Bearing Our Souls: A Crash Course in Soothing the Overwhelming Emotions of a Pandemic – Part 4 – Layers & Flavors of Emotion
To listen to an audio reading of this post, click here or go to bit.ly/BearingSouls4Audio
During the first week of my city’s pandemic-stanching stay-at-home orders, I felt as if an enormous hand had slammed into the center of my chest to shove me backwards, and had left me abruptly sitting bruised on the floor of my life with eyes wide open, blinking back startled tears.
Any time I sat quiet and still, that emotional state broke through, paralyzed me, took my breath away.
I soon understood that my bewildered, knocked-back state was revealing an emotion akin to surprise: One day my husband and I were ensconced in our neighborhood, surrounded whenever we wanted by the friendly faces of people we cared about, even if we didn’t know their names. The next day, we were locked in our house with no way to connect with or check up on those folks who made up our circle of community.
This feeling of surprise was specific and intense. It was an aching, existential, sickening sensation of astonishment that accompanied the suddenness of having our social ties ripped away.
No good name exists for this emotion, so I’ll call it the I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye emotion.
Once I was able to name that I was consumed by a feeling of astonished I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye, I began to cry — tears of missing those people, tears of worry about their welfare, tears of helplessness about being able to check on them. Accessing the tears of this sad form of surprise alleviated my paralysis.
Naming my feeling specifically and accurately allowed me to express it. Expressing it connected my body and soul to each other in a way that was a balm to the woundedness of the situation.
Being stuck in paralysis felt stultifying. In contrast, fully experiencing I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye was painful, yet enlivening.
This example illustrates the essence of what I wrote in Part 3 of this series, “Name It to Tame It,”:
When you’re wrestling with or paralyzed by an emotion and you offer yourself kindness and presence and become gently curious about what, specifically, you’re feeling, you might be able to discern exactly what the emotion is. And accurately naming your emotion causes your brain to spray soothing neurotransmitters into your right lower brain to calm it.
In this calmer state, the act of putting words to the specific emotion you’re feeling begins the process of making sense of it. Making sense of the emotion helps you discern what actions, emotional expressions, or distractions will truly help you move through your feelings, or healthily bear your emotional state if it’s ongoing.
This example also illustrates how emotions are not only the ones we’re most familiar with — sadness, anger, fear, surprise, happiness, etc. Emotions are nuanced, and they’re in reference to multiple layers of experience. Like I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye.
The more specific you can be about what you’re feeling and what the feeling is about, the more soothing and help you can offer to yourself (and to your loved ones).
Permission to Play With Emotion Words
To name your feelings specifically, first you need permission to hold the process lightly.
Let yourself be playful and creative when you’re curious about what, exactly, you’re feeling.
You just saw me make up a name for my emotion. It’s an awkward name. No matter! It resonated deeply with my experience and unlocked soothing and emotional expression for me. It might also ring true for you, or it might not. That’s okay.
So don’t be embarrassed to play with ideas about what your specific feelings might be named.
Think of it like naming a pet, like Charlie, or Patches, or Life-Saver. That is, the emotion’s name can be an actual name (like anger), or it can be a quality (like torn-in-two), or it can be a felt sense of an overall experience (like I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye).
And don’t worry about whether anyone else has ever named that feeling or not. Mostly likely, lots of people have experienced it. You’d be surprised! Yet even if yours is a once-in-a-universe feeling, it’s YOUR feeling. So name it whatever you want.
Another thing that can help you name your feelings is to learn about what kinds of feelings are common in crisis and upheaval situations.
That’s what’s missing from mental health articles that suggest activities for distracting from emotions, or the ones that talk about grief as a standalone emotion — they leave you alone feeling I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye, or I’m-scared-my-old-life-is-gone-forever, or healthy despair.
That’s what the rest of this article will be — an elaboration of types and layers of emotions that typically emerge during times when things you thought were stable have come undone.
