Why you need to *feel* it, in order to *heal* it: Learning to tolerate difficult emotions

Let’s face it, feeling bad is no fun. Sadness, anger, anxiety – these emotions come with a hefty dose of discomfort. It’s no wonder we often try to push them away, bury them deep, or distract ourselves until they (hopefully) vanish.

But here’s the thing: emotions, even the unpleasant ones, are like internal messengers. They carry information about our needs and values. When we shut them out entirely, we lose touch with this valuable information. This disconnection, according to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), can actually lead to bigger problems down the line.

The Trap of Avoidance

Imagine Sarah, overwhelmed by work stress. She reaches for a glass of wine each night to numb the anxiety. Or maybe David, struggling with relationship issues, escapes into hours of video games, leaving the real problem unaddressed. These are avoidance behaviors – attempts to push away difficult emotions with substances, activities, or even fantasies.

While avoidance might offer temporary relief, it creates a cycle. The more we avoid our emotions, the less equipped we become to deal with them healthily. This, in turn, can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Making Room for What Is

ACT suggests a different approach: psychological flexibility. Instead of fighting our emotions, we learn to accept them as part of the human experience. We practice mindfulness, observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment. This allows us to see emotions for what they are – fleeting experiences – and not get caught up in their stories.

By creating space for our emotions, we can then choose actions aligned with our values. Sarah, for instance, might decide to set boundaries at work and prioritize self-care. David could choose to communicate openly with his partner.

Taking the First Step

Learning about psychological flexibility and ACT can be a powerful tool for navigating life’s challenges. Here’s a great resource to get you started:

So, what to do if the situation is an unacceptable one, as it is traumatic or dangerous to remain?

That’s a great question. ACT emphasizes both acceptance and commitment to valued action. When a situation is truly dangerous or traumatic, acceptance doesn’t mean staying stuck. It means acknowledging the situation for what it is and the emotions it evokes, while also committing to action that protects yourself and aligns with your values. Here’s how ACT principles can help:

  1. Acknowledge Your Emotions: Validate your feelings of fear, anger, or sadness. It’s completely understandable to feel this way in a dangerous situation. Trying to suppress them will only cloud your judgment.
  2. Identify Your Values: What’s important to you? Is it safety? Freedom? Protecting yourself or someone else? Connecting with your core values can guide your next steps.
  3. Defuse from Unhelpful Thoughts: Traumatic situations can trigger negative thought patterns like “I can’t escape” or “It’s my fault.” Practice mindfulness to observe these thoughts without judgment and let them go.
  4. Commit to Action: Use your accepted emotions and identified values to take action. This might involve setting boundaries (e.g., “I will not tolerate this behavior”), asserting yourself verbally (“This needs to stop”), or even leaving the situation entirely.

Remember: Leaving a dangerous situation is a form of self-care, not giving up. It’s a commitment to your value of safety. Here are some additional tips:

  • Develop a Safety Plan: Think through escape routes, trusted people to contact, and resources available if you need to leave a dangerous situation.
  • Seek Support: Don’t be afraid to reach out to a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or hotline. Talking about what you’re going through can help you feel less alone and empower you to take action.

By accepting your emotions and focusing on your values, ACT empowers you to take decisive action to protect yourself and move towards a healthier situation. It’s a journey, and there will be challenges, but remember, you’re not alone.

Ready to Embark on Your Journey to Recovery?

If you’re tired of struggling with Depression, Anxiety, and Low Self-Esteem, it’s time to take action. I invite you to schedule a consultation today to discuss how CBT Therapy can help you overcome these challenges and reclaim your wellbeing. 

Schedule your consultation today and take your first step towards a brighter and more fulfilling future.

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