What the Heck Does it Mean to Process an Emotion? --Coping in the World of Medicine: Part 3

This week we will conclude our series on coping. The first week, we discussed some positive external methods to cope, along with a list of resources.  Last week, we discussed internal mechanisms of coping.  And finally, we tackle the cliff-hanger of sitting with your emotion and processing it. 

 

Part of healthy coping involves processing emotions. As physicians, we often distance emotions. That serves us well in times of emergency to stay focused. It is also helpful when we "check our countertransference" to avoid reacting poorly to patients in various forms of maladaptive behavior. But at some point, the really intense situations and emotions need to be dealt with healthily to head off negative consequences down the road. 

 

So, what does “process an emotion” mean?” I had heard it but never really questioned what it meant until I had a particular resident who was causing a bit of disruption within her class, among the office staff, and even within our faculty.  She was chronically anxious, on defense, and complaining. She would text attendings on their days off or late at night. She kept colleagues from focusing on work because she monopolized their time to vent. In a meeting with the resident, one of our behavioral faculty said she needed to learn to "sit in her anxiety" rather than react. In other words, she needed to know to process the emotion.  I realized at that point, I didn’t really understand what it meant practically. In case you are in the same boat, I will give you my approach to understanding.

 

There are three things you can do with any emotion. 1. You can react to the feeling. If you’re angry, you can yell. If you’re disgruntled, you can quit on the spot. 2. You can avoid or resist your feelings by eating, drinking, gaming, scrolling, shopping, etc. (buffering). It is called “comfort food” for a reason – rather than feel sadness, let’s just eat ice cream and fries. This is similar to distancing the emotion as described in the opening of this blog. If you distance chronically, you blunt even good emotions. 3. You can process it.

 

Processing an emotion starts with naming it. Sometimes it's helpful to look at a list of feeling words to really zero in and label it. Then, move to allow it to be present. We spend so much time trying to avoid negative emotions, and, in the end, we end up with a net-negative outcome. If you are constantly yelling, quitting your job, or turning to food, it’s not hard to see in the long run that you are increasing suffering. Let’s learn to embrace the full human experience as roughly 50/50—about 50% positive and 50% negative. You have great days, low-light days (as my friend Rita calls them), and everything in between. When we feel a negative emotion and are not be shocked by it, it allows the feeling to be present. There is no reason to avoid or react; you accept it. It’s just the expected less-positive half of the full human experience. Maybe you’re disappointed you weren’t asked to head up a project or be the chief. It’s okay – disappointment happens.

 

By allowing it to be present without judgment, then we move on to the processing piece. Emotions are felt somatically. As an example, being nervous often gives the feeling of butterflies in the stomachs.  When you recognize an emotion that you're tempted to avoid or react to, tune in instead. Where do you feel it – your head, chest, stomach? Does it feel fast like butterflies or heavy like a hammer falling? As you turn your focus to the body, the feeling can change location or character, stick with it and follow and examine it.  Often within a couple of minutes, the intensity is eased, and it passes on.

 

Sometimes emotions come back in waves; grief is notorious for this. It's normal.  It’s okay– you recognize it, allow it without judgment, and focus on where it is in the body, and then it releases or passes through. Try asking yourself if the emotion is a clue. You may unlock some thoughts that help move you forward. For instance, anger is often a signal that a boundary has been crossed. You can think through the details. Is it true? If so, how do you want to view the boundary break?

 

Stress happens; there are positive options to cope, both external and internal. You chose the best for you. One of the most powerful tools is not being afraid of any emotion – it's just a feeling in the body that eases when you pay attention to it.

 

Have a joy-filled week - Tonya

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