Tackling Anxiety: Feel It To Heal It

Tiring day in the office

Breakdown is the precursor to breakthrough – Alan Cohen

                In Part One of the “Tackling Anxiety” series, Change Your Brain, I discussed how to handle anxiety from a cognitive standpoint. I used the example of talking anxiety that arises for the self-employed – that one day the phone will just stop ringing and you’ll never receive any work again. My friend, a dentist who has been running a thriving practice for more than thirty years, admits that he still feels anxious when he arrives in the office on a Monday morning, convinced that no patients will show up that week. Calming our fears with our brains is one method – but it is only one method.

Fears can persist and if they do, there is usually an underlying set of emotions that need to be addressed. So, after I’ve challenged the fearful thoughts that run through my brain it’s time to get in touch with my emotions. A wise therapist from many years ago taught me, “You have to feel it to heal it”, as I rolled my eyes and sighed. She was annoyingly corny, but she was also right.

I remember sitting in her office as a teenager as she asked, “Yes, but how do you feel about that?” I would reply, “Well, I think…” and she would retort, “I know what you think about it, but how do you feel about it?” Sigh. Typical therapy, right? It’s always about feelings. I wasn’t so much of a ‘feeler’ as an ‘analyzer’. If I can break down a situation into logical components then I can tackle it and overcome it. What was so wrong with that approach?

This particular therapist wasn’t having any of that. She leaned to the side, grabbed a green piece of paper and handed it to me. The paper was an extensive list of feelings including ‘sad’, ‘wistful’, ‘excited’, ‘contented’, ‘anxious’, ‘guarded’, etc. I scanned it and was able to identify those feelings that resonated with me in that moment. Hey, maybe I could get in touch with my feelings.

We often resist feeling our feelings because they can feel… really bad. Perhaps we hold on to feelings and refuse to express them because we fear that once they start, they’ll never stop. We may fear that our feelings are so overwhelming that if we recognize them we’ll just go crazy. Perhaps our fear is that once we really take a look at those feelings, everything will seem worse than we originally anticipated.

We may protect ourselves, at least in the moment, by staying numb to our feelings. We may drink, smoke, take legal or illegal drugs, eat or sleep too much or too little, keep too busy, watch too much television, shop too much, hold on to clutter or surf the web too much. The trouble with these approaches is that the more we hold fear inside, the larger it looms and the more it drains our energy. Unexpressed feelings result in depression and anxiety. They also seep into our relationships and can ultimately destroy them.

Rather than face a few terrifying moments expressing really bad feelings, some people stay in emotional limbo for years. They never really feel the bad feelings but they never really feel the good ones, either.

The more we express our feelings no matter how bad things “really” are the better we feel. Getting into the habit of crying along with a sad movie, expressing anger or disappointment to someone diplomatically, beating a pillow with a bat, venting with a trusted friend or running up a 10-mile hill while cursing out someone in your head, can really be cleansing. Preparing to do all of that while having a friend or advisor on hand for support is even better.

Negative feelings are like waves, they rise up and they can come crashing down on us, but once they do, there is calm on the other side. I am always amazed at how much better I feel afterward – even if whatever situation I am upset about hasn’t changed one bit. It may take more than one doozy of a session of feeling your feelings to move one from them for good, but it will happen in time.

In what ways do you express your uncomfortable feelings?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.