August 2012: Ebbs and Flows
I am currently reading a book about trauma recovery called The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild (2000). While it is fascinating reading for myself, it certainly wouldn’t be for everyone. However, something I read just the other day has intrigued me and might be of interest for you as well.
When we talk of emotions, we tend to focus on the ‘negative’ ones such as sadness, anxiety, fear, grief. And sometimes when we get stuck in one of those states, we need to remind ourselves that said emotion will not last forever. When we feel stuck in sadness and are concerned about dipping into a depression, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that the sadness will not be permanent, it will pass. Sometimes all it takes is a good night’s rest or a proper meal. When we feel our anxieties rising, about to spiral out of control, we can remind ourselves that the anxiety attack will not overtake us, it too will pass. We may need to remind ourselves that we can handle a particular situation or that we are actually safe or can take safety measures.
What was new for me to consider was that no emotional state lasts forever—positive or negative. This would apply to positive emotions such as happiness, surprise, excitement, anticipation. In trauma recovery, this is important for survivors who have difficulty tolerating positive emotions as they can feel (be experienced in the body) similar to negative ones with accelerated heart rate and rapid breathing. The differentiating sensation will be body temperature—with ‘negative’ emotions, our body temperature drops whereas positive ones elicit a rise (p. 96).
We all have to learn to identify our emotions—for most it happens as we develop as children, for some it becomes necessary to acquire this skill in adulthood. Knowing how we experience emotions in our bodies is a key part of this skill. Tolerating these sensations is another aspect. And evidently knowing that none of these emotive states will last for long can help increase tolerance levels.
What intrigued me was not addressed in the book, but an idea that surfaced as I thought about happiness tolerance levels. So much of our lives are spent in the pursuit of happiness—or more likely, pleasure. It is an intrinsic value of our Western culture; whereas other cultures are more focused on family or daily survival. Obviously family and survival can contribute to happiness and pleasure. What intrigued me was our focus on happiness—which as an emotive state is fleeting in and of itself. We are constantly striving for something that is not naturally a stable state of being. We assume we are ‘supposed’ to be happy, and anything else is unacceptable. We bemoan ‘negative’ states of being and promote positive ones—when both are a natural part of life and neither lasts forever. Emotional states ebb and flow.
So what of longer lasting conditions such as depression, prolonged grief, chronic anxiety? While the same premise still applies (emotional states ebb and flow), we do sometimes find ourselves stuck in either an ebb or a flow. Depending on the person, that sometimes means medication to remind the mind and body how to function. For others, it requires a conscious choice to get help by other means (such as therapy, meditation, or better self-care with exercise, sleep, and nutrition) to help the mind and body get back into the natural ebb and flow once again.
Of course there are many layers to this premise that can be explored—such as what we do with our ebbs and flows of emotions. Even as I write this, my mood has improved by listening to upbeat music while a nasty storm slowly abates outside. The grey skies are gradually brightening, and I know the sun will shine once again. Just like the weather, there is one thing I can count on: my emotions are constantly in flux. What I choose to do with them is as important as that they exist—in their entire range—from ignoring them to appreciating and learning from them.
May you benefit from a full range of emotion—appreciating what you can experience and learn from each one.