Have you ever had an emotion course through your body in a visceral way? Most of us have experienced a moment of seething anger, rage or resentment we would describe this way. The intense emotions carry a charge that can be difficult to process in the moment and often we bypass the emotion rather than stop and process it in the aftermath.
The inside of our body is an emotional superhighway with smaller emotions yielding to the larger, more intense ones that need to take up more space. Bypassing the emotion simply gives it room to grow.
I’ve discovered that I have these unconscious emotional programs that are running constantly inside of my body. And I’m often completely unaware of their impact on my daily life.
I have a deep awareness of this emotional super highway that came as the result of a mental health crisis that was untreated for 5 years.
In June of 2020 after experiencing a manic episode in front of my CEO I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, which is a condition that I can best describe as being on a rollercoaster with hill after hill increasing in size and intensity with each passing day. The stress and anxiety from the Pandemic had taken a toll that was far greater than my exterior led on.
In my experience of Bipolar Disorder the highs are especially high. And the lows are especially low. I found myself on this rollercoaster after I experienced two minor strokes in 2014.
I had been on the often prescribed personal development for leadership formula for success; the hustle wheel. I rode that hustle wheel until I out hustled it. I gave more than 150%, I gave my all.
Ultimately, I almost gave up my life. In 2015, I had a near death experience that forever changed the trajectory of my life. What I didn’t know then is that depression is a common side effect of strokes.
I was in the throes of mania for 5 years completely unaware that what I was experiencing was Bipolar Disorder or that it even had a name, much less that all I needed to find my way to stable ground again was 3 pills, every day. Something so easy, yet a solution that was completely in my blind spot as I had no idea I was sick.
While I was riding on that superhighway of emotions I learned some very important and useful tools for managing especially intense feelings.
During the height of a Bipolar episode I remember the emotion of fear running so intensely through my body that I felt every cell in my body shutter. When I say the lows were intense, I can not begin to describe the depth of that intensity.
In my periods of mania I felt like I was on top of the world, like every part of life’s grand design was working exactly according to plan. That was incredibly confusing.
One day I’d be riding the high wave like everything was absolutely perfect. And the next day I could just as easily be on the floor of my shower weeping in the throes of uncontrollable crying with no true source. This cycle went on for no less than 1,825 days, the hills coming every two to three days.
I got a lot of experience in processing intense emotions on my own. Here’s what I learned that worked best in my moments of crisis and I’ve since learned will work in any moment, with any emotion and have made me a bit of a modern day emotional Jedi.
Process Intense Emotions using Personal Development for Leadership
First things first…
You can’t stop an emotion
Our natural tendency in personal development for leadership is to attempt to stop intense emotions in their tracks and make them disappear. However, that simply isn’t how the nature of emotions work.
Emotions are energy in motion. They must move through you in order to find their way out of you. During the height of the Pandemic one of my favorite artists, Trevor Hall released an album called In and Through the Body during a moment of crisis in my life that eloquently describes what I have experienced while processing emotions. They must go in and through the body before they will resolve. There simply is no other way.
Have you ever noticed what happens when we try to resist something? Every muscle in my body contracts and I immediately shrink and get smaller.
Instead of getting smaller, when I feel an intense emotion coming, I have learned to relax into it. Just relax, instead of respond. That’s what these emotions want me to do.
They are asking me to take notice of something so I choose to take this opportunity to get curious about what it’s signaling to me, rather than bypassing it once again.
You can understand an emotion
The cool thing about slowing down and relaxing into an emotion is that you can start to explore it with surprising depth. You can even ask the emotion questions.
It’s something that any one who has an inner voice can do. When we ask our inner voice questions, it answers. Here’s how it works for me. I feel an intense emotion coming on so I take a deep breath in and long slow breath out. I look for where I am feeling the contraction inside of my body.
Is it my shoulders? My jaw? My stomach? My heart? I often notice that the emotion has taken residence somewhere physically obvious, so I focus in on that spot.
This is a fascinating process to discover in and off itself. It teaches us that our emotions are physical experiences that are traveling through our body.
Once I find the emotion I use my internal voice to ask it, “what emotion are you?” and then I observe what happens. I’ve had a variety of responses when I’ve done this in the past.
Many times my inner voice will respond and tell me exactly what emotion it is. This will spur a further conversation with my inner voice about the source of the emotion and whether or not it is a surface emotion or a primal emotion, the words I use for secondary and primary emotions respectively.
Other times it has created a physical experience in my body perhaps by making the emotion more or less intense or moving it to another location in the body.
This internal dialogue and monitoring process taught me more about my emotions than any other tool or technique. I learned how to trust myself and trust my emotions by building a relationship with them.
One thing that is often unspoken with Bipolar Disorder is the highs can be just as scary as the lows. Experiencing an acceleration of energy that has no end is exhausting and because it can lead to an episode it’s often a warning sign for someone with a diagnosis. In the beginning, this sent my mind on a journey of its own.
I noticed that when things started going really good in my life, my anxiety would kick in thinking I might be on the brink of another episode and I’d anxiously start checking in to see if I have other symptoms. In essence, this fear started to consume my life and I had to find a way to control it, rather than letting it control me.
This fear was making it really difficult to trust myself. I’ve spent a lot of time with my anger, my sadness, my despair and all of what I call the lower spectrum emotions.
I’ve learned that at the core of all of these emotions is simply a tender girl who wants to simply be loved by the world. She’s kind, she’s sensitive and she’s incredibly giving.
