Four steps for processing emotion / kicking emotional overwhelm in the butt

“What you resist, persists”

{ Carl Gustav Jung}

As we go through life we pick up pain – ours, our families’ and friends’, as well as collective pain and trauma. It’s important to regularly “detox” from these emotions as what is not released will remain stuck in our systems.

When we hold onto old emotion, we’re effectively renting out internal space to something that’s creating blockages, taking our energy, and holding us back from fully experiencing life.

How often do you hear the word ‘overwhelm’? People are constantly feeling overwhelmed (and this is important – overwhelm is a feeling, not an objective thing); by work, by other people’s demands on them, by emotions. Emotional overwhelm is the sense that there is too much emotion inside; emotion that we don’t know what to do with. The feeling of tension, of suffocation even, from not being able to or not knowing how to let the emotion out.

In a culture that values a “game face”, “keeping up appearances” and putting a smile on no matter what, most people experience this occasionally. Often it leads to suppression, which then becomes trapped energy in the system (this becomes what we typically refer to as “emotional baggage”). Sometimes it reaches a level where we are unable to maintain “business as usual” and it erupts out in a (usually not very graceful) explosion of unshed tears, unshared words and unexpressed emotion.

You’ve got to feel it to heal it.

Being human isn’t pretty. It’s not clean and neat and tidy. As much as we’d like to believe that fairy tale, part of becoming an emotionally resilient adult is accepting the reality that life is messy.

And nothing is more messy than emotions.

Our exquisite sensitivity and the complexity of our emotional landscapes are a very recent addition in evolutionary terms, and we’re still grappling with how they work and how they screw us up. And wherever they come from, whatever form they take, emotions must be acknowledged and felt fully in order for them to be alchemised and released.

There are two main ways that people tend to react to strong emotions; one is to shut down, and the other is to drown.

Neither facilitates a healthy processing of life. We can think of processing emotions like emotional detox; not much fun per se, but necessary on a regular basis. Below are four steps to help you work with emotions in an empowered and responsible way (that can also be magic-filled and sacred!); Ground, Release, Self-care, Integration.

Four steps for processing emotion

1. Ground

Create the space (time, environment, commitments) and the container to process. If you have an alter or sacred space you might want to be near that; otherwise you can gather some objects you hold dear to you to keep with you – gemstones, jewelry, photos – anything that helps you feel safe, loved and connected to something bigger.

An important component to feeling safe to release emotion is creating a container; that might mean creating a time-bound space; you can set an alarm for say, an hour, and have that be the limit of how much time you’re choosing to spend processing. If you’re scared you might get stuck or not be able to ‘close’ the processing by yourself, call a friend and ask them to be on standby at the time when you foresee ending the process, so that you can call them for support or to talk things over with.

Get comfortable, breathe deep. Feel your connection with the floor through your feet/seat and release any tension into the ground. You might want to place a hand on your heart and on your belly if it feels good.

Check in with your with body, energy, emotions, thoughts – notice if there is there any contraction, heaviness, or stuckness present. Open yourself to being fully present with whatever is arising in you in this moment, and trust that it’s here to serve you. You can ask for support and guidance if you feel called to.

2. Release

Now we’re ready to move into the release phase. It’s totally normal to feel nervous and possibly have a knot in your tummy as you move into this phase, at least when you first begin practicing consciously working with emotion – we fear release because we’re so used to repressing emotion that we’re scared that when we actually let it out a volcanic eruption might occur. But the wonderful thing about emotion is that, intense as it might sometimes be, it is by it’s very nature transient. Emotion moves through us and leaves (if we let it).

The word for this phase is surrender.

Now surrender is not something that we Westerners are particularly fond of. We’ve spent several hundred years insisting (quite righteously) that we can control and manipulate everything in nature (including our own nature).

Surrender is scary. Surrender is sacred. Surrender is a deep and unequivocal YES to life (and thereby, to ourselves).

Note that we’re talking about surrendering to BEING WITH what is present within us; not acting on it. This is of course particularly important if what is present is anger, or even rage. These are viable emotions and need to be allowed, felt, processed and let go of. From the place of clarity post emotional processing you can then decide if and how you want to respond.

