How to Manage Emotional Stress (Properly)
Over the past 20 years, I have helped business leaders and business owners to deal with their stress through coaching, consulting and training and the lessons learned have incredible value to the lives of all people. In this article, I will share the methods and techniques that work effectively that you may not already know. I will also share a little about my own story and how I overcame the challenge of stress to win though. If you’re reading this now, my guess is that your stress has reached a level where you want to take positive action. Maybe you’ve had an outburst, maybe you’re thinking of having one, or maybe you’re just feeling chocked by it all. I’m on your side, and I will share everything I know to help you through your difficult time.
The elephant in the room, emotional stress, especially in leadership, is the unspoken force that either makes or breaks a business yet is cowered into the shadows by the illusion of talent, skill and strategic control. In my experience of coaching and training leaders for 20 years, organizational performance is extremely sensitive to the emotional health of the leader. Why so?
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People communicate information all of the time. Whether speaking or not, the non-verbal signals are stronger than the non-verbal ones because verbal language can be actively managed to mask our true feelings. As a species we avoid confrontation so speaking our true intentions is rare, but our body language and unspoken communication scream our true feelings to everyone in sight. This “communicated but unspoken” transmission causes confusion and insecurity amongst employees if it’s from the leader. So, if the leader is suffering from stress, anxiety or other emotional burdens, you better believe that it will have an impact on the organization. It’s not the same if the intern walks in and unconsciously transmits their stress, when the leader arrives to work in the morning, all eyes are on them, they set the tone for the day. The neural basis for this is the mirror neurons and oscillators in the brain that track and reflect the movement and actions of others. The impact on decision making is even worse, as we will see.
Managing emotional stress is a life skill, a survival skill even. With good coaching it is entirely possible, but the answer is not obvious, and in this article, we will cover the best way that I have found with my clients to put an end to emotional stress for the long term.
We are ALL Leaders and Leadership Comes with Emotional Stress
1st a point about leadership. Quote me here, we are ALL leaders. Homemakers are leaders of a household, CEOs are leaders of a corporations, receptionists are leaders of their reception, 1st responders are leaders of the emergency situations and, most importantly, we are all leaders of ourselves. It doesn’t mean to say that we are taking the responsibility, but my guess is that if you are reading this now, you have chosen to take leadership in your life.
Being a leader is a difficult and often lonely place to be and leaders, as with all of us, deserve emotional support. Leadership and stress go together like hand in glove. Never is this more true than for business owners and CEOs. The responsibility for a monthly payroll, for results and for positive cash flow is not shared by others in the organization in quite the same way. Leadership implies control, and this is the expectation bestowed upon us, yet markets, other people and even our own emotions simply cannot be controlled, so, a degree of uncertainty and insecurity comes as standard. The leader’s ability to manage ambiguity, uncertainty and stress becomes paramount and the same goes for you too.
I coach many leaders, I am asked by organizations to train their leaders and I have also consulted on countless performance improvement initiatives. Nearly all projects have a very strong emotional aspect to them. The stress of leaders and players crystalized in schizophrenic decision making and behavior, one-minute calm and clear on Plan A, the next minute Plan A is scrapped in a frantic stress induced panic. I should point out, that for most people, when Plan A was scrapped, there was no pre-determined Plan B. This causes intense confusion and demotivation amongst employees and, in the case of self-leadership, most of us have had the awful feeling of uncertainty when we are forced to scrap our dearly held and carefully crafted A Plan. There is an answer to this as we will see later.
There are quick hacks to manage emotional stress such as breathing, meditation, and avoidance but long-lasting solutions mean deeper and more meaningful interventions. A strong work-life balance, self-awareness, an authentic sense of identity and emotional security are the long-term pillars to reduce emotional stress to acceptable levels.
The most successful people I have worked with manage their emotional wellbeing with self-care, coaching, self-coaching and honest communication with themselves and others. Coaching, works because it brings the thought processes that lead to decisions into frame. Often, we can drill down to the underlying reasons and beliefs that lead to decisions and stressors. This is a watershed moment for most people who develop a deep understanding of themselves and their identity and, from there, they can begin to craft themselves into the leader they really want to be. Once authentic emotional security is established the organization becomes stable too and the results are astounding. A happy stable leader = a happy stable organization. A happy stable you = a happy stable life.
