Do you have a friend or two in the personal or professional development industry who you'd call a bit of an emotional warrior when it come to owning and processing their stuff? Maybe you are already wearing the badge of honour of being one? Have you ever also seen anyone going a bit overboard on the emotional processing bit, for whatever reason/s, or seemingly getting lost in the emotional depths? Or maybe (and hey, I'll own it, maybe like me) you've been that person too, who's had to remind yourself to slow down cowgirl/boy and give your body, not to mention loved ones and the external world at large time to catch up to and reconfigure in line with the awesome speed with which one can process insights of all kinds and hence, transform? This week, i've been thinking a lot about how to process our stuff in healthy, manageable ways and why that's so important. It starts a bit like this.
One way to think of processing our emotional stuff is that its a bit like diving. Doesn't matter wether it's snorkelling or scuba diving, the reality is that humans, as we are right now, have evolved to breathe oxygen and live on land, or on the water's surface. We can dive into the water, taking a deep breath or a tank of air under with us. But the breathable oxygen within it, relative to the accumulation of carbon dioxide on exhalation if you're holding a breath, is finite. More than that, the deeper you go, the more pressure and the more pressure, the faster you use up your air. But more concerning again, under the weight of that pressure the deeper you go, the spaces in the body filled with air begin to collapse/are crushed, thus we can't stay down there for long periods without serious consequences to our health.
Why is it the same for humans processing emotional "stuff?" Processing our past and present stuff also is physically stressful upon the body and our available energy levels. And the longer that stress persists, the greater the impact on our health and the risk of the development of further chronic emotional and physical illness. Generally speaking, the more traumatic the experience is perceived to be by the individual who experienced it, the more activation of the HPA axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Gland) occurs, eg the stress response pathway that involves both the brain and body, as well as the different hormones they each make, and the greater the physical changes in things like respiration, heart rate and metabolism occur in the short term to ready one for fight or flight and divert energy away from non survival essential functions in that moment, like digestion.
In the short term, your body putting "the pedal to the metal" so to speak to generate huge volumes of energy fast (requiring an equal discharge if not immediately utilised) depletes you, after the initial high of activity. When you're experiencing a challenge or threat, that energy is also potentially experienced as emotional discomfort eg fear, anger, overwhelm. The more overwhelming the threat is perceived to be, the more likely one will progress all the way to the freeze response; the state in which your body has both been activated at level 10 ready for action and then goes into a state of disconnection, collapse and worst case, loss of concsiousness at the same time. While the body can operate often in fight flight mode, the human body is not designed to operate continually in this state and needs downtime to return to functions like rest, digestion, cellular regeneration and waste removal, eg to do appropriate maintenance on itself.
When the massive amounts of energy are generated but not immediately utilised, our body has a natural shake response that kicks in, in the hours after a stressful event, that allows us to physically release the energy and tension built up during the event. Where that shake/and or emotional release is not allowed to occur/is repressed, trauma develops in the body and left undealt with ongoingly, can manifest as any number of mild physical ailments, like tiredness, headaches, digestive upsets, colds or flu, numbness, rashes, mild aches or pains, sexual dysfunction. Or emotional concerns, like depression (or as i like to call it, repression) or anxiety (attempted expression). Or for greater trauma, more complex physical illnesses like CFS, Fibromyalgia, MS or worst case, cancer and can manifest as PTSD and automatic freeze (survival) responses.
Because the brain can't tell the difference between a present event and experiencing a past one, processing your past stuff in the present via any number of somatic or expressive therapies or cathartic means can be experienced as no less physically impactful/stressful as a strong threat in the present moment, like someone taking a swing at you. And it's for this reason that processing our stuff needs to be considered a bit like diving. Because it's so potentially impactful, we need to be careful to do it in manageable doses:
What a manageable dose is, is considered different for everyone. For some people, 10mins might feel like a lot. I personally, after decades of working at this, find that i can easily handle up to a 2hr session at a time and that's my limit and know several Psychosomatic therapists who, certainly when it comes to processing childhood trauma, agree. By the end of that, i'm starting to feel physically shaky and emotionally irritable and that's my final cue that i've had enough and need to rest and integrate. (But since i've perfected my highly intuitive process to be a lot faster than that now, and or bypass a lot of unnecessary extra irrelevant detail, I can complete any process feeling relieved, peaceful, complete and balancing back out into the positive emotional spectrum.)
The other thing about processing that's worth noting, is that, at times, it also becomes trickier underwater, than on the surface, to, say, see or hear, right? Because our eyes and ears aren't as well adapted to water, like, say, a dolphin's are. Plus, if a sudden undercurrent from some nearby rocks, or something like a shark disturbs us (and certainly when we're in the depths of feeling the feels,) it can sure feel like we're getting bounced around in a washing machine and we forget which way is up. Up of course being the exit. But the point is, especially where it's dark or murky, we can start to lose ourselves and perspective down there. So it's important to build something into our processing that reminds us to check our oxygen supply and come back up to the surface. That might be putting on a playlist that you know runs a certain amount of time. That might be setting reminders in your phone about an end time. Or planning to process for the length of a workout. Or it might be asking a friend or hiring a Therapist of some kind who does somatic, expressive or energetic work to help hold the space for you to do the process and guide your process. Just so long as we have a process that, by the end of it, guides us back to the surface. The surface in this instance, being the vision of living a professional and personal life we love and the living embodiment of action taken towards it's ongoing realisation, as well as making time to stop and smell the roses and be present to life's everyday gifts.
Until next time, have fun, take care.
Nat talks about Self Expression, Heart Centred Communication and Lifestyle for Leaders.