One Incredible Strategy for Reducing and Managing Emotional Pain

Issue 70. April 12, 2024 ✨ Higher Power Coaching & Consulting

Photo Credit: Valeriia Miller

Emotional pain sucks. Sometimes, it’s worse than physical pain. I’ve got some ways for you to reduce the amount and frequency of your emotional pain. I’ll share those at the end after sharing the ways I prolonged and increased my emotional pain before I got into recovery.

Here’s some evidence of the emotional pain I’ve been through. I’ve had several episodes of depression that were so debilitating that I could barely get out of bed. It’s hard to believe I kept my job. I’d go days without showering or brushing my teeth. I’d wear clothes I knew were dirty because I just didn’t give a shit. I just couldn’t give a shit.

There’s only one house plant that has survived all of my bouts of depression. I’ve killed at least a couple of different rounds of house plants in my life because I just couldn’t be bothered keeping something else alive. I was having a hard enough time keeping myself alive. I was never suicidal, but I did understand why others would when I was that depressed.

I’ve also had the regular emotional pain that people who aren’t depressed experience, like heartbreak, lost friendships, and catastrophizing about the future. The emotional pain I endured when my 35-year-old brother Pat died in 2006 was by far the worst emotional pain of my life. So I get it.

What I know now is that there were things I was doing that made my pain worse and prolonged it. I was not taught how to deal with my emotions at all, never mind how to manage emotional pain. Until I got into recovery, that is. 

Here’s how to prolong and increase your pain.

Here are some of the things I did in the past that either prolonged or increased my pain. 

1). I wallowed in the pain by repeatedly thinking thoughts that gave me pain. For example, “I’ll never find love.” This kind of thought prolongs the fight-or-flight cycle in the brain and body. I didn’t realize it was an option to not do that. I didn’t know it was a choice I was making to replay those thoughts. It may not feel like you’re choosing your thoughts, but you are. This is good news because that means you can choose to change them!

2). I’d also replay painful incidents in my head. If somebody said something really hurtful to me, I’d replay that episode in my head over and over. I was acting as if I replayed it enough times, I’d somehow have a different outcome. Instead, it increased my pain and reinforced for me what an asshole they were. That reinforced my belief that they were the source of my problems rather than that my thinking was the source of my problems. When you go through something difficult, you’re only meant to go through it once. Not repeatedly.

3). Another strategy I used to use when I was in emotional pain was beating myself up for being in pain. On some level, I must have believed this would get me to ‘tow the line’ or that I could punish myself into better behavior. But I was fooling myself. You may think you’re aiming at the goal of “better” with negative self-talk, but what you’re actually doing is aiming for the goal of “worse.”

Want some evidence? The quality of your life right now! If you’re constantly dwelling on how shitty you feel or are, and your life isn’t getting any better, you’re hitting the goal you’re aiming at (even if it’s subconscious). This is making things worse. That’s because we hit what we aim at.

What’s going on in your head is of the utmost importance. If you’re telling yourself the same terrible things all day long, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year it has an enormous impact.

4). Something else I did was isolate myself and not express my pain to others. I held onto my difficult feelings, often trying to push them down. I may have expressed them when I was alone, but I wouldn’t do that until they were completely bottled up. Then I would cry and cry and cry. I’ve learned that expressing my feelings in the presence of a safe person does something magical– it eases the pain. 

The first time I learned this was with grief. It was almost as if hugging the person when I was crying with grief sucked the grief out of me. I’ve heard it said that happy relationships multiply joys and divide sorrows and this is a perfect example of that. Being witnessed by a caring person when we’re in pain is so powerful. I think it’s because we’re wired for connection. As they say, “We’re obsessive and compulsive in isolation but we heal in community.” If isolating could help us reduce our emotional pain it would have by now!

I couldn’t see that these things I was doing were wounding me repeatedly. All this kept me in victim mentality, which is such an insidious way of thinking that is so deeply entrenched it’s hard to spot. In this case, victim mentality means believing that the source of my problems was outside myself. Coming out of victim mentality is – by far – the most important mindset shift I got from recovery. And I continue to come out of it to this day. In fact, I have at least five podcast episodes about coming out of victim mentality!

You do not have to wallow in your feelings, replay difficult situations, beat yourself, or isolate yourself. You only experienced that terrible situation once, so stop replaying it. When I learned that it was a choice to stop wallowing, replaying incidents, etc. and I could lessen my pain it radically impacted my life!