Make no mistake, there is not a person alive who doesn’t have an insecurity, stressor or some other emotional aspect in at least one aspect of their lives that drives their behavior in sometimes counterproductive ways. Neurologically we are designed for survival, which means finding food, avoiding injury and staying part of the tribe are our top priorities.
Why Emotional Stress Affects your Success
There is a neural basis for the effect of emotional health on the improvement in leadership and performance. Decisions that are made under stress are always short-term as the brain enters the fight flight or freeze mode designed for short-term survival. This is part of the amygdala-pituitary-adrenal axis which is, by definition, subjective (i.e. react 1st, think later). One thing we know is that short-term subjective decision making invariably ends in disaster. Here’s the kicker, research shows that both stress, and a lack of sleep, have the same effect on decisions as being drunk. Both stress and a lack of sleep are common for senior leaders, homemakers and a whole lot more of us. As with alcohol, it can creep up slowly and it has significant effects of reaction times and cognition, I believe that this fact will shock most readers.
The emotional wellbeing of any leader is a critical success factor and should never be ignored. The signs can be subtle and the leader themselves may not be aware as thresholds can be approached very slowly over time. Consistent coaching, self-awareness and building emotional intelligence are all excellent ways to ensure the emotional health of leaders and the stability of any business.
The Quick Fixes
Hypoxia is the physiological state of a lack of oxygen in the body. Although this may not seem like a winning idea to begin with, hypoxia is used by elite athletes in the hope that it will somehow increase their athletic performance when they return to breathing regular air at atmospheric pressure. The evidence, as I cover in my forthcoming book on human energy, is quite conclusive that it does not, in fact, offer the advertised athletic benefits yet it may offer support in 2 other areas, one is to promote a key energy and learning protein AMPK and the other is to induce an unstoppable relaxation response. As the body senses oxygen starvation, it prioritizes the oxen for use in the brain, forcing the skeletal muscles to relax in what’s ominously known as the drowning reflex.
Try it now, sit down [important, sit down for this exercise]. Take a few seconds now to breathe out all the air in your lungs for a count of 7, hold for a count of 3, breathe in for a 3 count and repeat from the beginning, focusing on relaxing the muscles in your body. You will definitely start to feel light headed (at which point you can stop) but whilst this is happening your body will automatically relax your muscles. It is the solution that I use for both cramp, headaches and those moments that I need an instant relief from emotional stress such as walking out on stage to address a large audience.
Drink a Glass of Water Mindfully and Slowly in One Go.
One of the most potent de stressors is also one of the simplest. Drink a glass of water. Its worked for me for many years and there is a very good reason why. Dehydration causes anxiety and emotional stress and guess what, if you’re sitting here reading this now, there is an above average chance that you are dehydrated. According to research, the majority of people the developed world are chronically dehydrated.
When we feel emotional stress we often look for one source, one person, someone or something to blame, but in reality, emotional stress is multifaceted and comes from many sources including childhood beliefs, biological factors such as nutrition and hormones, environmental factors and the trigger itself. Drinking a glass of water and eating enough carbohydrate rich foods (but not fast sugars) is a good way to eliminate 2 of the most common culprits for emotional stress. Once again, the evidence form neuroscience is very clear on the detrimental effects of dehydration on the brain which are covered in detail in my forthcoming book.
Drinking a full glass mindfully and slowly, in one go without breathing in, is a great way to combine hypoxia, mindfulness and hydration in one and it is also the best cure for hiccups out there (thank you to my 11 year old son for teaching me that one), as it relaxes the spasming throat muscles along with the rest of your body. A great quick fix for emotional stress.
Eliminate Fast Sugars and Caffeine
Hard and fast, both caffeine and fast sugars will give you a shot of get-up-and-go when you need it but neither is optimal. Fast sugars quickly increase circulating glucose for more mental control but quickly crash leaving you more stressed than previously. Fast sugars also lead to Type 2 Diabetes which is to be avoided at all costs.
