Have you ever been stuck in a downward spiral of painful emotions?
Something happens during your day that hurts you, but it doesn't stop with just the initial pain. It avalanches into a huge ball of agony, with sharp edges and horns, maybe even a devil's tail.
It could be as small a thing as an inconsiderate remark from a colleague, or intense pressure from a job situation, or a relationship argument.
I have. I found myself smack in the middle of a downward spiral a few weeks ago. I felt betrayed by a close friend.
The waves of pain swirled around me and with each turn pulled me deeper and deeper into the vortex. I drowned in it.
Every so often, I'd see some light, some levity, as if a lifeline was being lowered to me to grab onto and climb up; but I'd always lose my grip on it and by the force of my own thoughts and determination, would slip back down to stay in pain!
Yes, I was determined to stay in that tortuous place as if it was the noble thing to do!
To make matters worse, I started treating myself with anger and contempt. Ha! Some coach you are! Look at you not being able to coach yourself out of this one!
This experience soon became a huge black blob; it grew arms and legs and walked around with me.
What had happened here? Old pain and habits were triggered, old storytelling habits. I was hooked, as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron would say, hooked in a chain reaction by sheer force of habit.
The thoughts and stories I added to this initial pain blob were hilarious in retrospect.
She's all about herself! Doesn't even realize what she has done; didn't even apologize; She used me and discarded me just like you know who! Last year, I let so and so do the same thing! They all stabbed me in the back, betrayed me! When will I ever learn to consider myself first?
First, I closed myself off in an old habit of trying to protect myself and repress the actual pain. My old flee and hide response.
Then I noticed myself being snarky in my comments to others; yep, a bit of the old fight response. This is when I knew I had to pause.
But how does one pause when old habits and crazy thoughts are so overpowering?
Here's what worked for me: Four steps for how to get yourself out from under the big dark blob of emotional pain.
1. Breathe. First take several deep breaths with your attention completely on the breath going in, coming out. Notice that there's a tiny little pause between inhales and exhales. Aah, tiny gaps where you can practice complete stillness. To help with anxiety, make the exhale a bit longer than the inhale.
Next just observe your natural breath. Are you holding it at times? Is it deep or shallow? Does it go as far as your belly? Your breath will help you stay in the present moment.
2. Pause. Stop the stories, stop the words and thoughts, and stop talking to yourself and others about it! Just pause for now and keep focusing on your breath.
When you notice your mind telling you stories about the incident,
come back to just the breath, let the thoughts pass by like clouds in your sky.
Use kindness and humor with your thoughts and stories. Well, hello there darling! I see you, I hear you, and I know you. For now, I'm going to let you sit over there on the sofa.
With each story your mind tells, bring yourself back to the present moment, to now. What's happening now? Is anyone taking advantage of you now? Is anyone betraying you now? Are you betraying yourself now? This minute. Breathe.
If the thoughts become uncontrollable, reassure yourself that they won't get lost, by jotting them down somewhere to question later when you're out of the spiral. You can approach them with curiosity then and analyze their truth and usefulness in your life.
3. Sit with the initial pain. Feel it. Where is it in your body? In your chest, throat, stomach? What is the felt sensation? Burning, cold, squeezing, or just pressure perhaps? Allow it to be what it is with no stories attached.
Can you allow it to be there?
What I felt was a rock sitting on my heart. One of my clients complains that if she lets herself do this, it feels like she's sitting in a huge fire. Sit in the fire, it will burn away the old habits and let the pain flow out.
Can you come closer to that sensation in your body?
You don't have to immerse yourself in it, but maybe close enough to have a dialogue with it like you would with a friend. Welcome it.
You can ask it what's causing this intense pain and just listen silently, maybe you'll get a message, and an insight into what this is really all about. This pain wants to be heard and acknowledged by you, not suppressed or blurted out in unconscious reaction.
If it gets too uncomfortable, you can step out of the fire to a more comfortable place for a bit, maybe watch the birds, walk out in nature, or look at photos of loved ones. When you feel ready, come back to the pain.
4. Bring Compassion. Lastly, every time you notice you're being harsh, for whatever reason, bring loving kindness and compassion to yourself. If you're berating yourself for not being a good person for having these thoughts; or not taking better care of yourself, give yourself a big hug. You're human and perfect in your imperfection.
As you sit with your pain with kindness and curiosity, you'll discover what the deeper issues are, where the hurt is coming from and you'll be able to comfort that pain.
Pause and give yourself the chance to choose a different reaction.
Once you're thinking clearly again, you can decide what to do about your trigger situation. As I found out, the blob of emotional pain often dissolves by itself and there's nothing left to resolve.