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  • Writer's pictureSaralicia H.

Exploring the Purpose of Emotions: Feeling or Fixing Feelings ?

One of the most common requests I hear as a therapist is the client's desire to learn strategies for managing their emotions; I often hear the phrase "I'd like to learn coping strategies for dealing with x emotion."

I believe we live in a society that teaches us that emotions are something negative that is meant to be "handled" and "coped with", as if they are a disease. When you are "having feelings" you need to respond to this event with strategies to ameliorate the situation, assess the damage, and contain it. However, our bodies work impressively well in ways we are just beginning to understand and we are able to feel emotions for a reason: survival.

Our limbic system (the area of our brain that processes emotion) is tasked with the important job of perceiving and managing threat. It activates an alarm and mobilizes us into action. We may respond with anxiety, anger, sadness, etc. All of these emotions may mobilize or immobilize us, connect or disconnect us from others.

Our emotions have the capacity to move us toward meeting a need; when we are sad we may seek connection or nurture. When we are angry, we may feel the need to assert or defend ourselves, which makes anger a messenger of our boundaries, beliefs, and values. When we are anxious, we are perceiving a threat and our body is saying "proceed with caution."

Each of us has a different tolerance for feelings, which therapists refer to as a Window of Tolerance. When we leave this tolerance, we enter a stress response: Fight/Flight or Freeze/Faint.

My conversation with my clients when I am faced with that familiar request for coping strategies is always the same: feelings are meant to be felt, not fixed. In order to manage our anxiety, we don't need strategies to help us distract ourselves from it or convince ourselves that anxiety is not happening in that moment, we need to feel our way through it and practice being anxious, expanding that feeling to our whole body, and then using tools to bring ourselves back to baseline.

The brain learns by practice and repetition; the more we practice feeling a feeling and coming back to a relaxed and engaged state, the more our brain learns that it is OK to feel that feeling and, like it happens with everything else, our bodies will become more tolerant to this feeling, becoming more resilient.

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