“Not why the addiction but why the pain.” ~ Dr. Gabor Maté, Physician and Addiction Expert
The below used to be a common routine of mine that gave me great stress and anxiety on a daily basis:
I wake up before the sun rises because I need to finish work from the previous evening or fit in personal time ahead of a busy day.
I’m so tired, I can’t imagine functioning for the rest of the day, so I reach for two cups of coffee to get me going.
I make my way to the airport to fly or drive to my client’s office - either way, I battle traffic and deal with impatient people trying to get to where they need to go.
At the office, meetings get canceled or run over, deadlines get pushed, accomplishments are delayed, disagreements occur, politicking ensues, teams get frustrated, leaders get aggressive, clients get demanding.
Finger pointing, blame shifting and comparison are the topics over lunch.
So tired. More coffee.
When most people leave the office, my team and I continue working into the late evenings. We try our best to squeeze in dinner, workout, a phone call with family/friends, getting work done. If we’re lucky, we get to do three of the four, and it usually involves scarfing down food from the nearest restaurant or eating in front of our screens.
While I’m exhausted from the day, I’m also very aware that I’m missing a friend’s celebration, connecting with my partner, bonding with my furry pets, nourishing my body with sunshine and healthy home-cooked meals and the comfort of my bed at home.
I finally crawl into my hotel bed too exhausted to “entertain” any feelings and frustrations from the day and set my alarm for way too early to finish up what I didn’t get to tonight.
Some would conclude that the events of my day created stress and anxiety for me, but in retrospect, that really wasn’t the case. The root cause of my stress and anxiety was that I did not prioritize, notice, acknowledge and fully experience the emotions that were bubbling up throughout the day. Even minutes before I closed my eyes for sleep, I would often be distracted by my phone, planning the next day, or my pure exhaustion. I ignored important cues from my intuitive self and over time, paid a price for it.
I’m delighted to say that this is no longer my life and that my day-to-day looks so different now that reflecting on it makes me feel very grateful about where I am today.
Having heard others' stories, I know everyone has a daily routine that while looks different on the surface, creates a similar emotional experience in its own way.
More “threats” = more emotions
Emotion is energy in motion. Our emotions usually tell us two things - it lets us know who we need to build relationships with or what actions to take. If we tune into our emotions, the energy that comes with each emotion moves and stirs within us a desire to take the appropriate action - be it rest, apologize, console, fight, celebrate, connect, create, make love, etc. If we are wise to our emotions they can be used as a powerful tool to gauge our distance from our truth, purpose, happiness, and well-being at any given moment. But more on that later.
In the modern world, we are feeling more than ever before because we are surrounded by so much information and social interactions (virtual or IRL) facilitated by technology and new cultural norms.
Let me explain...
Whereas our ancestors were able to flee, fight or hide from threat, modern "predators" follow us at every turn- from the moment we open our eyes to the moment before we fall asleep. It's not just the tiger or our neighbors we need to keep watch for anymore. In the modern world, we're also keeping our eyes on student loans, mortgages, social security, 401K, our image and appearance, traffic, our boss, workplace culture, team morale, client satisfaction, discrimination, social inequality, animal rights, the environment, what's in our water, what's in our food, what's in our medication, wars, hacking, fraud, getting ripped off, the list goes on.
To add fuel onto the fire, modern portable devices amplify the increased "threat" in our environment, creating greater stress for us all. It is our brain’s survival features called negative bias, that turns us into hyper-vigilant watchdogs on steroids. Every facial expression, performance evaluation, survey result, ad, video, post, like, follow, and digital interaction hooks us into either “a promise” or “a challenge” that our brain must interpret for a potential threat.
It's no wonder most of us are stressed and anxious even before the day begins!
Don’t ignore your emotions
So many of us are completely overwhelmed by all the data and information coming at us. Thankfully, we are encouraged by media, advertising and society to distract, numb, suppress, repress, delude, dissociate, and rationalize our feelings and emotions. And conveniently, we have a ton of tools at our fingertips to help us do just that - meet: food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, social media, dating apps, video games, caffeine, reality tv, endless streaming media, adrenaline adventures, work, etc.
