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It’s World Mental Health Day on October 10th. When talking about mental health, the focus is often on thoughts, so we want to spotlight another key aspect of mental health, your first aid for feelings.
Why is it important to have feelings?
We often feel that feelings get in the way. We may find ourselves thinking ‘how much better life could be if we didn’t have certain feelings. If they are so uncomfortable or even inconvenient, why do we have them?
“Feelings are information.”
Feelings are there to give us information about ourselves, who we are, what we like, what we don’t like, and what we need.
Take hunger, for example; if you never felt hungry, you wouldn’t know when to eat. And, if you don’t eat for long enough, you’ll lose consciousness and eventually even die. So, uncomfortable as hunger can feel, it’s actually vital to our survival.
Another example could be joy; if you never felt joy, you wouldn’t know what nourishes your sense of self and what you would like more off. Because joy is a pleasant feeling, we are more likely to seek it out, and so we feel more nourished and settled in ourselves.
Many of us think of ourselves as rational beings and that we are always able to apply sound logic to our experiences. Think again. Here are a couple of examples:
Deciding whether to have a second date
Let’s say you’re going on a blind date with someone who, for all intents and purposes, is perfect for you. You meet up, and you have a nice enough time, but there’s no attraction, there’s no spark. The rational logic may be that it’s a ‘no-brainer’ of course that you go on a second date. Still, chances are that you won’t, because your feelings are not giving you any clues that this is a good idea. By the same token, you may meet up with someone very different from what you thought you’d like in a partner, but your feelings are lighting up like a Christmas tree and voila, you propose a second date.
Choosing a new house or apartment
You’re looking for a new place, and you’ve got your criteria of what you want this place to have. You view a number of properties that fit the bill, but they just don’t feel right, and then an estate agent shows you this ‘wildcard’ of a property. Even though this property doesn’t have many of the features you thought were important to you, you decide that this is the perfect place for you.
How are feelings created?
Feelings come from the inside of your experience. They are generated by your physical sensations and your senses on the one hand and how that relates to your past experiences on the other.
A particular experience at a specific moment in time is often referred to as an ‘event’ in neuroscience. An event is, therefore, a combination of physical sensations like your heart rate and muscle tension coupled with what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, etc. Your brain then gives meaning to this ‘event’ based on your past experiences when these signals showed up in a similar event.
Therefore, your brain is acting like a meaning-making mechanism to help you choose how to respond based on the information provided from your feelings.
Are feelings and emotions the same?
We often use those two words as synonyms or as meaning the same thing, but actually, there’s a subtle but significant difference. The word ‘feeling’ applies to both physical sensations and emotions. Here is the explanation given by the Cambridge University dictionary:
Examples of physical sensations or experiences are for example pain, fatigue, tingling, arousal and hunger.
Examples of emotional experiences are, for example, joy, anger, anxiety, shame and love.
Here’s one way of distinguishing the difference between feelings and emotions: all horses are mammals, but not all mammals are horses. So it is with feelings and emotions. All emotions are feelings, but not all feelings are emotions.
Why do feelings need First Aid?
When your brain applies a meaning of ‘threat’ to your sensory input and the physical sensations and emotions that you are experiencing, a change happens in your body. Your resources are diverted from maintenance systems like digestion to your survival systems like heart, breathing and muscles.
What’s often referred to as the ‘stress response’ kicks in, and you either fight the threat or flee it and hopefully survive. If neither fighting nor fleeing is an option, you go into a state called freeze in the hope that the ‘threat’ passes you by and leaves you unharmed.
This primal survival response overrides most maintenance needs until the perceived threat has passed. So why does this matter for feelings? Well, one of the body’s most energy-intensive organs is the brain. In fact, it uses up to 20% of all your available energy. So it makes sense that when you need your resources to help you deal with a threat, some thinking functions are deemed unnecessary and practically taken ‘offline’.
Sounds like a brilliant mechanism, right? Well, yes, for threats like tigers where you don’t need those thinking functions to assess whether that tiger had breakfast. However, for 21st-century threats, accessing those thinking functions is vital to be able to respond constructively rather than react instinctively. You can read more about the stress response here.
First Aid for Feelings is simply that, first aid. It’s to be used in the moment and for the short term. It doesn’t replace therapy or self-development, both of which tend to be medium-to-longer term interventions.
What is First Aid for Feelings?
This is pretty much like medical First Aid, where one of the critical components is the ABC technique which stands for Airway – Breathing – Circulation. In First Aid for Feelings, it stands for Awareness – Breath and body – Choice.
By becoming aware of what’s activating your stress response, you can then use your breath and body to shift your biochemistry to access those more analytical thinking functions. When you can think more clearly, you can get curious about what your feelings are communicating. As a result, you are better equipped to make constructive and helpful choices about what’s going on.
I struggle to talk about my feelings; what do I do?
If you struggle to talk about your feelings, you’re not alone. Most of us do, and you’d be surprised at how many of us actually struggle with even just naming our feelings, let alone knowing how to respond to them. In fact, struggling to name your emotions has a name for it. It’s called: alexithymia and research show that it affects about 10% of us up to a significant level and many more of us to a lesser degree.
Speaking with someone can be helpful because you learn the language to talk about your feelings as well as learning how to understand the clues that your feelings are giving you. You learn what helps you work through your feelings in a way that’s helpful and constructive. This works in the same way as learning to read and write and is therefore often referred to as health and emotional literacy. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.
So how do you choose who you talk to?
Choose someone that you feel safe enough with. This could be a friend, colleague or a professional. The reason why feeling safe enough is so important is because your ability to access your thinking functions is affected by whether you feel safe or threatened. If you’re feeling unsafe with someone, it’s practically impossible to talk about your feelings.
Our invitation to you is to take your First Aid for Feelings as seriously for your mental and physical health as you would do your medical First Aid. You wouldn’t expect to go through life without cuts and bruises as well as some colds and maybe the flu, so why expect your feelings to always be pleasant and positive.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor
PLEASE NOTE THAT THOR A RAIN IS NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. THE HELPFUL CLINIC IS NOT A MEDICAL CLINIC AND THIS IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. FOR MORE INFORMATION CLICK HERE