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How to feel big emotions (and not lose your shit)

Here is one of my favourite brain hacks to use when you are feeling big emotions without trying to avoid them or wait until they build up and explode later.

I passed my driving test just before covid and after two years of not being behind the wheel and no experience to lean back on, I have managed to make myself petrified of driving. If you can imagine being a learner driver in London – it is just as stressful as you can imagine.

But I have been trying to managing that by renting a car and just go round the block, to help get me over the idea that I cannot do this. So I made a new year’s resolution to drive every day of January and it fills me with trepidation. But I'm pushing through it.

On my first drive of the year I was nervous as hell – something I think we can all agree is a terrible idea for the driving seat, but I know a really wonderful brain hack for when you are feeling a big emotion and decide you are going to do the thing any way. Rather than running away or avoiding it, or spiralling into catastrophic thinking, a really handy tool is to simply start naming what physical sensations in your body identify that emotion to you. So, when I'm sat behind the wheel and I think I'm frightened, that is very dangerous place to be, and I'm not very safe driver. Whereas if I I sit and talk myself through “OK so my stomach is very tight and it feels like I have a whole load of washing up liquid in there and my palms are sweaty and I notice that my breath is shorter and my thoughts are racing and my mouth is dry” then by naming these physical sensations I immediately reduce some of the fierceness of them.

Deciding I am going to drive and thinking I'm really frightened is not a very helpful, healthy or safe place to be, but me sitting there for a minute thinking “my belly feels a bit funny and my mouth is dry” is not putting me in so much jeopardy. It actually gives me more clarity and regains my calmness in order for me to act in the best way possible; for my goal, and also to keep me safe on the road.

I find this a really useful tool when it feels like your emotions are taking over your physicality or they are so big their feel out of control – by engaging the other side of your brain that needs to kick in for you to find the words to describe things, you take yourself out of the fire and into watcher mode. Rather than avoidance, it is just dialling down the intensity a little and reminding yourself that it is your body, and you are not out of your depth. If you can allow yourself the physical sensations, then you can handle any emotion life throws at you.

I hope this is useful, next time the big stuff crashes your way, and I hope you’re able to swim your way to the surface.


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