Managing Emotional Distress Part 2: Quick Fixes

I once had a therapist who kept asking me the question, “What are you going to do to support yourself?” I hated that question, but she had a point.

More recently, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of taking proactive steps to support myself, not least because this can prevent a full-blown crisis from taking hold.

Depending on the situation, here are a list of “quick fixes” which I’ve found helpful when I start to feel my mental health deteriorating.

  • Physical comfort

If I’m close to the edge and can feel myself beginning to spiral, the most effective thing for me to do is cocoon on the sofa with a blanket and a hot water bottle. I think this works because it has a whole-body effect and convinces the less conscious parts of my brain that I’m safe and being looked after.

  • Comforting media

This is not the time to watch a new Netfix documentary about serial killers. This is time for Stargate: SG1, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Poirot and Murder She Wrote. Stories, basically. I don’t think it matters what the media is, as long as it’s something that makes you feel safe and reassured.

  • Restricting/managing social media

Unfortunately, when you’re feeling fragile, I think that looking at social media can quickly trigger a downward spiral. This can be hard to avoid because we often want to go to social media sites to distract ourselves from lurking difficult emotions. If I don’t feel able to log off entirely, I do restrict myself to only looking at my “safe” lists on twitter. I also avoid the most problematic sites, which in my case is Facebook.

  • Stretch

My partner is into yoga and is a big fan of stretching in general. I resisted this for years, but I have had to admit that it really helps to do a simple stretching routine, especially if I have lingering anxiety.

  • Aromatherapy 

Yeah, I know, and I was resistant to this too. I’ve conceded defeat because a hot shower with a few drops of lavender is honestly one of the most effective things I can do to improve my mood. This is very good for those times when I get in from work and find myself having a dip.

  • Tidy up and put clean sheets on the bed 

If I’m feeling active and have some energy to burn, I often find that tidying up can be really helpful. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved something and having a pleasant environment lifts my mood.

  • Listen to Music

It does have to be the right music though. I have found that the wrong kind of music can make things worse if it stirs up negative emotions.

  • Do something creative 

If I have some mental energy, I find writing creatively or drawing is good.

  • Get out in nature

This isn’t always possible of course (we live in a city and don’t have a car),  but if I can do it, then it is usually very effective. We do have a local cemetery nearby which is good for birds, butterflies and flowers.

  • Do something positive

Ugh, this sounds annoying! I’m not a massive fan of positive psychology because I think it masks the reality of oppressive structures in society. BUT, again, I have found that when I’m feeling a bit shitty, just going and doing a couple of positive things, (e.g., something nice for someone) does make me feel better. I suppose it challenges the negative bias in our brains. I’ve even started trying to list three positive things that have happened every day.

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Reading this list over again, it strikes me how many of the actions work at the level of the body.  It took me a very long time to accept that starting with the body is a useful response to emotional distress and anxiety – how can stretching help when I’m freaking out??? Well, it does, because by calming my body down I take myself out of fight or flight mode and can start to address the real problems. Working at the level of the body probably also helps me to bypass my intellectual defence mechanisms which are actually making things worse by encouraging me to ruminate.

This post is a follow-up to Managing Emotional Distress 

Managing Emotional distress

Ever since October 2017, I’ve been experiencing attacks of what I can only call extreme emotional distress. I don’t want to get into the details of what happened back then, but basically, a particular “event” seems to have somehow released all the emotional pain that I’d been repressing for about twenty-five years.

This has made my life really difficult. I feel like I can be ambushed at any moment and plunged into a pit of grief, despair and rage. Once I’m in there, it’s very hard to climb out again.

After a few weeks of feeling okay, I had another attack yesterday. I felt awful all day, aching chest and head, depressed, constant intrusive, negative thoughts, and it ended with a full on screaming/crying meltdown in the kitchen.

I’ll give myself yesterday, but I really need to get on top of this. The first thing I think I have to do is accept that these feelings aren’t just going to stop or go away, which is what I’ve been hoping. The gaps between attacks do seem to have got longer, but I think that’s more down to me getting better at avoiding the things that trigger the feelings, then any actual healing. When the feelings do come, they are as a strong and overwhelming as ever.

I know could get more proactive about managing my emotional state on a day-to-day basis, but here are some things that I think I could put into place for those times when I do feel myself being dragged into the “pit of despair”.

  • Create a safe place to be sad

Make a designated place in our living environment where I can go when I’m feeling really bad, where it’s okay to scream and cry into a pillow if I need to, or to just lie there and stare at the walls. It needs to be quiet and comfortable and stocked with soft toys (the distress seems to be coming from a very “young” part of me and cuddling soft toys is actually one of the few things that’s guaranteed to help).

  • Put together some tear-jerking “resources”

One of the problems is that, as someone who spent years disconnected from their emotions, I now find it very difficult to cry. This means that I end up with a horrible build-up of bad feelings that I can’t release until it comes to a crisis and I have a total meltdown. But, there are some things that always get the waterworks going (the death of the Mars Rover anyone?) and it might be good idea to access them as soon as I feel the pressure starting to build.

  • Allocate a notebook just for ranting

I’m someone who processes experience through writing (like I’m doing right now). It helps to get things out of my head and onto a page, but I don’t want to fill my nice journal with lots of awful, negative thoughts that make me feel ashamed when I read over them later. So, I could have a notebook as a dumping ground just for this stuff. I can rip out the pages or burn it when I’m done.

  • Log out of Social Media

If I’m honest with myself, the majority of these attacks have been triggered by stuff I’ve seen on twitter or Facebook. I don’t want to give up social media because I do still get a lot out of it and I love interacting with people, but I also need to accept and get better at managing the more harmful aspects, especially when I’m already feeling fragile.

  • Get better at aftercare

So far, my approach has been “Phew, glad that’s over, let’s get on with life”, because I’ve learned to deal with my mental health issues by POWERING THROUGH! I think I probably need to have an aftercare regime, which involves things like being really gentle with myself for a few days, restricting social media access, and doing comforting things.

So, those are some ideas for responding to attacks of emotional distress. Thoughts and suggestions are very welcome.

Psychotherapy and Side-Effects

Aeon, Psychotherapy is not harmless: on the side-effects of CBT  

The research cited in this article doesn’t sound all that robust, but it’s an interesting question to think about. Personally, I think therapists of all stripes are well aware that the process has side-effects, but they see it as part of the therapy and I’m not sure they always fully appreciate the potentially negative and unwanted impacts. One of the reasons why I ended my last course of therapy was because I didn’t feel that my therapist was taking my concerns about unwanted effects seriously enough.

Three Essays about the Power of Stories to Save Lives

I’m increasingly interested in how children and young people use stories to create safe places during times of trauma. Here are three powerful perspectives.

Living through death with Harry Potter

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Batwoman saved my life

Extra life: how I was saved by video games

Food Psych Podcast

As part of my commitment to eating disorder recovery, I’ve decided to work my way through Christy Harrison’s podcast, Food Psych.

I started with episode #182, Fitness Culture, Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, and Why Hleath is Not an Obligation with Cara Harbstreet  

CN: Description of eating disordered thinking

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Ending Therapy

I’ve decided to bring three years of therapy to a close by the end of August. This is difficult because my therapist doesn’t really agree with the decision. She thinks we should continue and explore some of the more painful issues that I’ve largely avoided bringing into the room. She says she’s concerned that I may be “abandoning myself” by stopping therapy right now.

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