Caffeine, despite its popularity and awesome taste is also not what you need if your emotional stress is at “bouncing off the walls” levels. Caffeine acts on your adenosine receptor to block its sleep inducing effects but adenosine evolved as an essential neurotransmitter for a reason. We need to rest at regular intervals and we also need 7 to 8 hour of uninterrupted sleep every night. Caffeine does not help with this, and if you are like me and millions of others, caffeine can creep up you slowly to make your thoughts and emotions run high. More subtle than the punch of alcohol, and similar in its imperceptible arrival as a moderate lack of sleep, it’s hard to notice when our minds have turned from welcoming the boost to fighting its stress inducing effects.
If you are feeling emotional stress your 1st task is to look after your physiology, and that means sleep and water. After that’s taken care of, it’s wise to avoid anything that may cause you more trouble such as alcohol (which is depressive) and any stimulant likely to induce more adrenaline which is exactly what caffeine does.
Alcohol too is not the answer to stress. Alcohol is avoidance. In truth, there is only one answer, locate the source of the problem and, with ruthless honesty, make a plan with several good options. Get to the heart of the problem.
Focus on Options
If there is one thing that eliminates stress before it has even surfaced as a dump of adrenaline and cortisol, it is having choices and control over one’s life. See article on Self-Management for more on this but to cut straight to the good bits, a focus on having 2 or 3 strong options for every situation is one of the best ways to reduce emotional stress that I have used in coaching clients.
If it is a specific situation that is causing you stress such as a job loss or an event that’s happening in your life, write down a clear goal. After your goal, your next task is to decide how you will achieve your goal. Most people will, in a heady cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol quickly and instinctively jump into a Plan A and that’s fine, you need an immediate action plan, however, for reducing emotional stress and for making the best decision there is a better way.
According to scholar and critical decision-making expert Professor Michael A. Roberto of Bryant University, your goal is to follow the best decision-making process you can, and that means 1st deciding how you will make your decision, writing down 2 or 3 strong alternative options, separating assumptions from facts and then testing your assumptions. You will need to develop 2 or 3 hypotheses to explain the problem you are encountering, seeing it from several angles. True decision-making pros will want to go further and consult an independent advisor (that does NOT mean your Mum and Dad or even your partner).
Choices are significant for stress because the feeling of helplessness that accompanies the loss of control of a situation is proven to induce emotional stress, especially in men. In an experiment by Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology but also of “learned helplessness” fame discovered. In experiments 1st on dogs and later on human subjects, he discovered that when we have the option to prevent discomfort (in this case a button to stop a loud wailing siren) our stress level goes down drastically even if we don’t use that option. Subjects in his test had the option to stop the siren by pressing the button but many chose not to do so yet experienced dramatically less stress than subjects who didn’t have the option. Having choices reduces stress, focus on yours.
Just following this process is a mindful exercise in itself, and I have found tremendous utility in this process. Indeed, the very process suggested by Professor Roberto is very close to the coaching model used by many professional life coaches. You can follow this process too and there are even decision-making apps to help you. I use FYI Decision but there are many others on the App Store and Play Store.
Another reason that choices, and also coaching, is so effective at reducing emotional stress, is that it cuts straight to the heart of the problem. Stress is simply (but very powerfully and unpleasantly) the release of neurotransmitters to a stimulus or situation. A little stress can be a very powerful motivator if you are feeling lethargic, yet if you are reading this I am guessing that you are at the other end of the scale where the stress is overwhelming, and you aren’t in the productive zone.
It’s important to wait until your stress has subsided a little before executing the decision-making process. Once again, as neuroscientist Johnathan Jordan points out, stress has the same effect on cognition as being drunk and you wouldn’t want to make important decisions whilst drunk, would you?
Occasionally our stress is down to an overreaction and we need to look at the trigger (which we will do later), at other times there really is a stress-worthy problem and we need to solve the problem rather than ignoring it or managing the symptoms. Sounds easy to write but I empathize that overwhelming emotional stress is truly horrible to experience. Although this method of decision making and having options, unlike the methods we will look into next, will not address the trigger, it will address the situation in which you find yourself.
Sometimes the trigger is irrelevant, who cares if there was a subconscious unexpressed reason you felt stressed when you lost your job, EVERYONE feels stressed when they lose their job. The priority for feeling less emotional stress at that point is a damn good plan, following a damn good decision-making process. If, however, your stress is linked to a trigger, then keep reading, we will cover triggers a little later on.
