How Healing Happens: 5 Steps to Transforming Emotional Pain

People come to me when emotional pain, for whatever reason, has gotten to a point that it is interfering with daily life and is no longer tolerable. One of the most common questions they ask is "how do I make it stop?"  There are a lot of different theories and approaches to therapy. While talking about weekly events that cause pain can provide some temporary relief, my ultimate goal is to help people transform their pain for longer term relief. There is a pattern I have noticed that happens during this process. This blog isn't a "how to guide" but rather a description of what happens in therapy. Hopefully it will give you hope for your own journey - healing happens!

1. Resource: When you are in emotional pain it feels like the ground is unsteady under your feet. It's kind of like there has been an earthquake (or more likely a series of earthquakes) and there are cracks in the foundation. Resourcing is about building that foundation back up so you can withstand the little earthquakes in your life without crumbling. What does resourcing mean exactly? It's about identifying resources within yourself or in your environment that make you feel safe, nurtured and loved. Resources can be favorite memories, a person you love or who made you feel loved, an image of a place that makes you feel safe, favorite music, a cozy blanket, pets, spirituality, nature. Resources can be anything really, as long as they make you feel good, warm, comfortable, nurtured, or safe. Some of my resources are memories of my childhood home, memories of my grandmother who passed away when I was a child, memory of my mom doing a cartwheel in a parking lot (it made me laugh and feel happy way back when), a warm hug from a friend or family member, my cats, and certain songs that make me smile. We pay attention to the pain we feel because it's intense. Resourcing changes your perspective to focusing on the things that make you feel better. It's not simple affirmations, but intentional, mindful, deep experiences of feeling good. Resourcing is being mindful of the good, and unmindful of the worries. One of my favorite exercises to help access resources is the Resource Journal. This is not the typical "my diary" type journal, rather it accesses your right brain by using images instead of words.  A resource journal is done with unlined pages and you fill it with pleasant images. You can draw in it, doodle with colors that make you happy, or cut images out of magazines and paste them in. I have even seen people write little sayings in their journal - but they key here is to NOT write top to bottom and left to right, but rather in spirals, or bottom up or in some way different than you would usually write something.  Resourcing is most effective when it is done in the right brain, which is the area which processes emotions and images, which is why the resource journal can be so effective.

2. Self soothe: The next step is to learn to soothe yourself.  It's harder than it sounds!  When we are babies we cannot soothe ourselves and rely on our caregivers (typically mothers) to soothe us by rocking us, holding us, and talking to us in sweet vocal tones. If our parents are anxious or stressed and can't soothe themselves, then how can they possibly soothe us? And if we don't get adequately soothed as babies, then we never really learn to do it ourselves. How many of us, in our too busy lives, take time out to do something nice for ourselves? Soothing can be done by activating our senses - sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste and movement. We tend to prefer some senses over others - figure out which senses call to you.  For sight you might look at a beautiful flower or tree, or a favorite picture. You might visualize a beautiful place in your memory or just look outside on a sunny day. Anything that is beautiful to you is a potential source of soothing. For hearing you might listen to beautiful music (calming, not so much rock and roll), birds singing, the sound of rain on the roof, the sound of the ocean or the wind. You can get a sound machine to help you with this, or even easier you can download an app on your phone that has a library of sounds that are calming.  For touch you might hold a soft pillow in your arms or curl up in a cozy blanket. You might pet a cat or dog, or give your partner a scalp massage (or give yourself one!) Maybe getting into fresh sheets in bed feels good to you, or wrapping yourself in a nice hug. For smell you might notice the scent of a flower or fresh cut grass, or pull out your favorite lotion or a scented candle. I love the smell of tea so I will often use that for self soothing. To soothe using taste, try to mindfully eat a small bite of food - perhaps chocolate or a favorite candy, or maybe a cup of coffee is soothing to you. Again it's all up to personal preference. Remember, the key here is to really pay attention to the taste, not gobble down comfort food. That might be soothing for a few moments but if it gives you a belly ache, it won't really do you any good. Movement is one of my favorites. We work hard and then go home and turn into couch potatoes. We forget that our bodies need to move to feel really good. Take a stretch break, or do a little bit of yoga in your living room. Take slow walk and notice each step. The key here is to slow down and really notice each movement. Think of soothing a baby - rocking them back and forth works well, and it works well for us as adults too! We usually want to get others to soothe us, and this is great but it's not the complete answer. When someone else soothes us with a hug or kind words it's lovely. But what about when they aren't around? We have to learn to do this for ourselves too.