To ease your exploration of emotions, I’m giving you permission for three more things:
1) It’s possible to feel more than one emotion at a time. No one tells you this, but it’s true. You can feel heartbroken and outraged that your wedding had to be postponed, while you feel grateful you have a job. You can feel frustrated and overwhelmed about having to work from home while overseeing your kid’s education, and relieved that your family is getting to stop rushing in the mornings. (Read my piece, Stretch Your Heart to Feel >1 Emotion: You Won’t Regret It for more on this.)
2) Feelings arise unbidden. Comparison doesn’t make sense. Related to #1, this means it’s okay to feel pain even if you have it better than someone else. In fact, one of the outcomes of turning toward your own painful feelings with compassion for yourself is connection to the pain of the world, which yields a deeper sense of care for others than you feel if you distance yourself from your own pain. It’s also okay to feel okay, even if others are hurting. When you feel okay while others are hurting and you allow yourself to feel your okay-ness, gratitude for what you have often emerges, and that’s a good thing.
3) Emotions are neither positive nor negative. I encourage you to learn how to understand and express all of your emotions, not just the “good” ones. I hate that our culture uses the words positive and negative to refer to emotions. That gives painful emotions a bad rap. All of your emotions, including painful ones, are evolutionarily wired into you to lead you toward adaptive actions. It’s only when emotional expression and regulation is thwarted that emotions start to have a negative effect on you. You’ll see some of those effects described below. Instead of using the terms positive and negative, you’ll see me use the terms painful and expansive.
Common Emotions During Times of Upheaval
1) Grief, of course
You’re likely grieving the loss of many things, large and small. You can feel grief about the loss of a loved one, the loss of security, the loss of a way of life, the loss of hopes and dreams, the loss of plans.
It can get confusing, because grief is both an emotion unto itself, and a set of emotions that make up the grief process. Here I’ll elaborate on the different emotions that can be aspects of the grief process.
SADNESS — This one is pretty obvious. The feeling of grief is the sadness we most often associate with the word grief. Yet even this sadness is specific.
The sadness of grief is a sense of feeling bereft, which means “to feel deprived and desolate” because something or someone important is gone. (Any of these words might describe your specific feeling.)
PROTEST — We often hear that anger is part of grief. The specific kind of anger that’s part of grief is a protest against a disruption in a relationship or in a life. It’s saying to the universe, “I don’t like this!” Or better yet, “I HATE this!”
Protest can also have the quality of outrage at injustice. Like yelling, “This isn’t fair!”
Even if underneath everything you might believe this pandemic situation isn’t aimed at you personally, or even if you know that raging against the injustice of it all isn’t going to change the circumstances, expressing the emotions of protest is important: If you feel this type of anger, expressing it will prevent depression.
SHOCK — Shock is a form of extreme surprise. A sense of unreality. A feeling that what’s happening can’t possibly be real.
Shock can show up as numbness, forgetfulness, extreme fatigue, zoning out, distractibility.
Shock can come and go. And shock can last much longer that you’d think.
I’d say my I-didn’t-get-to-say-goodbye emotion was a flavor of shock. (See how I put my unique and life-specific spin on this general emotion?)
LONGING or YEARNING — When you have lost events, dreams, people, ways of life, ideals, or anything else that’s important to you, the emotions of longing for what you’re missing can be intense and deep. Even if what you’ve lost is irreplaceable, longing for what you’re missing is a much-needed emotion.
Longing is life-force reaching for something. And if what you’re reaching for isn’t there, there will of course be sadness.
Yet the reaching that’s generated by longing will lead you to reach for comfort, or help, or the next thing in life that will fill at least some aspect of the void that’s been left by what you’re missing.
DESPAIR — We’re taught that despair is bad and that it leads to depression or suicide. That’s why we need to get specific, because our emotion words are not nearly nuanced enough.
Despair that’s more like pointlessness or nihilism feels stuck and unmoving. This kind of despair can indeed lead to thoughts of suicide or to a paralyzed depression, and it’s actually a result of suppressed emotional expression. If you feel this kind of despair, please get help. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong, but it does mean you need someone to understand you and help you get your emotions moving.
