Box it up or let it flow: Titrating emotion

Yesterday in describing the impact of trauma I talked about how some people shut their emotions down—how they can go numb and not feel anything—and that often this happens automatically. And how being numb can interfere with healing and being becoming whole.

This ability and pattern of shutting things down, of being able to flip a switch and shift your state of being is also known as compartmentalization. You can have the ability to take how your feeling, or what you are thinking about and put it in a box and close the lid. The thing about these strategies, these protections, these coping skills is that they are rarely learned—more often, and especially through trauma, we grab on to the strategy that worked for us—or that our brains and systems naturally gravitated to.

If you overuse shutting down or going numb or putting everything that is hard for you in a box—what’s the down side? Well, mostly, you eventually are cut off from your emotions and this interferes with your ability to be connected to other people and to make good decisions. We actually need emotion to make decisions—we feel before we think, and if we are shut down, we are not using all available information.

But the ability to compartmentalize is also a strength and a capacity that helps us function when we feel overwhelmed. When we just don’t have the resources to manage. When it’s too much right now. When we have to get something else done.

The opposite of being shut down is being overwhelmed. Flooded with emotions. And this can be even more problematic than numb because for people who don’t naturally compartmentalize, it can be hard to know what to do when they get flooded with emotion. In my work I have noticed that when people who aren’t good at shutting down or compartmentalizing go through trauma they are more susceptible to drugs and alcohol because they use these substances to become numb and shift state. 

But the real issue of having a defense, a protection, a coping skill isn’t whether the skill is good or bad because they are all useful or not useful depending upon the situation. The issue is choice: it is whether you are choosing to be shut down or choosing to be open to emotion. This issue is whether your coping system is driving you or whether you are driving your coping system. It’s the capacity to both open yourself to emotions or put them away for a bit that will allow you to be at your best for whatever you are working with, whatever you need to do.

How do stretch from one to the other?

If you are trying to learn how to expand your ability to sit with emotions and not shut down:

1.     Learn to sit with your own emotions: You can practice sitting with emotions. A good way to do this is to practice mindfulness or meditation. Sit for one minute or five minutes and just pay attention to how you feel. Name the feelings if you can. Just expand your capacity to be with whatever comes up without having to shift it. Some people like to sit in quiet. Some people like to use meditation tapes. Experiment and find out what works for you. My previous post on mindfulness and mindfulness and trauma might be helpful. The good news for you is that no one will ever be able to take away your capacity to shut it down or box it up. You are already good at that. Your job is just to build your ability to sit with emotion.

2.     Experience emotions by watching others. You can watch movies with emotional content, or listen to other people talk. You can read memoirs or biographies of others. You don’t have to do anything special, or feel anything in particular—it’s a chance to pay attention to the feeling part of your understanding of people. Try to guess how they are feeling. If you are listening to another person you can try to guess and then ask them to check it out.

3.     Write it down. Take 10 minutes each day and write. Don’t edit or censor—just write about where you are—how you are feeling, what you are thinking? What is top of mind? You don’t need to interpret, or judge. Just write. You are merely stretching your awareness and feeling muscles.

If you are trying to learn how not to feel so flooded and how to compartmentalize so you can function better:

1.     Part of the issue is learning to get some distance between you and the emotion or the ‘problem.’ Some people find that concretely writing down the problem and putting it in a folder, or a box helps, with a plan of when you will get back to it.

2.     There is the illusion that talking to other people about it will help. For people who shut down, talking about it can help them be more connected to the feelings. But if you are already flooded with emotion, talking about it can make it worse. It is probably best if you can to let other people know you are having a hard time, but not get in to the specifics. If you can, save the conversation for therapy or another trusted conversation partner, but for now, just ask for support to move away from that topic or those thoughts.

3.     Distraction can be your best friend. Read something, do a crossword or Sudoku, watch TV, listen to a book on tape, clean out a cabinet. Anything that helps you shift gears and take your mind off it.

4.     Short mantras to coach yourself. Statements like: “I’ve got this” “I’m ok” “I’ll figure this out.” “This too shall pass” can be really helpful. Brainstorm a few more and write all of them on 3 X 5 card or post it notes to grab when you need them. Photograph the cards on your phone and you will always have them with you.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015