Remember that even while you have intense emotion running through you, you do not need to be consumed by it. The witness part of you, the essential self, is always present. Watching benevolently, even as you are flooded, tumbled around, smashed on the rocks by the giant waves of your emotion, patiently waiting for you to listen to the wisdom and guidance available.

This is the part that knows what you need, that knows when it’s done, that will pick you up off the floor and soothe you at the deepest level of your being. This is the part that won’t let you give up on yourself, even in the darkest moments.

Listen to your body as you allow the emotion to release – does it want to be in a certain position? Does it want to make sound? Trust it, let it guide you. Surrender. Open and let it flow until it’s done, washed out, gone from your system. And know that if it’s linked to something big, yes it’ll be back – but each time it’s a deeper layer that’s being let go of, that much more space we’ve created within, and eventually, it will be done; alchemized.

3. Self-care

Working with emotion is like dealing with chronic (physical) pain; it’s tiring work. If you’ve ever grieved for someone you’ve loved you’ll know what I’m talking about; mourning is exhausting! You get to a point where you feel like a dishcloth that someone has wrung out so vigorously that it’s completely shriveled and limp.

We want to make sure to cleanse the whole system now so drinking water (lots of it) is a wonderful start. You can add some drops of Rescue Remedy (the Bach Flower trauma mixture) to support the subtle energy field in processing the energetic impact. Smudging with sage is also great for this.

Now it’s time to listen to your body and your inner wisdom. Become still and ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” What environment, what activities do you need; music or silence or nature; company or solitude; journaling or creative expression; movement or stillness. Shaking is also a fantastic way to release any residual tensioning the body, especially with sound – stand with feet hip-width apart and begin to shake your hands, arms, legs, shoulders, head, allowing your whole body to be limp and shaking (start slow, let it become as vigorous as feels good, then let it slow and stop when it feels done).

You might want to snuggle on your sofa with a blanket and a cup of tea and some coloring books (link), or you might want to go outside and amble around in the fresh air for while. You might want to dance in your living room, or get out some paints and play with color, or perhaps go to bed and sleep. There is no ‘right’ way of taking care of yourself, and sometimes what we want might surprise us!

Giving ourselves what we need and desire is the most nourishing, loving thing we can do for ourselves (and I hope this is a practice that’s woven into your life), but especially after we’ve been working with emotion it’s so important to be that loving presence and follow the intuitive impulse of what feels good. If you have trouble staying in this awareness, imagine yourself as a small child. A small child who’s just been through a confronting experience and is now feeling very tired and small and in need of endless cuddles and love. Treat yourself the way this child needs to be treated.

You might need to create more space for this self-nurturing; are there appointments that conflict with what you need right now? Cancel them. People asking things of you that feel heavy? Say No. This is radical self-care; you are your most valuable resource and you need to be your biggest priority right now.

4. Integration

As with every experience in life, if we don’t consciously process it we often don’t extract all the juice from it. Particularly with strong emotions it’s very helpful to integrate the wisdom that emerges when we allow ourselves to fully feel.

How does what came up connect with the bigger picture of your life? What does it tell you about where you’re at right now on your path? Invite insight, be open to being surprised. Journalling is a great way to open to insight and let the rational mind take a break – this isn’t about doing a critical analysis of your experience but allowing the subconscious space to connect the dots and find meaning to close the circle of the theme you’ve been working with.

If you’re too tired right after releasing, come back to this when you feel more rested (whether that’s a few hours or a few days), but don’t leave it out; integration is where the real growth happens, where energetic shifts are made conscious and the deeper wisdom of our experience is harvested.

Using sentence stems and then allowing free flowing writing is also great (you can try using your non- dominant hand to write if your mind is reluctant to relinquish control). Some examples might be:

“The wisdom of this emotion/event/theme is…”

“The next step for me in working with this is…”

“The core thing I need to know now is…”

“I can have peace with this because…”

What are some events, issues or themes that you have stored emotion around?

Are any of them particularly alive for you right now (is there a resonance in your body when you connect with them)?

Do you feel comfortable working with them by yourself (and if not, will you commit to finding external support in some form)?

Emotions are an intrinsic aspect of being human – when we embrace them fully, exactly as they are, life opens up, resistance releases, and we expand into a whole new level of internal freedom.

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{ Second in a series of 4 excerpts from the upcoming Wild&Free Workbook }