The kind of despair I’m talking about here, healthy despair or healthy hopelessness, is an existential emotion that emerges in the process of grief when you realize that you really, truly cannot fix the problem or bring back the lost person or thing. That aspects of life are truly 100% impermanent.
This kind of despair is a form of deep sadness that arises from facing existential truths head-on. It calls for comfort and soothing, not eradication. This kind of despair is, paradoxically, what leads to freedom and acceptance (see below).
WARRIOR ENERGY — Sometimes when you’re in the middle of a devastatingly painful situation, a deep sense of determination arises. This kind of determination feels like an activation of your body and your limbs that makes you want to forge ahead.
You might feel this as a desire to fight for the rights of people who are less fortunate, to stand up for your own needs or the needs of people you care about, or to simply get yourself up and sit in front of the computer screen to do your work even though you’re exhausted and fried from this whole situation.
Note that this emotion is a positive drive to keep moving, not a violent forcing of yourself to do things that you should consider not doing.
Disappointment is an emotion we don’t talk about much. Disappointment is a specific flavor of grief, and it’s ubiquitous in times of lost dreams. If not allowed, disappointment can morph into toxic emotions like resentment, shame, or depression.
We tend to think of disappointment as a small emotion, like “I’m disappointed I missed that movie when it was playing at the theater.”
Yet disappointment can be deep and wrenching.
When you spent a year planning your wedding and you have to slam on the brakes and postpone it at the last minute because of a pandemic, the level of disappointment can be excruciating.
When you’re a high school senior and you don’t get to have your prom, or your awards ceremonies, or your final weeks of school with your friends, or your graduation ceremony, disappointment can be anguishing.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to name disappointment as distinct from and in addition to grief itself.
Disappointment is the feeling that slams in when you’re on an upswing, with arms wide open, full of excitement and hope, and then you get cut off at the knees midstride. Blindsided.
To go suddenly from an upward arc of hope and joy to a slapped-down bereftness is one of the most painful physiological emotions that exists.
This emotion can arise from enormous live events, plans, and dreams getting thwarted, like the examples above, and from more everyday things, like not being able to get together with friends for dinner.
This disappointment is often in the mix of the grief process. Yet it’s an emotional state unto itself. Disappointment can manifest with the other feelings of grief listed above — outrage, longing, despair, etc., but it helps you to feel more understood when you realize that those emotions are flavors of disappointment as well as of bereftness.
Don’t get me started on loneliness. I’m working on an entire article about the nuances of loneliness. Here, let’s simply get clear that loneliness is a normal human emotional response to feeling a lack of human connection.
There’s much ado in the media these days about loneliness being some sort of disease that causes all kinds of health problems.
Yes, loneliness is painful.
Yet my experience as a person who spent 11 years consumed with lonely feelings after my husband died, and as a therapist who helps people with loneliness is this:
If the emotion of loneliness is expressed and understood, the pain might be intense and long-lasting, but health problems don’t arise.
It’s when we’re left alone with the emotion of loneliness that problems arise. That is, when no one understands our loneliness.
When the expression of loneliness is thwarted by shame about being alone, by fear of the loneliness itself, or by well-intentioned people trying to talk you out of it or trying fix it with dumb suggestions (when it can’t be fixed), then you end up with that intense emotion becoming trapped in your body with no place to go. There it can fester and cause problems.
Many, many people are struggling with loneliness right now. Please know that understanding and expressing it (to yourself via a journal or to others who care about you) will help you to bear the very real, normal, ongoing sense of longing for social engagement you feel, and will keep your loneliness from turning into something hurtful.
First, just as despair not the same as depression, fear is not the same as anxiety. Anxiety is a state of tension and agitation that’s actually a distraction from deeper emotions. Coming to understand and work with what you’re feeling (like all the feelings I’m talking about in this article) can alleviate anxiety. And many times anxiety hovers above actual fear.