3. Feel: Emotions can be intense and they can be scary. You might be scared that if you begin to experience your feelings that they will overwhelm you and take over. The fear of emotions can actually make them worse. A friend of mine likes to say that ignoring emotions is like banishing them to the basement, where they work out and get stronger and stronger until they erupt. There are lots of ways that we bury emotions - eating them away or starving them, becoming over focused on work so that you have no time to think of other things, drinking too much, numbing out to TV or Netflix, compulsive shopping, and so on. There are as may ways to push down emotions as there are people. If you'e been pushing down your emotions for a long time then is really can be overwhelming to start experiencing them so it's important to do it in small steps. Tell yourself that you will only experience 20% (or whatever feels tolerable) of your feelings. Give yourself a limited amount of time with your feelings, and then go back to whatever distracts you. Imagine or draw out some kind of container with a lid. It can be a box in your closet, a trunk at the bottom of the ocean, a room with a door you can close - whatever appeals to you. You can choose to put your feelings in the container when they threaten to overwhelm you. The key to this working is to come back to the feelings at a later time. Feelings are like a small child - they can be told that mommy's busy and they need to go play by themselves for a while, but they need to know when mommy will be available again. You can't put off children or feelings indefinitely.  The best way to start experiencing feelings in a safe way is to see a therapist.

4. Express: Once you begin to experience your feelings, the next step is to put words on those feelings. Name your emotions. This can be harder than it sounds and it's really common to hear people just say "I'm upset". Upset is not an emotion and is usually either sadness, fear or anger.  According to Marsha Linehan we have 10 basic emotions:

  • Love - passion, caring, affection, attraction, warmth...
  • Sadness - blue mood, despair, grief, feeling down, hurt, disappointed...
  • Fear - anxiety, nervousness, panic, terror, shock...
  • Happiness - joy, elated, excited, content, relieved, eager, pride...
  • Anger - rage, irritable, grumpy, cranky, aggravated...
  • Guilt - regret, sorry, remorse...
  • Shame - embarrassed, humiliated, shy, self conscious...
  • Disgust - aversion, disdain, dislike, repelled...
  • Envy - pettiness, bitterness, dissatisfied, longing...
  • Jealousy - clinging, protective, possessive...

When you are feeling something, ask yourself which category of emotion it fits with. There are many words for each emotion, so don't limit yourself to the few I've listed here. You can write about your feelings and emotions, you can talk to a friend or therapist about them, or you can simply notice and describe what you're feeling. Just get curious - what am I feeling? How can I tell I'm feeling that? Curiosity will help you get some distance from the emotion so that it's tolerable and doesn't overwhelm you. Feeling is not only about emotion. It is about sensation and perception. When you name it and describe it, it looses some if it's power.

5. Integrate: 

Definition of Integrate:
1: to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole; 2: to unite with something else, to incorporate into a larger unit
— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The last step and the one that you will work on over and over and over again is to integrate the steps above. Integration is when you put the parts together - resourcing, soothing, feeling and expressing. You may alternate between different steps of the process may times as you work through whatever issues are holding you back. That's normal. 

Healing is not a linear process, it's cyclical. This blog is an explanation of how the healing process works. For further information please contact me using the form below. I wish you all the best in your healing journey!