The Lasting Solutions
Developing a Growth Mindset
There are certainly some quick fixes for emotional stress however the investment in longer term stress management interventions is, in my experience, extremely valuable. What’s called for is an emotionally stable growth/investment mindset, and this requires objectivity, taking the time to evaluate multiple options relative to an objective with great curiosity as we did in the previous section. This is the role of the pre-frontal cortex and left-brain. We know from the research of psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, that the investment mindset has vastly better outcomes in all aspects of our lives. It works for stress because people with growth mindsets believe that they are capable of adapting to changing circumstances whilst people with fixed mindsets think to the contrary. This is linked to the same outcome of the learned helplessness experiments that we saw earlier I which the option was enough to reduce stress. A growth mindset is a belief that you always have options, even if you don’t know what they are.
Developing a flexible growth mindset is therefore a key in long term stress reduction, but it’s actually easier said than done. Developing a growth mindset requires self-belief which has much deeper origins.
Another way to develop a growth mindset is to develop an optimistic perspective. Two perspectives, in particular, are valuable in developing optimism: a) that things could be worse and b) that there is always a solution. This “reframing” of the situation is powerful because it avoids disasterizing situations and creates a mindset open to opportunities. Note that I did not say that all bad situations are opportunities, necuae this is simply not true. If someone in your family dies it is a tragic moment and not an opportunity. Magical thinking, the thoughts that we can do anything if we really try, is not helpful and it is not what Psychologist Martin Seligman meant when he posited that an optimistic mindset leads to more successful life outcomes which he and his colleagues did indeed prove.
To return to self-belief. A simple solution for self-belief is to develop deep expertise, especially within your professional field. Self-efficacy, the state of being highly skilled, is, in my experience, one of the most effective confidence booster, and one of the most fun too. I personally always have an Audible book on the go as a true non-fiction junkie.
Mindful Bodyscan Meditation.
Another of the most effective emotional stress busters is mindfulness. I won’t bore you with the reams of research papers covered by myself and my neuroscientist co-writer in our forthcoming book on human energy as to the benefits of mindfulness for emotional stress, but friends, let me tell you from experience, it really does work. The mindfulness meditation of choice is the body scan. Here’s how it works:
- Lie down somewhere quiet where you will not be disturbed.
- Close your eyes and focus on breathing in through your nose, note the feeling of air as it touches your nostrils, note the temperature, the sounds and all other sensations.
- Random thoughts will enter your mind, and they will include your emotions and thoughts about the stressors in your life. Without actually engaging with, or following, a train of thoughts, simply label each thought e.g. That’s thinking, that’s anxiety, that’s stress. Once labelled, focus all of your attention back on breathing through your nose.
- Next, move the focus of your attention down your body to your big toe. Take a note of the sensation of the toe touching your sock or the feeling of air as it touches the skin. Move attention to the next toe and notice the sensations in the same way. Move to the next toe. Pay as much attention as you can to each toe and then move to the sole of the foot, noting the sensations. If you can feel the pulsation of the heart beating through your toes you’ve nailed it, but this could take a few sessions.
- Move your focus to the entire foot and hold the whole foot in awareness, paying attention to all of the sensations you feel there.
- Move on to the leg and repeat the same process of focusing on smaller areas of the leg in great detail and with curiosity and finally holding the whole leg in awareness. Repeat this process throughout the body for the other foot, leg, the back, the groin and genital area, the tummy and stomach area, the chest, the shoulders, the arms and hands and the head. Finally, hold the whole body in awareness. The whole thing should take around 20 to 30 minutes.
The important part of the bodyscan meditation is not to try to control any part of your body or to “feel a certain way.” The mindset is simply to accept any sensations with focused curiosity e.g. if your foot feels cold, so be it, just notice how cold it is. The purpose is to develop a level of concentration that will allow you to ignore, and not interact with, negative unhelpful thinking and to learn to just accept things as they are without needing to control everything.
Labelling your thoughts is a life skill and an exceptionally powerful one for emotional stress. This may surprise you greatly, but you really don’t have to interact with every thought that enters your mind in the same way that you don’t open every email in your inbox, some of it is just spam!