Fear itself is adaptive when it can be expressed in a way that’s understood. The adaptive action that emerges from a true expression of fear is the facilitation of appropriate defensive responses that can reduce danger or injury.
There’s a lot during this time of COVID-19 that you might realistically be afraid of: you or a loved one getting sick or dying; job loss; financial problems; etc., along with the very real fear we humans can feel when facing uncertainty. (See Part 2 of this series, Why Uncertainty Is Scary, for an extensive exploration of that fear.)
Like loneliness, fear only becomes problematic when it’s unsafe to express it. Without expression, it’s hard to tend to fear in a way that’s helpful.
If you can express your fear — that is, name it specifically to someone who understands or in your journal, the fear can be gently and kindly examined to see if it’s realistic or not.
If it is realistic, you can determine if your fear informs and warrants a response that will get you out of danger (like practicing social distancing and wearing a mask), or if your fear simply needs you or someone else to reassure you that you will figure out a way to be okay, even if the worst happens.
If the fear is not realistic, determining that very unrealistic-ness can help you soothe yourself by understanding the uncertainty and upheaval of this entire situation are causing you to be jumpy and afraid of things you don’t need to be afraid of.
5) Expansive Emotions
Most of the emotions I talked about above are painful, and everyone is feeling some flavor of pain in the midst of this pandemic. At the same time, there are many emotions you might be experiencing that feel expansive. Expansive emotions that often emerge during a time of intensity include:
a deepened sense of connection to self and others,
hope for a renewed future,
sensitivity to goodness,
Remember that your heart is built to feel more than one emotion at a time, so these emotions might emerge at times on their own, at other times interwoven with painful emotions, and at others as a result ofthe painful emotions.
(That’s right! When you learn to understand and express your painful emotions, these expansive emotions are often byproducts of that very expression.)
ACCEPTANCE — There’s a myth in our culture that a goal during times of difficulty — like grief, illness, uncertainty, etc. — is a state of acceptance. And that acceptance looks like a constant, unruffled state of serenity. You’ll never be upset or hurt by the difficult circumstances again.
That’s unequivocally false!
The countless mindfulness and distraction practices touted by many of the pandemic mental health articles seem to me to be attempts to get rid of the painful emotions and achieve this calm acceptance. This attitude is based on that idea that acceptance means we don’t have to feel distress.
Yet ridding ourselves of distress is impossible. And the attempt to do so can cause painful emotions to morph into toxic ones.
Instead, acceptance is finding peace within the storms of life, not an escape from them. (See my post Serenity? Sorry. Freedom Is NOT An Escape for an in-depth exploration of this concept.)
When you can understand that, no matter how painful, emotions are simply experiences that flow through you to give you information and to heal you, you can experience them with all of their intensity in your body and your heart, and trust that life is unfolding as it should.
JOY — Having the courage and support to allow and not block your feelings, to learn to be at peace with even enormous inner upheaval, leaves you supple, flexible, not clenched.
You might just find that you touch into a raw, tender, almost sacred sense of enlivenment that I call joy.
Joy is different from happiness. Joy is the feeling that washes through you when you are open to your entire life’s experience, from high to low, dark to light.
The joy of feeling it all, the joy of being connected to all humans via shared vulnerability to suffering. The joy of true freedom, no matter how roiled your insides are.
Take All This and Make It Your Own
I hope you can use this compendium of emotions that are common during times of upheaval, like this coronavirus time, as a jumping-off point into an exploration of your own, specific, nuanced emotions.
Remember that the more accurate you can be in naming what you’re feeling and what the feeling is about, the more soothing and help you can offer to yourself (and to your loved ones). So mix and match these emotions and add your unique life experiences to the concoction as you discover names for your emotions that click in your heart and your body with that sense of just-right.
In the next post, Part 5 of this series, I’ll give you ideas of how to work with, express, soothe, and helpfully distract from those emotions you discover.