Don’t Touchy. Feely.

With guest contributor Steve Hall (@astevehall; see his stand up here)

Feeling scared about the state of the world right now? Frustrated about having to stay home? Hopeless at the lack of control? Paranoid about that tickle in your throat? Panicked that you might lose your loved ones? Guilty that you’re even more panicked that you might lose your To Kill a Mockingbird tickets? Angry that they make you book those things six months in advance and thus you cannot possibly plan around unexpected global pandemics? Confused about how the floor could possibly need sweeping again already? Generally feeling overwhelmed? You’re not alone. Figuratively speaking, you’re not alone. Physically, you should be.

What can we do about all these emotions running wild? This is one of those strategies that is so simple we even recommend it to toddlers: Use Your Words. 

Talking and writing about how you feel can help our longer term emotional and physical health and can help improve things in the moment too, like in this study where writing about worries immediately before an exam actually improved performance. In another study, individuals with spider phobia were instructed to describe their emotional reaction during exposure to a live spider. One week later they showed a lower physiological fear response to a live spider, compared to the group who were given no instructions during the exposure. 

Worried that calling out your feelings might make you feel worse? You’re not alone there, either. A study at UCLA found that participants predicted it would be more distressing to label the emotional content of negative pictures compared to looking at them without labelling, but those doing the experiment found the opposite to be true. Even after going through the experiment, participants still said it would be more distressing to label the emotional content than not label, even though they had already experienced the opposite happening.  

So, just like social distancing, you might not think it’s working even when it is. Worth a try?

Three-minute experiment

  • Find a private place and shut yourself away for three minutes (the exact amount of time you can hide in a bathroom without arousing suspicion).
  • Write down or say out loud all the negative emotions you have experienced in the past day, using the list below to find words which capture the subtleties of what you’ve been experiencing. You may also mine this list for lyrics should you decide these are prime conditions to finally start that emo band. 
  • Don’t try to rationalise them, don’t try to explain them, just label them. 
  • Include “feelings about feelings”, like feeling ashamed that you feel smug that your symptoms are milder than your poor partner’s. Even those feelings are valid (some of them just might be better kept private for now).
  • If you’re having trouble finding enough to fill that time, perhaps I can gently encourage you to check the newspaper, there’s quite a lot happening right now.
  • Add in some humour if you’re feeling self-conscious. I highly recommend a depressing modification to James Brown: “Well I feeeeeeel…. alone, terrified and misunderstood / I knew that I would…”
  • Stop after three minutes, and get on with the rest of your day.

Experiment tracking

  • Did it get easier over time to find the right words and distinguish between similar emotions?
  • Were your feelings less intense after deliberately bringing them to the surface?
  • Could you go on to watch a press briefing without wanting either to throw something or throw up?
  • Did your emotions feel more valid and acceptable?
  • Could you handle conflicting emotions better?

Some CBT strategies are so simple that people feel angry when they turn out to be helpful. If that happens? Write that down too.

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