That girl deserves to be cherished and held because she’s pretty special to me. She’s the me the world doesn’t see. She’s the girl surrounded by her own vulnerability whose mission is bigger than even she can see. And sometimes that scares her, more than anyone will ever see. To deny her would be to deny myself.
You can resolve an emotion
Emotions aren’t forever, but sometimes the stories we replay in our minds would tell us otherwise. Jill Bolte Taylor taught us that an emotion only takes 90 seconds to identify and resolve. So you have one question to ask yourself, “can I handle this for the next 90 seconds?”
My experience proved to me that emotions can’t inflict actual harm. If they could I would most certainly be dead. I found it incredibly helpful to have tools in my back pocket to help me through those 90 seconds because let’s be honest they may feel like an eternity.
The complex nature of emotions has shown that processing a singular emotion takes 90 seconds, but anyone who’s ever been conflicted knows emotions don’t travel alone.
When you start diving into emotions you’ll find there is a primary emotion, the one you feel on the surface. And then below it there is a secondary emotion, the core emotion.
There are many layers to feeling emotions fully. That process often takes longer than 90 seconds, just like eating an onion one layer at a time would. While this process tastes better than eating an onion it’s no less likely to make you cry. But there is good news.
Resolving emotions is far easier than the mental health community would lead us to believe. There is a multi-billion dollar industry built around treatment for mental health symptoms that in my opinion has a lot to do with unresolved emotions. I’m a huge supporter of the mental health community and am an advocate for treatment for any mental health diagnosis. But when I was untreated I didn’t feel like those resources would work for me.
My reasons didn’t matter. I was unwell and there was no logic that would make it through. I wasn’t going to get help until I was ready to receive help.
But you know what, I wish I had found an article like this during that time because it could’ve helped me get treatment faster. I’ve found that my ability to process and resolve emotions is at the center of my mental wellness.
Every time I’ve struggled with unwellness I ultimately had an emotion I was repressing and had been bypassing, sometimes for years.
Now when I feel an emotion my only job is to relax. Let me repeat that for myself, when I feel an emotion my only job is to relax.
Even I need the reminder. How I relax is entirely up to me. I often find that taking 6 deep breaths is a simple and effective way to unlock the feel good neurochemicals that effortlessly shift emotions. I’ve tested many modalities, but I keep coming back to neuroscience and brain chemistry when I want to understand my diagnosis.
This helps to make sense of the complex feelings that have cursed through my body with a voracious appetite for both slowing down and accelerating my life into unhealthy places.
In the worst, I experienced a situation when unresolved emotions were piggybacking, a process of emotions flowing one after the other much like childbirth contractions.
The lack of break between the waves can create a state of panic and anxiety because there is no clear indication of when the waves will end. This happens during manic episodes and when I’m working on a trauma story with depth. I respond in kind and piggyback my tools.
I’ll start with deep breaths then I’ll move my body through stretching, yoga, tapping or dance. I find that moving my body helps move the emotions and is a go to resource even in a moment of overwhelm. Other times I’ll go out for a long run, especially if I need a good cry.
I remember a distinct story when I was in a deep suicidal depression and I had taken my daughter to a McDonald’s playground, a saving grace for exhausted parents in pre-COVID days.
There were many times I cried uncontrollably as my daughter played. I often wished that McDonald’s would create a community for parents who just need a moment of space to let the tears flow.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if other parents helped keep an eye on their children while they went and processed whatever needed to be done without the eyes of their little ones.
These tears can be brutal and they are undeniable. The crocodile nature and the face redness I experienced as a result of my Irish roots gave me away every time.
Sometimes I just needed a safe place to cry and not be noticed.
It took a while to get to a point where I could fully process an emotion in the 90 seconds Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor refers to. More often I would find myself processing emotions intensely for days and sometimes weeks.
I chalk this up to my Pisces nature. I only know how to go deep. And I only had to do it 90 seconds at a time. In and through the body. One story at a time. One emotional layer at a time. I just kept peeling back the layers until the emotion was done. Completely done.
Well that is…until it wasn’t. I’ve found that these emotions will come back with smaller levels of intensity and a new layer that couldn’t be seen until I’m ready to process them. This is part of the process and is a signal of approaching mastery.
Emotions are more like an onion than a target with a bullseye so be patient as you learn to develop emotional mastery. The key to learning any new personal development for leadership skill is to practice it and this is no different. If you don’t commit to practicing every day your skills will fade, and quickly.
Start with raising your awareness of your emotions and then begin to identify them. From there you can start to dig deeper into your emotional whys and the stories you’ve created to contain them.
And with only 90 seconds you can release them, one emotional layer at a time. Your emotions are signals that can teach you an incredible amount about yourself.
Most of these signals go unnoticed, but you can shift your focus and bring them into clear view. Simply by choosing to notice every time you have an emotion and then simply relaxing your way through it.
If you’re brave enough to dive into the depths of your intense emotions, I assure you, you will discover a new braver you. During the process I found the tenderest of me. And I also found the greatest of me.
The bravest of me. The saddest of me. The happiest of me. The angriest of me. And even the scariest of me. I used this process to uncover every piece of myself, one layer at a time.
I still use this process every day as a core part of my self care tool kit. My emotions are the starting point for an unfolding of myself. An unfolding that has left me more conscious and more aware of how I can be a kinder, gentler leader 90 seconds at a time. I hope it does the same for you. Or something even better.