As the Buddhists say, “pain and pleasure, praise and blame, loss and gain are the natural waves of being human.” Just sitting quietly in a wicker rocker in the sunshine, I am pulled up and down by text messages, phone calls and the fluctuations in my own mind.
Why Emotional Ups and Dows Might Be Good for You
In a fascinating new study by Emodiversity Project, a team of researchers from four countries, including members of Yale University and Harvard Business School, found that experiencing many emotions may be good for our mental and physical health.
They created a new term called “emodiversity” which refers to the variety and abundance of emotions, both negative and positive, that a person experiences. They discovered, in studying 37,000 people, that mental health is not about being happy all the time and avoiding sadness and anger like the plague.
In fact, their studies demonstrate that people who regularly experience negative emotions along with positive ones have a higher emodiversity score, which is linked to lower depression, less medication use, fewer doctor visits and less days in the hospital compared to people reporting mostly positive emotions!
Understand We Are Meant to Live in Flux
So, some emotional up and down is actually healthy. It certainly seems like we are meant to be in flux, like the seasons and the tides and the moon. But it’s a matter of degree.
We all know that when those waves get huge and come crashing relentlessly, it is exhausting and highly stressful. And sometimes we may feel as if we are drowning.
A bad medical report, loss of a job, intense family conflict, worry about grandchildren’s well-being, adult children in trouble – all of these issues have come up in my immediate circle of friends just in the past week.
So how can we possibly keep afloat and maintain some balance when the waves get intense?
I have put together a list of 6 life skills that have helped me, my friends and my therapy clients find some peace even in those most difficult times.
Recognize Emotional Flooding
Number one is to recognize that when the upsetting thing first happens, you may become emotionally flooded. Imagine a house when the hurricane hits and the waters rush in. At that point you may need to just breathe and give the flooding time to recede, a few hours or a few days.
When you are emotionally flooded, the chemicals of stress are confusing your judgement, making things seem even worse than they are – terrible, horrible, unsolvable.
At such moments, the important thing is to tell yourself, “I am emotionally flooded right now. I am not able to see this clearly.” Like our mothers sagely reminded us, things will look better in the morning. When the floodwaters recede, everything becomes manageable. And there may even be a rainbow.
Know This Could Work Out for the Best
Really a philosophy, here is a piece of wisdom that seems to come more easily as we age. It’s the sure knowledge that things are not always what they seem.
As Pema Chodron, an elderly American Buddhist nun, explains in her book When Things Fall Apart, “When we think something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”
We, elders, seem to know the deep truth of cultivating an open-minded attitude that any situation may actually work out for the best. You never know.
Ground yourself to physical reality get immersed in your senses with activities like baking, gardening, cleaning, hiking, swimming, art, photography, making music, being in nature and of course, deep breathing. Long, slow breathing can be especially helpful to reduce emotional flooding.
This morning, after receiving difficult news yesterday, I am sitting in my garden watching the morning glories slowly open up as the sun rises.
When crisis hits, keep your perspective. Imagine a camera lens zooming out to view your entire life. Notice that now your current situation may not look quite so catastrophic.
Act Normal in Crazy Circumstances
This is a trick I learned from my older sister. If you have to go receive scary medical results, put on makeup and a nice outfit. If you just found out your daughter is getting a divorce, keep playing ball with the grandchildren.
Even when things look hopeless, set the table and make dinner. Of course, there are times when we will fall apart, and need to. But generally, it’s best to maintain normalcy. It’s soothing.
Life is endlessly fascinating, and at 66 years of age, I am so curious about how it will all turn out, even the rough stuff.
Perhaps most important to heed are the words of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem,
“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
It’s how the light gets in.”