Those old patterns were soooo familiar. They were so familiar they were almost comfortable. And I mean comfortable like a well-worn groove, but not comforting. If that distinction between comfortable and comforting is something you’d like to explore more, you can listen to my episode about that here

I was kind of comfortable with pain, to be honest with you. It was like an old friend who I just kept around because they’d always been there, not because I really wanted them to stick around. 

Here’s how to reduce your emotional pain.

Understanding how our brains work is really helpful when you’re trying to manage your emotions and create a better life. Keep in mind I’m a layperson, so this is my wording and understanding, I’m not a neuroscientist. 

When we get stressed out, which includes being in emotional pain, we become unable to access our frontal lobe. This is our “thinking brain.” That’s why when you’re stressed, it feels like you can’t think clearly. That’s because you can’t. You’re in fight-or-flight mode and you’re supposed to fight or flee, not think. This is a mechanism of safety for our body so the energy you need to fight or flee can be available, which it wouldn’t be if it were directed to the frontal lobe.

The way this knowledge helps is that we understand the importance of making as many decisions as possible using the frontal lobe. That’s because these will be more reasoned and rational decisions. They’re not as likely to be clouded decisions. For me, that means making as many decisions ahead of time as possible (p.s., this is what boundaries are – we make decisions ahead of time about what our standards for our life are and we uphold them – no matter what’s going on).

You’re much better off if you make decisions ahead of time than when you’re in fight-or-flight mode when you can’t think. If you’ve already made a decision ahead of time, you don’t have to think. Just have to act on that prior decision made by your frontal lobe or “human brain” as opposed to your lizard brain.

This allows you to be an actor rather than a reactor in your life. Making some decisions ahead of time reduces emotional pain. Here’s what that might look like:

When you’re well, think about three things you can do to take care of yourself when you’re really upset. This might be pausing to take three deep breaths, going to the bathroom to remove yourself from the situation, or feeling your feet planted firmly on the ground. Write those three things down and make sure at least one of them can be done immediately.

For me, the quick thing is always a positive statement. I have an affirmations note on my phone so I can just open that up and look at those. I also have a few photos on my phone saved as favorites that make me feel connected to my Higher Power so I can look at those.

Another thing we can do easily is engage our senses (e.g., name five things in the room that you can see; listen for the most distant sound you can hear). This is helpful because engaging our senses brings us into the present moment. 

Personally, I like affirmations because it’s my mind that causes all the distress so that’s where I need to intervene. But sometimes my body acts like there’s an emergency inside so I want to calm it down by breathing and/or getting present.

You could also connect with your Higher Power or say a prayer. If there’s anything I’ve just named that appeals to you, please take a moment right now to write it down. That way you’ll have them to refer to when you’re upset so you won’t have to think about what to do because you just decided ahead of time. 

Perhaps have a list of 2-4 people on your note that you can reach out to when you’re in pain. That way you don’t have to think, “Who can I call?” and you’re less likely to talk yourself out of calling them if you’ve made the decision ahead of time.

Reducing emotional pain isn’t about never being in pain again. It’s about being there for ourselves when we’re in pain. Doing things to soothe ourselves instead of making it worse. If we take care of ourselves consistently, it will reduce our pain. Being consistent is the opposite of being chaotic which is what wallowing in pain and replaying negative scenarios create – chaos.

I know it’s not that easy to just stop a thinking pattern you’ve done your whole life. So be sure to get your new thoughts and soothing behaviors written down and make sure to carry them around with you (perhaps on your phone). When the shitty thoughts and feelings come up, look at that note and think those thoughts or do those behaviors.

This works for a couple of reasons. One is that we’re making use of our frontal lobe when we come up with the thought ahead of time. Two, we can’t access that frontal lobe when we’re upset. When you refer to the thought or behavior you wrote down, you’re sort of “jumping out of” your lizard brain which breaks the pattern you’ve been using for years. 

When you replace your shitty thoughts and behaviors with good ones, it’s a good idea to keep saying the new thoughts and doing the new behaviors until you can get away from the subject altogether. Instead of thinking something like, “I’ll never find love” think something like “I’ll find love someday” or “I am lovable right now.” You don’t have to believe that new thought in the beginning, just say it anyway. 

Instead of walling in or holding onto your difficult emotions and isolating yourself, reach out to someone you love and tell them you need to get some things off your chest. To reduce our emotional pain, we need to clean up what’s going on in our minds, say good and positive things to ourselves, and connect with the present moment and those who love us. We need to treat ourselves well and take good care of ourselves. You don’t need to prolong or deepen your pain. I wish I’d been taught that decades ago, it would have saved me enormous amounts of pain.

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