Day 16: Emotional Repression On Day 2 of the program, we discussed that our brains can’t perfectly distinguish between a physical threat and a psychological threat. One of the goals for recovery is to teach our brains that the psychological stressors that it learned to fear are not actually dangerous. There are many things our brains can interpret as psychologically dangerous, but today we’re going to focus on emotions. Emotions aren’t inherently dangerous, but if you grew up in an environment where it wasn’t okay to feel certain feelings, you may have learned that these emotions aren'’t safe. This means that later in life, if a threatening emotions arises, your danger signals are activated, and you can feel pain. One way to break this pattern is to teach your brain that the emotions it believes are dangerous…are actually safe. The Learning Brain A few years ago, a friend of mine got a rescue dog named Rocky. Having been treated poorly the first few years of his life, Rocky was a bundle of nerves. Whenever there was a knock at the door, Rocky would cower behind the couch. He had learned that people = danger. But every time visitors would come over, they’d treat him wonderfully. And day by day, he came to develop a new understanding: people = safe. No matter what we learned growing up, with enough corrective experiences, our brains can develop a new understanding. The way to teach our brains that scary emotions are actually safe is to simply experience the emotions over and over in a safe way. Repression In order to experience our emotions in a safe way, we need to feel them first. But there’s a barrier: when scary emotions arise, our brains generate protective defense mechanisms – kind of like psychological shields. As an example of how defense mechanisms work, imagine that you’re going out on a blind date. You agreed to meet at 7 PM at a restaurant across town. 7 PM comes and goes. “She’s probably stuck in traffic,” you think. Then it hits 7:30, and you’re awkwardly fidgeting with your phone. “Maybe she had to work late,” you reason. Now it’s 8 PM, and the waiters start taking bets on how long you’re going to stay. Finally, you get a text from her: “Omg, I’m so sorry, totally lost track of time…reschedule?” You think to yourself, “She’s really busy, it could happen to anyone.” This is the defense mechanism of rationalization – your mind conjures up a way to justify her behavior. You never even feel the anger that is likely bubbling under the surface. Our brains have a lot of defense mechanisms: denial, dissociation, projection, etc. And defense mechanisms are unconscious, which means we’re not even aware that we’re using them. This can pose a challenge, since it’s hard to overcome what we can’t see. One of the benefits of working with a therapist is that they’re able to point out defense mechanisms that we might not otherwise be aware of. This can help increase our ability to access certain emotions. Getting Beneath the Surface You may be thinking, “If my defense mechanisms are protecting me from repressed emotions, and I can’t see my defense mechanisms, how am I ever supposed feel these emotions?’ Well, there’s a loophole. Defense mechanisms don’t protect us from emotions directly, they protect us from the anxiety that comes up in response to the emotions. So to help get to these emotions, we just need to regulate our anxiety. And what’s the best way to regulate anxiety? See how it all comes together? When there’s an emotion that our brains think is dangerous, it increases our anxiety. By bringing our attention to that anxiety, it helps us get to the emotion underneath the surface. Attending to the physical sensations of your emotions in a safe way, over time, can have a cumulative effect. And like Rocky, the rescue dog that came into his own, your brain can learn: What was once dangerous is now safe. Feeling Your Emotions Psychologists have identified six universal emotions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. It's important to feel our emotions, even the unpleasant ones. Like Winnie the Pooh said, "Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them." Two emotions in particular that people have a tendency to repress are sadness and anger. Sadness In the following clip, Ginger is repressing sadness. Somewhere along the line, she’d gotten the message that sadness isn’t okay. You can hear the emotion in her voice, but defense mechanisms keep popping up: Your browser does not support the audio element. Click here to download the mp3 audio file By attending to the physical sensations in her body, Ginger was able to access the emotion, and even more impressively – she was able to stay with it. This corrective experience communicated to her brain: sadness is safe. Anger In the following clip, John is repressing anger. He has a tendency to treat himself poorly, and as he talks about his “inner bully,” anger begins bubbling beneath the surface…and his anxiety shoots through the roof: Your browser does not support the audio element. Click here to download the mp3 audio file Despite his anxiety, John leaned in to the anger and felt it deeply. And when he did, his anxiety completely subsided. This corrective experience communicated to his brain: anger is safe. Rome wasn’t built in a day. One experience alone isn’t going to bring you from “emotions are dangerous” “emotions are safe.” But it’s a start. And with exposure and repetition, you can change your brain.