One of the first steps of working with most clients is exploring their coping skills. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “I binge watch something on Netflix” or “I just scroll through (place social media site here)”, I’d have some serious vacation money saved up… helllooooo beaches of Costa Rica. The truth is, there are all sort of coping skills and they all fall on a spectrum. Some are good, some are just plain bad, some are context specific. But here is what I want you to focus on…
Are you tuning in or tuning out?
There is an important distinction. When we are feeling sad, stressed, or anxious, those feelings need to be dealt with, they don’t just go away. When I work with children I use a “feeling jar” to demonstrate this. I ask kids to write/draw a time when they felt _____ (mad, sad, frustrated… you get it), we crumple up the paper and shove it into the jar until there’s no room left and paper is bursting out of the top. I then tell them that when we shove our feelings down they don’t go anywhere, and when the jar is full… queue crazy shaking motion and paper flying everywhere… our feelings explode. This can come in the form of outbursts, anxiety, panic, and depressive episodes. Our feelings need an outlet.
Binge watching Netflix is a nice distraction, but is it an outlet? Are your feelings being processed, or just ignored?
I ask my clients to consider this all the time, even with skills we label as “healthy”, such as exercise. If you use your workout time to think through things, process feelings, pound anger into the pavement, allow anxiety to be left in wind as you run, that is tuning in. That is processing. If you workout to ignore your issues as you sweat and then grab that dopamine high, we might need to add some things to your repertoire.
And here’s a hot button issue… weed. It has been widely publicized that weed is helpful for alleviating symptoms of anxiety, pain, and depression. I’m not going to take a stance on that here, and I’m definitely not judging, but I will ask those who are using weed for these purposes to ask themselves the above question. Are you working through your issues, or ignoring them? If symptoms keep arising, then I would encourage further exploration into methods to process the underlying emotions rather than just dealing with the symptoms. That goes for all medications, natural or pharmaceutical.
Speaking of that, let’s talk processing.
To put it simply, processing is working through an issue or emotion. This can be done in a variety of ways both inside and out of the therapy room. Things you can do at home include:
- Journal– I get a lot of eye rolls with this one. I get it. I’m not talking about “dear diary” stuff. I also am not requiring daily journaling, although that would be great. I’m talking about taking dedicated time to explore a particular issue in the written format, whether it be just once, or readdressed over the course of days, months, or years. If you don’t know where to start, start right there. I encourage clients to start with “I have no idea what to write…” and see what comes out next. The benefit of journaling is that it provides a written record of the processing, and hopefully the journey of healing. I know clients of mine have enjoyed looking back at their progress.
- Letter writing– Oh boy do I love this one. Sometimes we have stuff to say, and we can’t say it to the person who needs to hear it. Maybe it’s because we are scared of losing an important relationship; maybe it’s because that person has passed; maybe it’s because that person is our boss and we don’t want to get fired. Write it ALL in a letter you never intend to send. Let it all out, whether its angry, sad, vulnerable, funny… put it all on the page and then do what you want with the letter. Keep it, rip it up, toss it; it’s yours. We all deserve to have our feelings heard, when that isn’t possible, this is such a great outlet!
- Talking– Of course, talking your issues out is a wonderful coping skill, it’s the foundation of therapy. But make sure you’re actually diving in, don’t just complain or recount a situation. Talk about your feelings, thoughts, experiences on a deeper level. Think about what might have caused the feelings both externally, but also internally. Choose someone who will not only listen, but will offer helpful reflection. Tune into that reflection and see what you can learn and how you can grow.
- Exercise– Do it mindfully. EMDR was actually discovered while walking through a park. Exercise can be incredibly therapeutic if you use it that way. Use the time to think through your issues, or use imagery to imagine letting go of unwanted stress or anxiety as your body moves.
- Mindful Practices– RAIN is a process where you recognize, investigate, and learn to not-identify with the emotions you are experiencing. This is less about processing and more about not “becoming” the emotion. However, it allows you to sit with the emotion and become familiar with what it’s presence feels like. A description of rain can be found on Mindful.org’s site. A wonderful guided meditation for working with difficulties, including difficult emotions, can be found at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center’s free guided mediation page.
There’s so many more too, find what works for you! The bottom line is that your feelings are important, and they don’t always go away on their own. Tune into them as a form of self care!