Most people come to therapy because the are in pain. They may be angry, or they may be depressed or anxious. Whatever the cause, they feel in pain and want the pain to go away.
In the west in particular, we see pain as something bad, to be avoided. We spend much of our time trying to avoid feeling pain with numerous activities. This may be as simple as keeping busy so we don’t notice our feelings, or we may stuff them down with food, or drown them in alcohol. If things feel really bad we may turn to, antidepressants, cannabis or even stronger drugs.
But there is a problem with this approach to pain. In previous Blogs, I have explored how anger can be a signal that something in our environment is wrong. Our avoidance of pain at best can only numb us to the feeling, it cannot solve the problem. At some point, we have to open our eyes only to find the problem, and thus the pain is still there.
What if all our emotions are simply signals that something is wrong. An indication that we need to change the environment in which we live. Then perhaps the solution, is too feel our pain and move through it, rather than avoid it.
I seem to work with a lot of athletes, perhaps because of my own background in professional sport. I have come to notice that athletes seem to develop a really healthy relationship with physical pain. They listen carefully to their bodies and respond accordingly. Over time they become acutely aware of the signals their body is telling them. Athletes know the difference between the niggling pain that is simply their body under stress and growing, the pain that says slow down and ease up a little and the pain that says stop now or an injury will happen.
Recent understandings from neuroscience tell us that there is little difference between the way we perceive emotional and physical pain. Both are experienced in the same pain receptors part of the brain. The only difference is that physical pain also has a locational aspect e.g I have a headache, or I have pain in my knee.
I believe this understanding gives is the starting point for developing a new relationship with our anger, one in which we became curious to heed the signal rather than be overwhelmed by the signal itself. Imagine your anger like a lighthouse. Viewed from a distance it is an incredibly powerful signal that danger lies ahead, but viewed from close up the light becomes blinding and overwhelming.
So how do you apply this to your anger? Start by breathing deeply into the bottom of your belly. If you are really breathing deeply you should feel the breath just below your navel and your belly will start to expand. Many people rarely breathe this deeply. Breath into the emotion, don’t deny it, allow yourself to feel your anger. As you continue to breathe deeply you will become aware of your anger but it is no longer overwhelming you. Your breath acts a little like an anchor that holds you steady in the stormy seas of your feelings. Once you are able to experience your anger without feeling overwhelmed you can begin to change your relationship with this powerful emotion.
It can be really useful to try and gain a little more distance from the feeling. One technique I like for this is to subtly change the language we use. Instead of saying “I am angry” change this to “I am experiencing anger” or “I am aware that a part of me is angry”. This may seem like a small change but it starts to change the sense you have of being an angry person – something which is sometimes just too much to take.
When you change the language to “I am experiencing anger” you acknowledge your feeling, but you also acknowledge that this is not the whole of your experience. You are more than just your anger – even in this angry moment.
Now you are at a point where your adult, thinking brain can start to be curious about the feeling of anger and what it is telling you. In his excellent book “Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames” the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Han, asks us to treat our anger as we would treat a child, with loving kindness and curiosity. Imagine how different it would be if you could look at your anger and say “Hello anger I see you are back again! What do you need from me today?” Your whole experience of this feeling would be turned upside down.
Of course, I don’t expect you to be able to achieve this today or tomorrow. But by using our breath as an anchor and actually experiencing our anger we begin to fundamentally change our relationship and with that our ability to express our wants and needs.
Originally published at emergetherapy.co.uk