You cannot heal what you do not feel.
- Edith Eger
What do you do when you feel sad, anxious or overwhelmed?
For many of us, our first impulse is distraction. We look to alcohol, food or sex to make ourselves feel better, or switch our minds off by binge-watching Netflix or scrolling on our phones.
In psychological terms, this is known as ‘experiential avoidance’. It’s the tendency to avoid difficult physical and emotional sensations, a process that for many of us has become so automatic we don’t even know we’re doing it.
The problem is, when we ignore our feelings, they don’t go away. In fact, research suggests that avoiding our emotions in reality only makes them stronger.
Suppressing our emotions also places physiological stress on the body, and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, autoimmune disorders and gastrointestinal health complications.
By ignoring our feelings, we may also be missing out on important signals. Our emotions serve a useful evolutionary function: anxiety tells us to stay alert, for example, while a feeling of loneliness signals a desire for love and connection. While we don’t always need to act in accordance with our emotions, listening to their signals can help us become more attuned to our needs and take better care of ourselves.
The unpleasant truth is that in order to process and truly move on from difficult emotions and experiences, we need to let ourselves experience them.
If this feels like a terrifying prospect for you, you may find this blog post exploring how to deal with difficult feelings helpful.
How do we get better at feeling our feelings?
The opposite of avoidance is acceptance. To help us get better at managing our emotions, we first need to recognise that when we are engaging in experiential avoidance, and come to realise that isn’t a successful long-term coping mechanism. We can then work on strategies to help us get better at sitting with discomfort and working through difficult thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness is a great tool for this. It can help bring to us back into our bodies and become more attuned to our emotional needs. It can also help us learn to sit with difficult feelings and identify thought patterns that aren’t serving us.
We have several classes on the MindLabs app geared towards managing emotions and tolerating distress. To try them out, download MindLabs from the App Store and start your 14-day free trial.