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Toolbox for Emotional Coping

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How can emotions and emotional coping influence our lives? To understand this, we must know a little bit about what happens in the brain. Excerpts from a talk by Dr Prithika Chary.

When we are faced with our feelings, emotions, thoughts and various bodily painful conditions, there is something known as social feeling which is very important for our well-being, because man is a social animal. We were not created to live by ourselves in isolation, though the pandemic has actually pushed us into an unreal situation like that. Social feelings come from various influences in our life. Affiliation is when we associate with somebody who is doing something similar to us. When we are children, our parents, teachers and society influence the way we look at society and move with others. There are moral sentiments which we learn and absorb and which gets into our belief system. A lot of this is influenced by several neurotransmitters, which influence our mood. In today’s world, our social feelings are being influenced to a great deal by social media.

Social feelings involve emotional communication. When people have psychiatric conditions, these social feelings get altered and run amok. So things change in the way people behave in society. But what is more important is personal and interpersonal stress. Today, due to increased uncertainty and unpredictability, we are not sure if we are doing the right thing and thinking the right way about people and situations. This causes a lot of interference in our emotional stability. Linguistics is also very important. The language of self-talk and the language we use with each other can also influence social feelings tremendously. The body language plays a role and it is just an expression of our attitude.

The sensory-neural-emotion connection
There is a connection between our five senses and the brain. The brain consists of three distinct portions: the rational brain, emotional brain (limbic system) and survival (reptilian) brain. The rational brain is at the prefrontal cortex; the limbic system is in the middle. The reptilian brain is the earliest brain that we had and it is at the lower portion of the brain called the brain stem. It performs all the survival and automatic functions like maintaining BP, pulse and temperature. The rational and emotional brains got evolved as humans grew from ancient ages. The limbic system or the emotional brain can influence the survival brain. From the rational brain or neo-cortex come the speech, language, rationalisation and intellectualisation. So when we speak about emotion, it is not an isolated thing happening in one part of the brain.

All these parts of the brain participate in the sensory-neural-emotion connection. So when I see, hear, taste, smell or touch something, it gets connected to my emotional state and it is influenced by my cognition and rational brain as well. Thus, it is a very complex system and we cannot really separate them out. There is a tremendous link between the spirit, mind, brain, body, immune system and the endocrine system, which is the glandular system.

The mind-body puzzle
There is a small part of the brain called the insula, which is the feeling side of emotions. It is responsible for our very complex internal sensations or feelings like anger, sadness, elation, disgust, sexual arousal and anxiety. Also, it is responsible for some bodily sensations. There is a close relationship between emotion and our bodily sensations. Visceral sensations like pain, temperature, fatigue, itch, pressure and tension are linked to the small area called the insula. Both physical pain and emotional pain are processed very similarly in the brain. So if you have an emotional disturbance, you can have a pain in any part of your body. We all know that sometimes there is no clear reason for our itching or conditions like psoriasis while we may actually be going through emotional stress.

When the rational brain doesn’t get a chance to override the amygdala, it is called the amygdala hijack. We start having unreasonable fears and live with those fears, without allowing our rational brain to bring in some kind of meaning or sense.

The body is a reflection of many of our emotions. For instance, the perception of fear can happen in two ways. There is an emotional stimulus when you see a snake. You are afraid of the snake and the fear can cause a physiological reaction in your skin where you get gooseflesh. Your heart rate and breathing go up. The sight of the snake works on the rational brain as a perception of fear.

Amygdala hijack
It can work in another way. It goes first to your emotional brain or the amygdala, which is the fear centre or the rage centre. It is the centre for many emotions. Then you have an implicit memory from some time ago, when you learnt that snakes are dangerous. It processes and says a snake is something to be afraid of. That stimulates a physiological reaction. When we are faced with a challenge, our first response is actually not a response. It’s a reaction at the level of the amygdala. The upper brain called the prefrontal cortex gives a proactive response which will override the reactive response and say, ‘Look, you’re only looking at the snake. It is not biting you. So don’t be afraid.’ Or, ‘It is only a picture of a snake. It is not going to cause you any harm.’

