Confessions from a counsellor
Reprinted from the "Responding to Feelings" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (4), pp. 5-6
Every time I think of feelings, a memory pops up of a commercial that was on heavy rotation during my childhood. In it, MC Hammer temporarily loses his wild positivity after someone switches out his Pepsi for a Coke. Maybe it’s because MC Hammer was then in his heyday, or maybe it’s the idea that emotions could be changed just by drinking Coke versus Pepsi. If only responding to emotions were so simple!
My first real memory of encountering difficult feelings was when I was six years old, biking past my elementary school. I realized that I was sad all the time and I didn’t know why. In retrospect, I recognize that this was depression—something I’ve dealt with ever since, although about 10 years ago it changed to anxiety. Either way, my crash course in feelings started at a young age, and no Pepsi commercial could give me the knowledge I needed to go with it. I had to learn how to respond to my feelings.
When I was growing up, feelings weren’t talked about very much. No one told me to ignore my feelings, but they weren’t a topic of conversation. I didn’t have a language for them, so I pushed them down and was depressed. This shouldn’t be surprising. At a lecture a number of years ago I heard renowned trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté explain that the word depress means to “push down,” and if we push down our feelings, we should expect to get depressed.1
When our early introduction to feelings is mostly negative, it’s easy to see them as bad. I certainly did for a long time. I knew what it felt like to be sad, to be suicidal, to be uninterested in things that should have brought joy. This is what got lost in the sadness: positive feelings. The joy, happiness, contentment and peace.
I’ll admit that feelings are still a struggle sometimes. What I have learned is that there is hope! Feelings can be challenging, and they can be exciting and illuminate our lives. I want to share a few things I’ve learned in the hope that, along with the other articles in this issue, they might help you see and respond to feelings differently.
Feelings are our signal for knowing how we’re doing
Whenever I used to feel sad, I thought it was awful, and I would avoid the feeling. I blame my brain. Under stress, our brains pay attention to the negative in an attempt to keep us safe. Our brains won’t naturally pay attention to or remember the positive because they’re working too hard to protect us. But we can work with our brains too. If we can acknowledge positive emotions like joy, happiness and excitement, we help our brains notice them.2 For me, it was helpful to get curious about and mindful of my feelings without labeling them as good or bad. Now, I ask myself, “I wonder what I’m feeling sad about right now?”
We don’t control our feelings, and they don’t need to control us
I don’t know about you, but I can’t choose how I’m feeling. I’ve tried, believe me. What I’ve learned is that we feel how we feel. But we can choose how we respond to our feelings. I’ve found two therapies very helpful in this regard. For people who struggle with emotions, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan,3 teaches skills to help us appreciate emotions and choose a healthy response to them. For people just beginning to explore their emotions, emotionally focused therapy (EFT), developed by Dr. Sue Johnson in the 1980s, uses a framework of attachment and relationships to help us understand our emotional world so that we have less fear around it.4
Our feelings and our bodies are inextricably tied
The more I learn, the more I understand that our bodies and our brains are directly connected in more ways than we’ve ever imagined. Research by Bessel van der Kolk,5 and Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory6 have shown that we have to take care of our bodies in order to respond well to our emotions. Sleep, diet and exercise support our physiology and our emotions and keep the limbic system in check.
One of the most helpful tools I have found in this regard is neurofeedback. When we’re struggling with emotions, our brains are not functioning at their best. Neurofeedback uses electroencephalogram (EEG)7 technology to monitor the brain and train it to function better and be more flexible.8 Neurofeedback also interacts with and helps relax the central nervous system, which lowers stress levels.9 If we have lower stress, we tend to respond better to emotions and situations.
The best thing we can do to respond well to our feelings is to get help when we need it
I pride myself on self-sufficiency and a good work ethic. These are both good things, but they are not the key to responding to feelings. We have to learn skills for that. For me, this has meant seeing my own counsellor. It took me until I started my master’s degree at age 24 to seriously ask for help. I wish I had started much sooner. Counselling literally changed my life. It validated how I was feeling and that, given my circumstances, these feelings were understandable. Counselling taught me that it was OK not to be OK.
How do we know when we need professional help? My encouragement is to reach out before the situation is dire. It’s far better to get help early on than when things are out of control. If you’re feeling that you’re responding to feelings in a way that’s not helping you or creating problems in your life, it’s time to get some help.
About the author
Andrew is the Executive Director of Alongside You, an integrated health clinic in Delta, BC. He is also a Registered Clinical Counsellor and a clinical instructor at UBC. He is passionate about mental health, education and helping people find the help they need
Maté, G. (2018, November 5). The myth of normal [Keynote]. Delta Division of Family Practice, South Delta Secondary School, Tsawwassen, BC, Canada.
If you’re curious about how this works, clinical psychiatrist Dan Siegel has a description of his “hand model of the brain” on his YouTube channel: youtube.com/user/mindsightinstitute.
There are many helpful books on DBT. I recommend DBT Made Simple, by Sheri Van Dijk. Seeing a professional or attending a DBT Skills Group can also be helpful.
International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT). (2020). What is EFT? ICEEFT. iceeft.com.
Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The body keeps the score, offers a great introduction to his research and perspective.
Check out neuroscientist Stephen Porges’ website for more information: stephenporges.com.
EEG technology provides live monitoring of various wavelengths of electrical activity in the brain. Because we have research that tells us what different wavelengths are associate with, EEG can help us understand how the brain is functioning in relation to sleep, mood, focus, attention and other areas of experience.
Marzbani, H., Marateb, H. R., & Mansourian, M. (2016). Neurofeedback: A comprehensive review on system design, methodology and clinical applications. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience, 7(2), 143–158.
For more information on the importance of lowering stress, see this article about the stress response and overall health: health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response