4 ways we avoid feelings

This blog is inspired by Parker Sandra  Embracing Unrest: Harness Vulnerability to Tame Anxiety and Spark Growth (October 2022, 274 pages) published by Page Two Books.

“When was the last time you felt anxious, with your body braced and on edge? It could have been when your partner was late coming home and you couldn’t reach them on their cell, your computer crashed just before a deadline, your child had a full-on tantrum in the grocery store, or you were waiting on medical test results. In that moment, how did you respond?”

Maybe you grabbed like I would a bag of, potato chips, a chocolate chip cookie  or had a sudden impulse to clean your closet , or found yourself online shopping for that new pickle ball outfit . Maybe you noticed your racing heart, sweaty palms or shallow breathing and started to worry about coming down with a cold an illness. Perhaps you distracted yourself tackling 14 things on your to-do list. Or you had an irresistible urge to check your social media feeds or watch endless TikTok reels of dancing cats. Or maybe you started telling yourself threatening stories (“What if they’ve been in an accident?”; “There’s something wrong with me”; “I can’t cope”; “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”).

As  psychologist, Sandra Parker  suggests what is going on in these moments is we are escaping from our inner lives—and this happens when we are confronted with vulnerability. We are triggered by uncomfortable sensations in our bodies heralding emotions stirring beneath, and we do anything rather than face them.

Many kinds of suffering can arise from this. Indeed, research suggests people who avoid emotion tend to have higher pain levelsincreased cardiovascular risk, and higher cancer rates, as well as increased depressionanxiety, and problems in relationships.

Instead of avoiding what we feel when we are vulnerable, we need to shift our approach. We need to slow down and truly feel our bodies, so we can soothe our nervous systems and access our underlying emotions.

How to recognize unrest

When we have limited control over the things that matter to us we often in a state of uneasiness  Maybe you want your friend , your mother etc to quit drinking or your kids to stop fighting or your boss to stop being so critical, or you want to protect those you love from harm or you are passionate about global warming , world hunger, or you want this magical moment where everyone is all together at Thanksgiving  saying  their grateful list feeling so close and connected to last forever. Yet “unrest” is definitely inevitable

Sandra callas this  “unrest”: our physical experience of vulnerability, announcing the ideal moment to tune in and spark our growth. And here is the predicament: Unrest causes nervous system activation—a knot in the stomach, braced muscles, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, faster heart rate—and the brain unconsciously interprets this as danger.

This is the moment we usually turn away—to self soothe toward social media or eating or productivity—but we don’t have to. The first step in embracing our feelings is to differentiate unrest from fear and anxiety. This is not easy to do because unrest, anxiety, and fear activate the same area of the brain and feel identical in the body, despite serving very different functions.

You can recognize anxiety as the avoidant thing you do after unrest stirs you, when you are trying to distract yourself or fix the physical discomfort in your body. Anxiety lets us fantasize that we can control outcomes—the futile “if only” and “what if’s” we often linger upon. Unfortunately, our anxiety lies to us, amplifying (in my experience) our uncomfortable bodily sensations.

Fear, meanwhile, is the core emotion that warns us of immediate threat to life and limb, directing us to fight or flee. Quickened reactions, strengthened muscles, and enhanced lung capacity are lifesaving. In these instances, our physical reactions are not a problem; they are not too much or “stressful.”

If we are afraid of something in the future or the past—anticipating a dangerous possibility or recalling a past danger—we are experiencing anxiety, not fear. This is one of the hardest things for chronically anxious people to accept: that their worry is a story, a prediction, a possibility, but it is not danger.

Four ways we avoid our feelings

1. Minimizing and distracting. We may brush off inner experience as “no big deal.” cannot make We may ignore and neglect our bodies’ signs of stress and may push through our limits until we risk exhaustion, burnout, depression, and physical illness.

For example, my client Sally didn’t even realize how agitated and tense she was worried about her son ,Josh  Her habit was to ignore her feelings In doing so she became sleepless and develop heart palpitations

2. Control and worry.  John came to my office each trying to control his mother who had lost herself in a bottle of alcohol and pills. He tried so hard throwing bottes away, yelling ,nagging snd screaming yet his anxiety was extreme and his school went by the wayside

3. Self-attack.  Many events  are out of ones control as  a child. My fathers sudden death and my mothers emotional unavailability  death was certainaly one And if you were like me  or told myself yourself that if I tried harder or were smarter, a better person, more lovable or attractive or stronger or not as gullible or more patient or acted sooner…then things would go better. This self -critic lead to feelings of imperfection and sadness.

4. The emotional masquerade.  Sometimes we use one emotion to mask another. Often times under anger is deep sadness or grief for what did not happen. Often we may look great to the outside world yet inside we know we are just imposters waiting for the mask to be rip apart

How to embrace unrest

According tp Parker, ”Embracing unrest is a journey for life…. It’s about changing your way of being with yourself when you don’t feel good, so when unrest calls, you approach discomfort and access the power of your emotion. Here are two practices to help you rewire your brain to notice and soothe unrest.

  1. What’s your ringtone? Like a telephone, unrest has a unique ringtone that lets us know it’s just for us. Our job is to learn our ringtone so we can quickly notice and respond to the call.

In a few sentences, jot down something that is troubling you. Let yourself be aware of the gap between what you want and your ultimate control over the outcome. Pick up your smartphone to video yourself as you describe your vulnerable situation. When you have described it fully, turn off the camera and play the video back.

Observe your body in the video. Be curious, and really “listen” for your ringtone. You have hundreds of muscles, and some will signal more intensely than others—you might notice tapping toes, holding your breath, a furrowed brow, fidgety fingers, or raised shoulders.

Play the video a few times to make sure you have caught all the signals of unrest that you can see. Try to identify your top three sensations of unrest.

  1. Say “I DO.”This is a commitment to yourself, like a sacred vow, to tune inward when you notice unrest.

Identify where you feel the sensation; locate it precisely, one place at a time—not just “My muscles are tense,” but which ones and where? Not just arms, but biceps versus triceps; not just tight chest, but where, how large an area?

Describe what you feel using words that capture the quality of your muscle tension and energy, such as:

  • bracing
  • constricted
  • tight
  • heavy
  • knotted
  • clenched
  • agitated
  • buzzing
  • fidgety
  • jittery
  • jumpy
  • fluttery

Observe one specific sensation with the intention of paying slow, deep attention. Ask yourself: “What does that feel like?” over and over.

  • If your answer is “tense,” then ask, “What does ‘tense’ feel like?”
  • If your answer is “like a shell,” then ask, “What does that shell feel like?”

Continue this process until you sense a slight release, perhaps a 20% reduction in tension, as your body registers your presence and is soothed. Rest there and feel proud of yourself.

Riding the wave of emotion

Once the body or ventral vagel nerve  is soothed, we feel safe enough to allow space for the emotions that we have been avoiding. Having guided many clients through this process, I find that it goes something like this: Unrest heralds an opportunity for change and paying attention tiyour body can yield growth

In that moment, your body understands that, whatever has activated the nervous system, there is no danger—because if there were, you would be focusing outward, not inward. Your body is freed from its prime directive to keep you safe. This safeness opens a channel within you that allows a wave of sadness to come through. These feeling  are carrying you to a truth you have been avoiding and allows you to experiment and feel safe with your  emotions

Getting in touch with  who you are an d with your your emotions like this can enhance your relationships and have profound mental health benefits. Research indicates that accessing emotion deepens our experience of life’s meaningbuffers stress, aids in decision making, and is a key factor in improved mental health. As well, experiencing emotion is growth-promoting, leading to higher levels of resilience and authenticity.