When the rational brain doesn’t get a chance to override the amygdala, it is called the amygdala hijack. We start having unreasonable fears and live with those fears, without allowing our rational brain to bring in some kind of meaning or sense.

There’s a sensory system through which you perceive the threat. There’s fear in the amygdala and you have fear responses. You get into fear behaviour and physiological responses. There is also a defensive survival circuit. When you activate that, it also goes to the amygdala and you build up your defences. If there’s a fire in the room suddenly, we don’t wait for the rational brain to say, ‘get up and run.’ The primitive brain and the amygdala will make you to see the fire, get up and run. Then you will see where to run, how to run and through which door. All that comes afterwards.

You can emotionally modulate pain and there is a brain circuit for that. That is where the toolbox comes into play.

The role of the amygdala – the reactive and primitive brain – is to keep us safe. That is the primary function of the brain. The brain is meant to keep you comfortable and safe. This is the reason when you want to challenge yourself, they ask you to come out of your comfort zone. Otherwise, you’re going to be sitting there, fearing everything around you and not becoming your true self.
The emotional circuit

In the emotional circuit, the stimulus goes to the thalamus, from there to the amygdala and to other parts of the brain. It goes to the front of the brain and activates the automatic nervous system. It activates the emotional response and also the glandular system. So you can see that an emotional circuit is so complex.

When you empathize with an emotional scene from a movie, there are areas of your brain like the parietal cortex, part of the insula, another part in the lower brain, the primitive brain and the limbic system – all of which get activated. They create a lot of responses in the brain. Also, when you are very proud of your team’s achievement, different parts of the brain, mainly the rational brain get activated. We have the sensory system, the hearing system and the medial prefrontal cortex which is associated with a sense of achievement.

Both emotions and cognition can influence pain; and pain in turn can influence fatigue, anxiety, can create psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, irritability and relationship difficulties. All these are cognitive and emotional effects of pain. The two are intimately related in a vice-versa kind of manner.

You can emotionally modulate pain and there is a brain circuit for that. That is where the toolbox comes into play. When you put a toolbox into action, you will find that you can increase or decrease the experience of the pain and the emotion being experienced. Empathy for another person’s pain, can increase your own pain. If you can reduce pain by distraction, emotional pain can be more bearable. This is where the toolbox greatly helps.

Also, if you just anticipate that you’re going to feel better and you’re going to get relief, it activates what is called the opioid system in the brain, which is the natural painkiller system of the brain. It can reduce both emotional and physical pain.

The way we respond
There are many ways in which we respond when we undergo a challenge – emotional or physical. We can be in a problem solving mode; we have the efficiency to solve the problem. Otherwise we get into a coping mode. We are able to emotionally cope, though we still don’t have the solution to the problem. We can get into a hedonic disengagement mode where the problem solving thing doesn’t exist at all. We just disengage from it. Or we can pretend the problem is not there at all.

The worst form, which many of us succumb to is, we don’t attempt to solve the problem and we become totally helpless. We have no efficiency or we cope in a negative way. It worsens the situation. The other method is that we get preoccupied with the problem. That becomes our be-all and end-all for all our activities. So these are many ways in which we respond, when faced with a challenge.

It has been shown with heat or thermal maps that emotions can get trapped in the body. The brighter the colour, the more energetic is that emotion being trapped in the body. Happiness and love are high-energy emotions. They involve the whole body and make you feel really good. Sadness and depression cause low energy. This has been established and proven scientifically, which is why in some mindfulness and meditation exercises, they ask you that if you are thinking about a pain, to see where the pain appears in your body, so you can isolate it.

There are many ways in which we cope emotionally and some of them are:

  • Walk away
  • Say, ‘It’s okay; I can manage.’
  • Have a toolbox
  • Feel that everything is safe; it doesn’t matter.
  • Ask for help
  • Change the way we talk about it
  • Take deep breaths
  • Laugh
  • Spend some quiet time.
  • Listen to advice from somebody
  • Distance yourselves from the problem.

There are tons of books which tell you about mastering your emotions. But if we can really understand the problem, the answer itself is there and it will come out of the problem. It is not separate from the problem.

The 4 element toolbox
One of the tool boxes has 4 elements: Resilience, Play, Get it out and Relax.