With practice, the benefits of mindful meditation for emotional stress relief becomes far more potent than just superhuman levels of concentration. Self-awareness of the thoughts that enter your mind and your true emotional state is the foundation of the longer-term solutions to emotional stress management, specifically the triggers. Once you have the ability to see patterns of thoughts and emotions, you can begin to write them down and try to understand your thought patterns in an objective way. We will go into this in more detail in the next section but, take it from a seasoned professional life coach who has been there, lived it and won, the bodyscan meditation is your starting point. On its own, it is not the answer, but used with some coaching, self or otherwise, you can kiss goodbye to emotional stress and we will find out in the next section.
Find the Triggers – Follow the Clues
If there is no serious life event happening in your life such as a job loss but you are feeling emotionally stressed at something less dramatic, like a sharp comment from a colleague, you may well have been “triggered.” A trigger is an emotional cue that, via the amygdala – pituitary – adrenal axis, prompts a strong release of stress neurotransmitters in the brain including noradrenaline and cortisol. Triggers are very personal.
2 people can see exactly the same thing in 2 completely different ways, it’s simply the electrical activity in the brain, and specifically the paths and neural connections by which the electricity travels, that determines the imaginary picture that our mind has created i.e. your perception. Yes, that’s correct, your mind has interpreted electrical data from your eyes, what it thinks the room you are sitting in looks like, but it does not know what the room looks like. To another person the room may look completely different. Think I’m joking. Researchers have discovered that what may look red to you may look blue to me. We both perceive the color to be “hot,” but my red could be your blue. Why is this important to emotional stress? Because, if we perceive everything around us, we also perceive the threat and the trigger. Dogs scare the crap out some people, yet others see them as cute lovable pets (like me). Same object, different perception and different reaction. The object is a trigger, the perception is based on memories “stored” in the hippocampus where the amygdala lives. Using the observations from your mindful bodyscan you can identify the specific thoughts and thought patterns from the trigger, and then trace them back to their origins. This is the key to long lasting freedom from emotional stress and this is the most powerful application of mindful meditation.
Here’s the real kicker, memories are changed every time they are retrieved and restored, provided it happens within a 10-miunte period without the presence of adrenaline. If you can identify your trigger and trace back the origins of that trigger you can, by objectively reassessing the validity of your perception, kiss goodbye to trigger forever. *(Important: See note at the end of the eBook).
Some of my clients who, at the beginning of our coaching relationship (when they were very stressed) have found it a great challenge to do the bodyscan meditation, and that’s the point. Your mind will be flooded with thoughts, and I ask my clients simply to take notes afterwards on the thoughts that are flooding their mind so that we can objectively address them during our sessions together. This is the ultimate answer to the question, “What’s on your mind.” If you’re sitting reading this and you think you know exactly what’s on your mind, try the bodyscan for just 10-minutes and I think you will be very surprised in what you find, especially the emotions.
When I am stressed, and I do a mindful meditation, I usually observe the emotions and thoughts of fear, yet, as a man, my conscious mind before the meditation simply felt anger. Once I have identified fear as the underlying emotion and the meditation is finished, I can self coach to the origins of that fear, which is extremely effective for reducing my emotional stress if not only reducing but eliminating the stress altogether. This is what we mean by loving yourself more.
Listening is love, and truly giving yourself the attention that you need by listening to you brain’s cues is to self care at the very highest level. Your subconscious brain truly is trying its best to tell you what it needs, but alas, unlike the conscious ruminations of the mind, it cannot speak. It does however leave clues and thanks to the hard work of psychologists and neuroscientist over the past 100 years, we have a few good ways to find out.
Understand your REAL Needs, Connect with your True Identity
The focus of much of my coaching work is to introduce my client to someone that most of them have never really met, themselves. Away from the pressures of playing someone else, acquainted with an honest picture of the self, both the good bits and the bits we would rather ignore, my clients always emit a huge sigh of relief as they meet themselves for the 1st time. It’s a wonderful moment for both of us. So how to meet your authentic self.
