Avoiding our emotions is a breeding ground for heightened anxiety.
It’s true. Hear me out.
Emotions are our body’s alert system, and we can look at anxiety as a distress signal. Often it is felt throughout our body—tension, increased heart rate, shakiness, just to name a few examples.
I like to think of it as a tea kettle. When the heat is turned up, the water starts to boil. One bubble rolls to the surface, then a few more. Soon there is a rolling boil, increased pressure, and the loud, high-pitched whistle. When you’re making tea, this means the water is ready.
And when you’re avoiding your feelings, it means your body is screaming at you. Not relaxing, like a hot cup of tea. Actually, anxiety is everything that’s the opposite of relaxing.
You feel the tension, the shakiness, the racing heart, and racing thoughts. And if the “heat” is turned up enough, the pressure builds and squeals, until it begins to boil over. At that point, you may even experience a full-blown panic attack. Many individuals have described these moments as feeling like they are having a heart attack, having trouble breathing, and fearing that they are close to death.
It is unbelievably scary, and undoubtedly real.
So, if anxiety is the building of pressure followed by the whistle that signals something is wrong, what are the bubbles?
They are the many emotions we experience throughout our days, compounded by weeks, that are left unattended. They are the emotions that are “stuffed down” or “bottled up”—defended against by the unhealthy coping mechanisms we have used to stay as far away from feeling as possible.
As it turns out, they don’t go away. They build. And soon your body is screaming at you to do something, anything, to relieve all of this pressure. There are a million ways this can look, but most often, we relieve the pressure by resorting to the very defense mechanisms that landed us here in the first place.
Oh, and what about the heat?
Well, that’s life. It’s the daily experience of living that has us bumping into things that matter enough to us that we feel something.
When the heat is low, the boiling point takes a long time. Low pressure, less anxiety.
When the heat is high, the boiling point comes quickly. High pressure, high anxiety.
Does any of this resonate with you?
Anxiety, along with shame and guilt, is an inhibitory emotion. It signals an alert to let us know that there is something deeper that we need to take a look at: our core emotions.
Our core emotions are largely physical sensations that we have labeled to make meaning of our experience. Our core emotions are: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, and disgust. They are hardwired into our mid-brain, and are therefore not subject to conscious control.
That’s right, despite what you might have been told or have come to believe, trying to “control your emotions” just isn’t going to happen. We aren’t wired that way! What we can do, though, is acknowledge them. Make space for each one, and get curious about why it’s there in the first place. What is it trying to say? The more room we make to listen to the emotional “bubbles” that rise in our own teapot, the less they build up, the less internal pressure we feel. The less anxiety we have.
If we’re sticking with the tea kettle example, listening to our emotional “bubbles” would be like opening the tea kettle every once in a while and adding a dose of cool water. When the “heat” of life is low, we won’t have to do this as often. When the “heat” of life is higher, we’ll probably be making regular visits to the tea kettle.
Super counterproductive if you’re actually making tea.
Then again, tending to our emotions is pretty counterproductive to the way we’ve all been taught to “manage” them, isn’t it?