Resilience: Physically move your body when you have an emotional stress and you can change the state of your emotion. Do any form of exercise. Try jumping jacks. Go for a walk, dance, jump rope or go on a bike ride.

Play: Play with your emotion by being creative, by diverting it and applying it in some other activity. You can play an instrument, paint, do some crafts, sing loudly and work on creating something beautiful.

Get it out: Just give vent to it and let off steam. There are certain places in Japan where they keep posting plates. If you angry with your boss, put a picture of your boss there and throw a plate against it and break it. You can gather stuff to smash or use a punching bag. Some people scream and that is scream therapy.

Relaxation tools are activities to calm you down. They help you to slowly release the pent-up, high emotional energy.

Relax: You can do meditation. Use visualization. Play with your pet, cuddle your child, take a deep breath.

For the children, we have physical tools, relaxation tools, thinking tools, social tools and some special tools.

It is possible to trap painful emotions in our body. Is there an emotional muscle memory? We don’t have clear scientific proof of that. But when you undergo a massage and osteopathic treatment, you feel better. So, it is believed that emotional muscle memory is real.

The 4 coloured zones
The first thing that we have to do when we want to set up an emotional coping toolbox is to have a safe area where we can give vent to some of the coping mechanisms and take advantage of that. This whole process actually started for special children who are hyperactive, angry and violent. To help the teachers and parents to manage these children, in the kindergarten or classroom, they have four coloured zones- Blue, Green, Yellow and Red. The rest area is blue zone. If the child wants to rest, he or she can go to the blue zone. In the green zone, they can find an activity to do, if they are very agitated and hyperactive. The yellow zone is to slow them down. If they are violent and agitated, they can go to red zone to stop such behaviour. The child will choose to go to these zones or the parent or teacher can guide the children.

We have to mimic this whole thing when we as adults want to cope. There are rooms called Snoezelen multi-sensory environment rooms. There will be some pleasant smell and music, which you can manipulate. You can watch things slowly move up and down which relaxes you. There will be play of colours and lights. In your own home, find a nook or a small area. Create your own emotional toolbox and keep it there. It could be in your veranda or a place which makes you feel really good, comfortable, loved and cherished. You can design it in pastel colours and ensure that it has just the right amount of light and air. This must be an area where you can go to, when you feel emotionally stressed.

Emotional Toolbox
For the children, we have physical tools, relaxation tools, thinking tools, social tools and some special tools. Inappropriate tools like a knife and scissors should not be kept in a toolbox.

Physical tools are those that will help you to let off steam, get your blood circulating, get your heart rate higher or release your energy. This is why you feel better when you throw something or break something when you’re angry or frustrated. But in our own zone, we do it with intention and without secondary or collateral damage. So you can exercise, dance, run, cycle, do jumping jacks, push-ups, scream therapy, punch a bag, kick a ball or throw a ball. If, for instance, dancing is one of your outlets for a physical tool, then keep some music generating thing inside the tool box so that you can access it straight away. If you like playing ball or dancing or exercising, keep whatever you need for doing that in the toolbox itself. We do with children as well.

Relaxation tools are activities to calm you down. They help you to slowly release the pent-up, high emotional energy. The simplest and easiest thing is listening to soothing music. You can have a spa experience, a massage or a relaxing bath. You can do a repetitive activity like mandala drawing, zen garden drawing or do colouring book. You can draw patterns on the sand. You can de-clutter your wardrobe. You can play an instrument, take out photos and pictures that activate happy memories. You can put all these things into the toolbox.

There is something called as the 5, 4,3,2,1 sensory activity. When you’re much stressed, sit down quietly. Look around the room for 5 things which catch your attention…

Don’t try to meditate when you are in this high arousal state. If you really need to try, sit absolutely quiet in silence, without moving, for just a few minutes. Just that pause itself will help you to calm down. Then there are social tools where you use the support of others to manage your feelings. You call a friend or relative. Keep all their phone numbers in a book inside your toolbox, so you know, whom to call and get their number straightaway. Don’t keep it somewhere where you have to go and search. If you have a therapist, go for a therapy session. Invite a friend for a meal. You’ll be so preoccupied in getting the meal ready and freshening up the house for the guest, that your own emotions will take a back seat.

