Long standing emotional pain comes in many forms: anxiety, depression, grief and trauma. It can also show up as compulsive habits or addictive behavior. The common thread is that it hurts and has been in your life for too long. The pain may be constant – as in minor depression, where you lack energy and enthusiasm for life – or intermittent – as with panic attacks. However long standing emotional pain tends to intensify in response to psychological triggers, which may be unconscious. For example, your partner is in a bad mood, and you respond by developing a tension headache or feeling insecure or anxious. You may not connect the two events in your mind. But the key to overcoming this pain is to become more conscious of the events that set off the negative shift in your mood. Once you understand the situation that triggered or intensified your emotional pain, you can take steps to reduce or eliminate the problem. Read on to discover 9 steps that can stop most kinds of emotional pain from escalating.
9 Core Steps for Overcoming Chronic Pain
• Step 1: Acknowledge but Don’t Judge Your Feelings
This can be hard to do, especially if you are dealing with difficult emotions. But it’s important to be aware of your emotions as you can’t change what you don’t recognize or don’t admit to yourself. Practice cultivating a non-judgmental attitude of self acceptance. This will help you feel more compassionate towards yourself, which will also help you think more clearly so you can start to identify what you need to work on. Once you know what the problem is, you can turn your attention to generating appropriate solutions. Effective solutions lead to greater self assurance and optimism.
• Step 2: Pinpoint Your Strengths
Identify what are you good at, and/or like about yourself that can help you deal with the problem you are facing, e.g. good problem solver, ability to stay calm under pressure, know how to reach out to others for support. This is also helpful, as it reinforces self confidence, which might be flagging if you feel distressed.
• Step 3: Stress Reduction
If you are feeling stressed or anxious take a short break and focus on breathing normally from your diaphragm – the rubber band like muscle that runs around your body, just below your rib cage. This simple but important step relaxes your body, and reduces stress hormones, enabling you to think more clearly again. It only takes 5 minutes to reduce your stress hormones to normal, and by calming down your body you also free your mind to make good decisions and take appropriate action.
• Step 4: Stop Negative Thoughts That Cause Anxiety or Depressed Moods
People who experience chronic emotional pain are often troubled by pessimistic beliefs – such as feeling unlovable or unworthy – that trigger or intensify anxiety or depression. Unfortunately negative beliefs can be unconscious or automatic, triggering a cascade of unconstructive thoughts. Negative thinking is usually a distortion, portraying you or your situation as black and hopeless.
It’s important to interrupt and re-frame negative thinking, so it is more closely reflects reality and inspires greater optimism. If you find yourself in the grips of pessimism, identify what you are thinking, and find evidence that supports the opposite of the negative thought. You should be able to discover some proof that you are good enough, or have reason for hope, at least part of the time. Stand up to negative expectations with the truth about who you really are. If you lack skills or experience take steps to gain them, but don’t give in to believing the worst about yourself.
• Step 5: Respect Your Emotions
Your emotions have an important job to do – specifically to tell you whether your beliefs and experiences are positive, neutral or negative. Awareness of feelings is essential to making informed choices about whether to stay the course, or change your thoughts or the situation you find yourself in for the better. Emotions also depth and passion to life.
Being in charge of life means facing your emotions, including difficult feelings, rather than trying to avoid or change them. Overcoming fear of feelings builds courage and respect for oneself. Viewing all emotional experience as natural and relevant leads to greater self understanding that will help you feel more in control of your life, and more likely to have the kind of life you want.
• Step 6: Stand Up to Your ‘Inner Critic’
If you find yourself being critical of difficult emotions – possibly due to a history of being judged harshly – practice standing up to this ‘Inner Critic’ by treating yourself with compassion and understanding. The Inner Critic is not correct – just familiar. This will likely take practice, but is essential to developing a healthy perspective and achieving peace of mind.
• Step 7: Be Mindful of the Company You Keep
It’s important to choose friends whom you feel respected by and comfortable with. If spending time with some people creates difficult feelings, then ask yourself whether you need to work on overcoming negative thinking, stand up for your self more assertively, or would be better served by minimizing contact.
• Step 8: Avoid Fixating on Negative Thoughts and Feelings
Although it’s important to understand what you are believing and feeling, it’s equally important to not over-focus on negativity because it magnifies pessimistic thinking and emotions. On the other hand, devoting your attention to positive thinking about what you can control and change sets the stage for good mental health. If you are feeling down, acknowledge this, then concentrate on what you can do to better your situation. Create your vision for what you want your life to look like, and then take small daily steps to work towards your goals. Keep track of your progress. Do not record black thoughts, or feelings of hopelessness or despair.
• Step 9: Find the Balance
You’ve probably heard that a balanced life is a recipe for contentment, but what does that mean? Balance is about taking care your whole self – diet, exercise, sleep, work, relationships, social life and fun. Take a look at the big picture of your life and identify if there are any areas you have been neglecting. Commit to taking better care of yourself, and develop a daily plan to turn that commitment into reality.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counselor, Registered Clinical Counselor (BC), specializes in recovery from Family Scapegoating, Low Self Worth, Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, Complicated Grief and Addictive Behaviors.
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