By no means am I suggesting that these things we enjoy so much are wrong or bad. I know they can be wonderful and they make us feel happy and paradoxically some are even essential for our wellbeing.
My point is that it is because they are such effective tools for making us feel good quickly, it’s easy to subconsciously reach for these short-lived dopamine hits to our brain as a way to relieve our emotional pain or discomfort (and it's always short-lived, since we always need another drink, bite or item in our shopping basket). When we distract ourselves from facing our emotions, those feelings do not go away. In fact, it will grow and gnaw at our core to get our attention. Truth does not go away.
I get why we don't like sitting with our emotions - it's awkward. It's hard. It's beyond hard. It can be dark, brutal, gut-wrenching, spirit-breaking impossible at times. But I've learned that our biggest most beautiful lessons are often behind those uncomfortable feelings. And until we've learned our lesson, evolve and grow, the same lesson will continue to show up in our lives. Have you ever noticed that?
As the saying goes, “what we resist persists.”
If we ignore our emotions we will downward spiral and be forced to meet them with a face plant
Here’s a common example of coping with emotional discomfort with distraction.
I'm feeling like crap so I'll open up a shopping app and buy something that delights me. As a result, this action will give my brain a dopamine hit (aka. pleasure and reward chemical secreted in the brain). Right away, I will feel some relief, and I don't feel as crappy as I did just a few minutes ago.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be that destructive. However, when we repeat this behavior dozens, hundreds and thousands of times, we reshape our brain to believe a few things:
For this individual, a few things can create a downward spiral very quickly:
When downward spiral happens, it drives a person further into feelings of discomfort, and the need to reach for the thing that is known to relieve discomfort in the past - in this example - shopping. This creates a cycle of “unhealthy behaviors” begetting more “unhealthy behaviors.”
There is a similar cycle of dependency and a downward spiral for anything we reach for to distract us from our feelings. It’s essentially a model of addiction.
When we suppress our emotions, we create toxic stress because we are resisting what we’re naturally built to experience. If we continue to ignore our emotions, our mind and body will continue to sound the signals louder and more frequently. Sometimes signals come in the form of ailments, distress and mental break down when our body is trying to get our attention.
In Dr. Gabor Maté's words, "Emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases."
Feel your emotions - receive its message - then let it go
In our current stress epidemic where 80% of Americans say they are stressed, and many experiencing anxieties, one of the most effective things we can do and won't cost a cent (unlike weighted blankets) is to notice, acknowledge and fully experience our emotions. Emotions exist to serve us. They tell us if we’re safe or threatened, who’s a friend or foe, if we’re practicing self-care or self-harm, if we’re stepping into our truth or betraying ourselves.
Every human experiences emotion - but we learn at an early age how to "appropriately handle" our emotions. In our society, there are certain emotions that are more acceptable to share - like frustration, stress, and anger. But other feelings such as disappointment, vulnerability, depression, loneliness, and shame are less commonly discussed with colleagues over lunch. It might be why we feel so alone when we feel the way we feel - because we think it’s unique to us and that others don’t feel this way. As a coach who sits with other people's emotions, my experience is that people experience similar emotions deep down, people just express it or handle it very differently on the outside.
Our emotions need us to acknowledge "message received" before they leave us. Like a loyal friend who cares about us, our pent up emotions do not leave us without us first receiving their message. And they will wait a lifetime if required. Have you ever notice people who suppress or pushes their emotions away, tend to see unresolved emotions show up in other areas of their lives - like a game of whack-a-mole?
When we follow our emotions we are tapping into our intuitive self. When we listen to our emotions, we are acknowledging and honoring our truth. When we take action based on our emotions, we are practicing self-care by doing what will make us feel better. Let’s not resist our emotions and our inner life - It’s one of the most beautiful things that make us human and alive.
Where do you start?
Instead of whacking the mole, I invite you to find the mole, sit with it, receive its message, give it what it needs, then have it run along its merry way.