Nearly all clients will present a goal at the beginning of our sessions which is usually around reducing stress or winning at a specific situation. Over the next sessions we work together to uncover the unmet hidden needs to see if the two are aligned and usually they are not. With specific questions, we will explore the various life needs that were made famous by Abraham Maslow in his famed Hierarchy of Needs. Although psychologists find this hard to apply in a clinical setting I have found it to be a very useful framework for identifying the broad unspoken needs that each of us have.
So why is this important for managing emotional stress? Remember, the subconscious brain knows exactly what it needs but it cannot speak. Instead, we will experience the emotion of guilt and emotional stress that we endure as we procrastinate around our real need in favor of some other shiny distraction. That guilty feeling comes from what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the feeling that we are wrong or conflicted. The neural basis for cognitive dissonance can easily be hacked. Imagine right now, a difficult choice you have to make such as which type of chocolate cookie to eat. You are probably seeking the discomforting feeling of the potential of making a mistake. This is the anxiety of cognitive dissonance, an emotional stress. It engages the same neural structures which also elucidate the guilt response that we feel when we are not focusing on our highest priority need. In addition, the brain releases wakefulness neurotransmitters that in high doses are stress inducing, to keep you awake at night which makes perfect sense as the brain simply wants you to focus on your priority problems. Cognitive dissonance is there for a reason, it’s designed for our social survival and to ensure that we are prioritizing our most pressing need. Your emotional stress may well be coming from here, listen to it and take heed!
One of the most powerful moments in the coaching programs comes at week 2, as my clients discover for the 1st time that the goal they were pursuing is not what they actually need. The emotion is one of relief followed by a powerful energized commitment to the new authentic goal.
Once the coachee understands their authentic need we then set about the task of exploring why the need is unmet. The reason that the need is unmet is, in short, related to their beliefs about the unmet need. If the need is love, the natural question to ask is, “What do you believe about love?” If the need is self-esteem, likewise, the questions will be focused on uncovering their views and beliefs about self-esteem. This process can take a while as the natural tendency for nearly all of us is to avoid going into areas that we find uncomfortable however the value of doing so is immense and cannot be understated because this is where out authentic self really exists.
Although many reading this will be very secure in their authentic self, I suspect that if you are reading this you may be have the feeling that you are acting out of character or that you don’t actually know who your character really is. The authentic self is not only about what we like and dislike, it is about what we feel and what we believe about life’s many colors. Many people feel a deep unease that they are not being true to themselves or that they feel somehow “wrong.” We feel a deep unease and emotional stress when we are not being ourselves and it usually comes when we begin to resent those around us who we blame for forcing us into the false pseudo self.
For full details of how to find your authentic self, check out my eBook “Breakthrough,” and in the next section, we will look at one of the most common reasons for not being acquainted with our authentic selves and what you can do about it.
Watch for Co-Dependency
Co-dependency is common amongst people from dysfunctional families, which is most people. In families where the child’s needs were second to the parents, a pattern of pleasing others before self emerges which then becomes myelinated in the young and sensitive brain as neural networks of behavior.
It sounds innocuous to write, it is insidious and destructive. If you grew up in a house with an alcoholic or addicted parent or a parent with serious emotional health issues, chances are that you may have some co-dependent traits. Co-dependent people live to please others and are most often unaware of their authentic identity because they try to be what they think will please others. Emotional stress is a given. The feeling of co-dependency is one of unease with being yourself and insecurity, of having your strings pulled by others, being hyper sensitive to the reactions of others and often just a feeling that something is “wrong.” The “wrong” feeling is often mentioned in coaching session and is usually traceable to living outside the authentic self i.e. Living someone else’s life. One of the most powerful risk factors of co-dependency is a vulnerability to manipulation (especially by “narcissistic” people), naivety, failing to take ourselves seriously enough and most vitally for this eBook, large amounts of enduring emotional stress.