The self-soothing activities are all related to your sensations. You can touch a stuffed animal or a stress ball. Listen to nature sounds. Do guided meditation. Look at pretty pictures and videos.

The art of saying ‘no’
You have to set boundaries and learn to say ‘no’ to anything that does not serve you. This is easier said than done, but you have to learn to practice it and build it into your emotional coping. Surround yourself with people who are cheerful, make you laugh and get your mind off your stresses.
Thinking tools help to manage and capitalise on your intellectual strength and to deal with the stress. It modifies your thinking into positivity. You can write down your negative feeling, tear it up or burn the paper. That’s supposed to be quite therapeutic for many people. Read something inspiring. Watch a video which lifts your spirits. Write a journal and empty your heart out. Do a self-audit. Ask yourself why you are feeling this way and what triggered this emotion. Is it something I can learn to avoid in future? Can I observe the situation as a third party without blaming or complaining? When you sit down, analyse and label the emotion, you’ll find it’s not such a big deal.
Then there are special interest tools which are specific things that you enjoy doing. They provide pleasure, self-satisfaction and relaxation. They divert your attention to do something engaging. This differs for all of us. It may be arts, craft, gardening, knitting, crochet, embroidery, Sudoku, crossword puzzle or jigsaw puzzle.

5,4,3,2,1 Exercise
There is something called as the 5, 4,3,2,1 sensory activity. When you’re much stressed, sit down quietly. Look around the room for 5 things which catch your attention, listen to 4 sounds that you can hear, identify any 3 smells, touch two that will make you feel comforted and taste one thing. Lemon drop is commonly used for taste as it gives a sharp, tangy taste and it is very soothing.

When you experience the sensations, because of the sensory-neural-emotional connect, you will automatically start calming down and relaxing. Watch a movie that you like. Go for a walk in nature and along with this, you can do the 54321 exercise. Cuddle your pet. Take deep breaths. Do some breathing exercises and creative visualization.

Using the toolbox
You have now got the toolbox. From that toolbox, what are the activities that you can do? The self-soothing activities are all related to your sensations. You can touch a stuffed animal or a stress ball. Listen to nature sounds. Do guided meditation. Look at pretty pictures and videos. Read out self-affirmations. Practise visual imagery. For taste, have something nice to taste. Many enjoy chamomile tea or a sour candy. One of the mindfulness exercises is to take an orange, break it up, take the fleshy part, put just a little in your mouth and savour each of those little fleshy part by pressing, squeezing and feeling the juice. What mindfulness does is that it makes you come to the moment. Whatever is happening behind and whatever is going to happen in the future is lost. You start centring into the present moment. For smell, there are aromatic candles, lotions, perfumes and essential oils.

The art of distracting
Distract yourselves. Identify activities that you enjoy doing so that you can take your mind off. Have emotional awareness, mindfulness and a support system. Watching a snow globe is very therapeutic. There are coloured bottles, which you can prepare by adding glue and water together and putting lot of little elements into it. When you shake it, it will come down slowly because the liquid inside is in a gel form and that is very relaxing. Aggressive and hyperactive children, when given these sensory bottles, relax completely by just watching them.

Try puzzles, patterns, crochet or music. Start counting up to 99 by threes – three, six, nine, twelve and go on up to 999. It seems like a silly thing to do but it’s very relaxing. De-clutter your surroundings. Go for a walk. Just get up and do something else.

Do the opposite action. If you’re feeling some difficulty, do something which is more positive and opposite of what you’re feeling. Try affirmations, guided meditation and asking lofty questions.

Get inspired. Watch something funny, a comedy or read a joke book. Gain emotional awareness. Labelling your emotions is very important. You can journal, make a chart, identify what you’re feeling and label it.

Start writing your gratitude journal. Try to focus on all that you already have because it will make you realize that you have so much and what you’re upset about is something very small.

Mindfulness. Pick up tools for centring and grounding, practise yoga, eat mindfully and stay in the moment.

Have a crisis plan. Have the contact information of your support and resources. Have one person in your life whom you can contact at any time. Practice cloud meditation where you imagine sitting on the cloud and landing on your most beautiful place on earth.