November 2015

Managing Volatile Emotions

November is one of those months in the year when we can experience volatile weather conditions. Warm sunshine and blue skies can quickly be erased by jarring coldness and threatening storm clouds. Daylight hours quickly shrink as we move towards the winter solstice. Customary rainfall can, with plummeting temperatures, rapidly turn to snowfall and jolt us with its presence! Even the wind seems to have more of a ‘bite’ to it in November.

Such volatility is true of our emotional life as well. Certain emotions such as anger, fear, and anxiety can easily be aroused within us and spark strong reactions, both internally and externally. Lingering moments of frustration, worry, and sadness can rapidly overwhelm us with dark rage, agonizing terror, and deep depression. Such sudden changes in our emotional life, if ignored or unattended to, can fester and become chronic. Allowed to have a life of their own, strong and volatile emotions can impair relationships, erode our physical health, and paralyze us from living a fulfilling life.

 We need strategies to ‘manage’ the eruption of strong emotions. Healthy management means that we do three things. First of all, we handle and do not avoid such emotions when they are aroused. Secondly, we apply some skill and resourcefulness in directing such emotions in a healthy way. Thirdly, we treat such emotions with respect, by going slowly and carefully.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Understanding. First, ask ourselves what having such a strong feeling means. Seek to understand the context in which we find ourselves, what may have changed, or what may have triggered such an emotional arousal. Often, we are oblivious to or have not named the reasons underlying our volatility.
  • Metaphor. Look for a metaphor to understand and express our feelings in a less threatening way. eg.- “I’m so depressed, it’s like being in a dark whole with no way  out”, or “My anxiety is so strong, it’s like being tapped in a room with an elephant”.
  • Dosing. Learn to tolerate and neutralize small amounts of the feeling. We take prescription medication in small doses, and so we need to express strong affect in small doses. Allow ourselves small intervals of time to express the feeling, then ‘hit the brake’!
  • Work the metaphor. Go back to our metaphor of understanding and find a problem-solving action to handle the feeling. eg- “What ladder could I use to help me climb out of my hole….physical exercise, a visit to the doctor, etc.?” or, “How could I ‘make room’ for myself or find a door in the room so that the elephant does not trample me?”
  • Move it. Strong affect needs to be moved. Exercise it out, talk it out, write it out…find some healthy outlet to move our feeling into. eg.-a mother whose son was killed by a drunk driver turned her anger and profound loss into forming an action group now know as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
  • Anchor ourselves. When we are tossed about by the eruption of strong emotion, we need to stabilize ourselves with anchors….supportive family and friends, familiar routines, relaxing activities that calm us, and soothing self-statements that tell ourselves that “we will weather this storm and get through it”!

Volatile emotions can be managed successfully… with work, care, attention, and practice. The ‘Novembers’ of our emotional lives can be safely negotiated. Now I need to look for my winter coat and snow shovel!