealt with. Regardless of the scenario, quality or intensity of your emotions, you always learn more about yourself, the world and those around you when you pay attention and listen closely to what they have to say.
Perceiving your negative emotions as a source of knowledge and even wisdom will enable you to build a harmonious relationship with your own body. If you find the concept of self-compassion relevant to emotional wellbeing and development, but have a hard time applying it in your own life, start befriending emotional negative states through a more tolerant attitude. Resist the urge to immediately tame your anger or normalise your sadness by noticing how they affect your body. Learn how to focus on and be with them until they lose their energy. If they persist, use thinking to initiate an internal dialogue between yourself and your emotions to find out what needs are not being met.