Emotional pain can take many forms: feelings of anxiety, fear and worry; feeling blue, sad, and lost; feeling lonely or isolated; feeling angry and frustrated.
Emotional pain can be confusing and frightening, especially when it is present for long periods of time.
This pain can hijack our mind. Can fill it with fanciful stories and illogical conclusions. It tells you that you are flawed, that others are flawed, that the world is a dangerous place, and that everything is hopeless. Emotional pain often deals in absolutes. Everything is crap. Everyone is dangerous. I am useless.
Painful emotions often tell us that how life has been, is how it will always be. If you’ve been hurt, you will always be hurt. If you’ve been ignored, you will always be ignored. Painful feelings often cling to the past and use those memories to paint a bleak looking future.
Not content to just torment our minds, emotional pain can hijack our bodies. Causing anything from the knot in our stomach, to an overall feeling of heaviness. Emotional pain can feel like a weight we carry, as much in our bodies as in our minds.
At its worst, emotional pain tells you you are not worth anything, and that the world and the people in it would be better off without you.
Those who have struggled with emotional pain (which is just about everyone, myself included) will acknowledge how debilitating it can be. When its there, it’s like you will always feel that way, that you’ll never again find any sort of equilibrium.
But those who have withstood emotional pain will also tell you other things, that aren’t as obvious or clear to us in the middle of our distress. They will tell you that negative emotions aren’t a prison sentence. That they aren’t a permanent state of affairs. That there is a natural ebb and flow to our emotional world that we forget when we are in pain.
Those people will tell you that the supposed “truths” painful emotions tell you about yourself, others and the world are rarely completely true and often blatantly incorrect. The truth is always more nuanced. If you make a mistake, you won’t always make mistakes. If others are cruel, they won’t always be cruel. If you’ve lost, you won’t always lose. If the world seems messed up, there will always be pockets of hope and joy and generosity.
People who have confronted emotional pain will tell you that sometimes you will just have to sit back and welcome and accept negative emotions into your life. We can’t eradicate them altogether. To do so would be absurd. We need negative emotions to alert us to damage being inflicted on our person, our minds, our souls. Painful emotions are often there to trigger us to change.
But they will also tell you that beyond their role as a useful alarm system, you have much more control over your emotional world than you think.
Remember, thoughts and feelings (the contents of our minds) are electrical and chemical in nature – the result of neurons firing, hormones flowing, a vast and complex neurochemical soup. Even the bacteria in our gut play a large role in our mental health. And because of that, emotions and thoughts change, as our chemistry and physics changes. Think of that first coffee in the morning. The first sip of beer after a hard day. The feeling of a refreshing sleep.
Changing your diet will change your mood. Exercising more or less will change your mood. Breathing deeply and intentionally will change your mood. Inviting people into your life, supporting them and having them listen to you will change your mood (and theirs).
But I warn you – emotional pain is sneaky and underhanded. It tells you that there are only complex solutions, that you must sort out your problems in your head. It will dismiss all of the stuff above as ‘nonsense’. It will tell you that your pain is different, that it won’t respond, and that others won’t understand. With all due respect to your mind though, if it is anything like mine, it is pretty good at leading you astray during times of distress.
If you want to feel different, you have lots of choices. You can write, talk, breathe. You can use prescription drugs (obviously after appropriate consultation) or therapy. You can hack your diet, get more physical activity, and sleep better. You can resume activities that once brought you joy. All will change your mind. All these lifestyle and behavioural changes will change your thoughts and feelings.
Don’t for a second think that I am telling you that your emotional pain is not real. It is. I know, at times, it feels like it is crushing you.
And also don’t think that because I am proposing some seemingly simple strategies for emotional management that it somehow minimises the extent and impact of your feelings. Some of the most traumatised people have used simple strategies and combinations of strategies to get their lives back on track – therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes.
I’m telling you this because it is important for you to remember there are ways out. Ways out that your mind won’t tell you about.
So read books about the mind, talk to people (friends, family, colleagues, professionals), learn and study. Train your mind. Feed it well, with new knowledge, ideas, concepts, nutrition and oxygen (exercise). Embrace and nurture the part of you that is causing you the grief. Have compassion towards your mind and towards your feelings.
If this sounds kinda hopeful, but you don’t know where to start, contact us here at health and counselling services and have a confidential chat to one of our GP’s or counsellors. If you are not a Flinders, student, start with your local GP, or one of the many online counselling services. Or you might just want to start reading or watching more widely. A great place to start is the School of Life YouTube channel.
But honestly, just making a decision to treat the stories your distressed mind is telling as potentially fictional is an excellent first step. You can then start the process of trying to create a new story for yourself.