If this sounds like you don’t panic, the most important thing with co-dependency is awareness as once you are aware of the behaviors, you can begin to trace them back the origins. There are a range of very powerful activities you can do to get to the root cause and I will share some of them with you. A quick note 1st however that there are no quick fixes with co-dependency. Many people will say to you that you should “love yourself more” and “spoil yourself” but for people with co-dependency this advice is of course bewildering as co-dependents feel incredible guilt if they put themselves 1st. It takes deep introspection about the roots of your co-dependent behavior. In that regard, 1st and foremost, I direct you back to the section on the bodyscan mindful meditation, this is your foundation. It will be incredibly difficult to follow the next 2 steps without some mindfulness skills which take only a week (practicing daily) to master and a month to form stronger neural pathways for more enduring results. Be persistent here, don’t quit. You’ll be stunned by the results.
The 1st exercise to complete for co-dependency is to connect with the emotions you should have felt as a child. Be gentle with yourself here and read the Important Note * at the end of the eBook 1st. People with co-dependency often come from unstable homes where they were not allowed to express their emotions, and co-dependents often feel great guilt for feeling their emotions which can tend to erupt from time to time as rage. It is time to connect with those emotions in a safe and healthy way. I learned this technique from another life coach, Lisa A Romano, who is hands down one of the best coaches for co-dependency out there. Here’s what Lisa recommends.
On a piece of paper, draw 2 overlapping circles. With one name in each circle, write the name of the 2 most important people in your early life, likely your Mum and Dad. If there are any additional players in your childhood scene draw another overlapping circle for each of them. The childhood you is represented the overlapping space in the middle.
In each circle, write down the emotions that the childhood “You” should have felt, or would like to have felt towards the person in the circle. E.g. in the circle for an alcoholic mother you may write the emotion of anger or embarrassment. Write the emotions that you felt towards each of the players. These are the emotions that you should have felt but were likely unable to express. Now it’s time to express them in a healthy way. As you can imagine, if you have never expressed these emotions before, you would be well justified in feeling emotional stress over the years. This is the 1st part of the exercise.
In your own time, when you are completely alone and will not be disturbed, take one of the emotions written down in the circles and express the emotion, directing it at the imaginary person involved i.e. your mother when you were a child (not at the actual person). Really connect. The process can be very overwhelming as you are likely about to experience a lifetime of untapped emotion, so be gentle with yourself and take your time. You may wish to imagine yourself sticking up for the younger you and expressing the emotion. If you feel anger or rage, that’s OK, it’s healthy to express anger in this way. Some people find it useful to punch a cushion and that’s OK, but I would recommend speaking out loud and verbalizing over physical aggression. Again, you are not confronting the person in real life, you are confronting your visualization of the person as they were.
I find it useful to explain to clients going through this process, that they have been given an “unwanted gift” by the person in question, one that it is inappropriate to give to a child especially if that “gift” was anger. It is time to take the “gift” and give it straight back to the person who gave it to you. Its not yours to keep!
This expression of untapped strong emotions, is of course very powerful yet for co-dependent people it will be a watershed moment as the emotion of the moment will sweep away guilty feelings and you will feel truly empowered.
To revisit the earlier section on choices, empowered people are rarely stressed as they have deep confidence in their ability to deal with problems as they arise. This exercise of expressing strong, unexpressed emotions, of giving back the “unwanted gift,” is deeply empowering for most co-dependent people and highly recommended. There are other powerful exercises that will shift your perception from caring about others to caring about yourself and we will cover one of them in the next section.
Inner Child Healing
Once again, before reading on please read the Important Note* at the end of this eBook.
Many readers will have heard of inner child healing, or inner child therapy as its also known, and recoil in fear at such an esoteric notion. I too have a distrust of all things esoteric and I am a man with a strict predilection for empirically researched science. In fact, for my forthcoming book with Neuroscientist Maite Balde, we reference over 200 empirical research sources, ZERO online sources and we rejected over 100 published research papers for being below the quality we demanded for the book. I can confirm that the psychology behind Inner Child Healing is, in my opinion, nothing short of genius.
Many people, codependents especially, have a problem with looking after their own needs, a big problem, and this creates intense emotional stress and resentment. The problem comes from neurally encoded behavior patterns formed in a childhood environment where their needs were last and the parents’ needs were 1st. This is of course, not the case in rational healthy households and I hope that if you are reading this, you were one of the luck ones. If, however, you were not, your emotional growth may have been stopped in one of the earlier childhood phases. Although the physical you grew into the fine specimen that you are now, the emotional you may have been stuck, undeveloped in a childhood phase.
