Overwhelming Emotions: Two Views
Sara got on the train to go to work and an amazing thing happened. At the next stop, a handsome man sat down beside her and started reading exactly the same book that she was reading. He was so engrossed that he didnt even notice this strange coincidence. She glanced at him sideways. There was something sweet about him. Her heart started pounding and she wanted to say something to him, but she felt paralyzed. The train ride was over so quickly that she lost her chance. He got off the train and disappeared in the commuter rush.
Now she cant stop thinking about him and the possible meaning of their reading the same book while sitting side by side on the train. Shes started getting up early and walking to the stop where he boarded the train. She keeps carrying the book although she finished it the very night she saw him. At work, her thoughts drift off as she imagines talking to him and she sometimes snaps at coworkers if they interrupt her. She longs for one more chance to make contact with him.
Its been eight months since Rays father died. Hes doing fine but hes not doing much of anything. At first, his friends complimented him on his courage and strength in dealing with his loss, but now no one seems to even remember that his father is gone. For a while, having to handle all of the details of the funeral arrangements, the will, death certificates, and estate taxes kept him very busy. Everyone knows that Ray is the most responsible person in the family. One sister left town two days after the funeral and the other has been drinking a fair amount. His mother is still taking lots of medicine to help her sleep.
Everything has settled down, but to Ray it feels as if hes not entirely living his life anymore. Its too much bother trying to schedule getting together with other people, and he really doesnt feel involved in his work so much lately. Hes going through the motions. It feels as if something important is missing, but Ray would feel so ungrateful if he were to complain. His father led a long, full life and Ray knows that he himself is healthy and doing well. He believes that people should be appreciative and count their blessings, but even that feels like too much effort.
These two stories seem to have little in common. They are about two very different people having different reactions to different types of events. But both people are overwhelmed by their emotions. Their feelings are poorly defined, interfering with their activities and dominating all of their perceptions. Their emotions are running their lives.
Such disruptions caused by unbalanced feelings are called affect dysregulation by mental health professionals. We all have experienced affect dysregulation at some time in our lives, when our feelings seem magnified, and we feel a physical sense of being overwhelmed, a loss of perspective, a sense that our emotions seem to be damaging our relationships, or a fragmented sense of self or purpose.
These experiences occur in large and small ways, and every persons emotional reactions and struggles are unique. Some people who were raised in generally disapproving families might find themselves frequently overcome by confusion or humiliated to the point of being unable to communicate. Others with this same background might find themselves chronically plagued by angry, critical thoughts or anxious moods.
Occasionally, we all find ourselves easily provoked emotionally; for example, on a bad day, you might feel an urge to cry because the coffee shop is out of poppyseed muffins. Some people struggle with their feelings more than others and some days are better than others for all of us, but difficulties in handling our emotions are part of being human.
Emotions are naturally unstable and reactive, and biochemically they tend to dominate brain processes. Managing emotions can require active effort. Emotion management refers to a collection of skills that enables people to work with their feelings instead of against them; to experience their emotions without undue complications.
Emotion management is not magical. Generally, we are taught to think of our emotions as murky and inexplicable, but there is a logic to emotional processes. When you comprehend your own emotional system, you can learn and use distinct skills to monitor and modify how it works.
Journals for Emotion Management
As a therapist, I have found journals to be very effective tools for emotion management. Journals are like a checkpoint between your emotions and the world. They are very private but allow you to view your feelings from some distance. In a journal, you can clarify, release, organize, and soothe your feelings. You can experiment without consequences. Journals provide flexibility for approaching and understanding your own emotions.
The impetus for my thinking about journals as therapeutic tools came from the people in my practice. I noticed a lot of my clients mentioned their journals spontaneously and in different ways. I soon learned that there are as many ways to use journals as there are people. I discussed journals with more people and then I started giving my clients suggestions about how to use them.
Some people really need to write to force their emotions to the surface or to articulate their feelings. Some of my clients already had piles of notebooks filled with descriptions of their emotions. They needed help with containing their feelings and we worked with various techniques to limit or structure their writing. Other people used their journals to transition from the help they received in therapy to using the skills they possessed on their own. What impressed me most of all was the fact that the accomplishments of emotion management demonstrated in clients journals carried over into their lives. The model developed in the writing was the foundation of an applicable skill.
A growing body of research is documenting a variety of benefits of journaling. Studies suggest that writing helps to organize chaotic emotional impressions so that feelings can be compactly stored in memory in a way that is compatible with brain structure (Smyth and Greenberg 2000). In addition to organizing and expressing emotion, the physical act of writing can soothe and provide emotional release. The privacy of journals also builds a sense of personal creativity and autonomy. Journals bring together a unique constellation of qualities that are well-suited to handling the complexity of emotions.
This Guided Journal
All of these realizations grew into this Guided Journal and its underlying plan. It is based on how Ive seen people grow and develop in therapy and how Ive seen people use journaling. This Guided Journal gives you information, ideas, and active exercises to help you feel more comfortable with your emotional life and to achieve a greater degree of mastery over it. This book lays out the purpose and procedure for each of the exercises and provides space for you to complete them. The exercises give you actual experience or practice in the skills youve read about.
The journal is designed to be used with handwriting, but any exercise can be typed (or word processed) with the journal next to the keyboard. The soothing characteristics of journal writing also apply to a keyboard if that is the instrument with which you are comfortable.
The many aspects of emotion management are reflected in the variety of exercises. Some exercises provoke deep thought and feeling, others might make you laugh. The chapters of the Guided Journal proceed systematically, but if you need help in just some areas, you can zoom in on those specific chapters. And if some exercises seem difficult, you can still benefit from reading the text and skipping over those exercises. Emotion management is a lifelong, ongoing process; it is not something you perfect or finish.
There are eight chapters in this Guided Journal, one to help launch the project and seven on the sets of skills that add up to emotion management. These are the abilities to distance, define, release, refocus, organize, regroup, and maintain. Each of these abilities, when applied to emotions, is like a strand of a very strong rope. Through your reading and participating in the exercises, you will learn to weave these strands together.
When you have finished moving through this Guided Journal, you will have a different view of your emotional world. You definitely will gain new skills and knowledge, but these are not the final results of working with this book. The end results will be that you will experience a greater sense of flexibility within yourself and an ongoing confidence in how you live with your emotions.
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