This is of course not the case for all people who had problematic childhoods as many lead healthy emotional lives and matured just fine and others actually thrived e.g. Tony Robbins, although there are often specific factors at play which I cover in my book. If you’re reading this however, you’re feeling stressed and it sounds like you, or you sometimes “feel like a child,” read on.
To repeat, although you have grown into an adult, emotionally, as a co-dependent, your behavior is likely still very much stuck back in the house you grew up in as it is highly unlikely that your parents allowed you to develop an independent separate identity all of your own, able to fly free in the world without looking back. It is highly likely that as a co-dependent, the child who never had a real childhood also never had a voice, yet to this day that child has a heck of a lot to say. The emotions you expressed in the last exercise are amongst the many “things” that your inner child has wanted to say for a very long time but you almost certainly weren’t listening. Try connecting right now.
Simply close your eyes in a quiet room where you will not be disturbed and imagine the younger you, think about how old they are and what they are wearing. Mindfully just observe their emotions and introduce yourself, ask them their name and simply ask, “How are you feeling today,” and listen. You will imagine the words that the inner child is expressing and your only job is to coach the inner child. Coaching is about listening and validating, it is NOT sports coaching and giving advice so avoid pep talks with your inner child! Be the parent you always wanted, the one who simply listened to you and validated the emotions you felt. Let the inner child express how they feel. You may feel silly but that’s completely OK, it is a powerful exercise in self-care as I will explain.
Caring for your own emotional wellbeing is, for a codependent, a guaranteed last place behind managing both the environment and others, yet caring for your emotional wellbeing is the only way to have emotional security and to eliminate the emotional stress that comes with co-dependency. Ask anyone who’s owned a boat, if you don’t maintain every aspect of the boat with great care, it will fill with water and sink remarkably quickly. Nobody, and I repeat, nobody, has the responsibility to maintain your boat other than you. You need to self-care for your mind and body in the same way you’d look after anything, it is the most important thing in your life and your inner child is included in that.
As esoteric and bizarre as this may seem, it is actually merely the personification of your own deeper emotions yet the genius of this method for co-dependents is that it helps, without guilt, to care for the self, likely for the 1st time in your life. After all, who wouldn’t look after a child, especially your own. You are not your abusive parents, you are a different person who deserves to catch up on the care and attention that is a right of all children. Rescue your inner child from the childhood home they have been trapped in for so many years by simply listening to that inner voice non-judgmentally, without ruminating or arguing or making excuses for the players involved. At the end of your visualization you may want to imagine yourself visualizing a wonderful safe place and leading your inner child to that safe place before saying goodbye.
Inner child healing is a highly effective way to change your mindset about caring deeply for yourself. This, friends, is one of the most powerful ways for those suffering from pathological emotional stress to find a lasting permanent solution.
I hope that you have found something for you in this eBook that will help you to not only manage but to eliminate your emotional stress. Remember that we all feel stress from time to time and that it is a natural reaction to life’s challenges. A little stress goes a long way to motivate us but too much stress leads to very low productivity and is simply unpleasant.
There is no need to endure the unpleasant emotions of stress as so many tactics and interventions exist to manage stress to its very core.
I particularly enjoy the breakthroughs my clients experience in coaching sessions and I hope that I have helped you to a personal breakthrough with this eBook too. Most of us are taught that a gritty, “tough it out” attitude is a strong character trait. Although perseverance is vital to success, it can be a pathway to stress which, left unchecked has the negative outcomes mentioned earlier. We need to learn the emotional coping skills to compliment grittiness. Nobody said we have to suffer in our persistence.
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IMPORTANT NOTE: It’s OK to make connections with childhood events as you learn to manage emotional stress and it is strongly encouraged. However, if you are the victim of serious abuse, specifically physical, sexual or serious psychological abuse, I strongly urge you to find a great counsellor 1st. Most counsellors will allow you to try one free trial session and you can try 2 or 3 counsellors and then choose the one you are truly comfortable with.
Highly trained counsellors are really good at helping victims of serious trauma and this is beyond the scope or capabilities of life coaches who are not qualified to deal with serious trauma cases unless trained as a therapist too. I believe in you, hang on in there, there is hope!