Stop, Drop, And Stay: Abiding With Intense Emotions
We all have them sometimes: those emotions that just feel, well, like they’re too much. Whether it’s anger, anxiety, fear or sadness, these emotions can feel overwhelming and even life-threatening. When we’re in the throes of such powerful emotions, we often feel like we’ll never get away from them, we can’t control them, and that they’ll drown us. Afterward, we may feel an ‘emotional hangover’ and wonder where emotions that strong even came from within us.
My colleague Miriam Marsolais, a psychologist and mindfulness practitioner, once shared a Buddhism-inspired metaphor about these types of emotions: If you want to tame a wild horse, you need to give it a big corral. If you fence it in too tightly, the horse’s energy will be destructive. But if the corral is wide and spacious, there’s enough room for the horse to run, buck, snarl, and do whatever it needs to do to work out its pent-up energy. Eventually, it settles down without causing any harm. It’s not the horse’s activation that’s destructive. Rather, it’s not having enough room within which to exist.
Our emotions need a wide, open corral as well.
When you stop, drop, and stay with your feelings, you expand the space inside of you so there’s plenty of room for all aspects of your emotional experience to reside comfortably. The past, as it shows up in your nervous system, can coexist with our here and now self. What was once foreground, your emotional upset, can step back and be a part of a larger picture.
I teach my clients this Stop, Drop and Stay method to help them cope with powerful emotions that can disrupt their lives and relationships.
“Stopping” is not about bringing your experience to a grinding halt or getting rid of any part of it. It’s about stopping whatever you’ve been doing and slowing down so there’s room to do something different. It’s about interrupting your usual way of responding when you’re triggered. By stopping—recognizing and naming when you’ve been triggered—you’ve already begun to slow your process down. However, your nervous system may still be on alert. The pull to go with the old, familiar way of doing things may still feel tempting.
When we’re activated, the fight-flight-or freeze response is in gear, we’re overcome by distress, and that’s all we can see. But, if we can expand our awareness to include other aspects of our present moment experience, our perspective widens and becomes more balanced and realistic. Here’s one tool for staying present even when we’re experiencing distressing emotions:
Shift your focus away from whatever is activating you and take a moment to notice what you’re experiencing through any or all of your senses. Notice what you see, what you hear, what you touch, smell, or taste. For instance, notice how the chair you’re sitting in feels against your body. Listen to the sounds of your environment and note what you hear. Look around the room and notice what you see. Notice what you smell in the air. Take a sip of a beverage and notice how it tastes.
As you do these things, describe to yourself what you’re observing. Let the experiences fully register. Feel yourself connect with them. Notice and appreciate what happens for you. Focusing on your breath, a common practice in meditation, can also be calming. In particular, when we breathe in a slow, measured way, the vagus nerve, the main channel of the parasympathetic nervous system, gets activated, and the nervous system as a whole comes into balance. Here’s one breathing exercise that I like and use a lot with my clients:
Take a full breath through your nose and then, while pursing your lips as though you’re letting air out through a straw, slowly exhale. Feel the air push against your lips as it slowly leaves your body. Do this three or four times, breathing in through your nose, and out through the small opening in between your lips. As you do, you’ll likely focus your attention on your breathing which will help to also shift your awareness. Notice what happens while you’re breathing in this manner. You should feel the tension inside you begin to dissipate a bit. You should feel the edge softening.
What I like about both of the tools I just shared with you, in addition to their calming effects, is that you can do them anywhere. You can practice them whenever you’re feeling stressed (while you’re driving in the car, waiting in line, in a work meeting) and have them ready for you when you get triggered. But there’s more to do to get the most out of your powerful emotions. The next step is to ‘Drop’.
“Dropping” is about shifting our attention inward to a deeper place inside ourselves. It’s about letting go of the story line, getting out of the chatter in our heads, and connecting with what’s going on in our bodies. It’s about moving toward our core emotional experience rather than trying to avoid it. Close your eyes for a moment and notice what happens when you do. Notice how your inner experience suddenly becomes more apparent and feels nearer. Notice what’s going on energetically. Notice what sensations you’re experiencing in your body. Feel yourself “drop” into your experience.
Without visual distraction from the outside world, it’s as if we take a step closer to our experience, as if we can inhabit ourselves more fully. You’re shifting your focus from looking externally to looking internally. Once you drop inside yourself, your work now is to stay present. Instead of running from your emotional experience, you need to foster a new way of being with it. You need to accept it. You need to bring it into the light of awareness. You need to welcome and make room for it. You need to stay with it.
When we drop inside ourselves, we turn toward the emotions, needs, and desires that we’ve been conditioned to fear. The feelings deep inside us that we’ve attempted to avoid or hide from. When we’re triggered, our natural tendency is to avert our attention and move away from our discomfort. But, when we do that, we’re responding as though we’re in danger, thus reinforcing our threat response and never giving ourselves a chance to learn otherwise.
By staying with our emotional experience, by abiding with it and giving it room to breathe, it’s able to move through us and come to a resolution. When you stay with your emotional experience and see it through, you grow your capacity to be present with yourself and with others. In doing so you develop a different kind of relationship with your emotional experience. You give it a larger corral in which to exist. You just stay with your experience and allow it to unfold.
With this goal in mind, give this next exercise a try:
Staying – Exercise One
Close your eyes and go inside. Think about a recent experience you’ve had in which you were triggered. Recall what happened. Picture it in your mind’s eye in as much detail as possible. As you do, notice what happens in your body. Find the place inside of you where you’re feeling physically activated. Focus on it. Stay with it. Breathe into it and give it a lot of room. Allow yourself to feel whatever is there. Touch the quality of it. Describe it to yourself. Notice what happens as you do.
Let yourself get curious about what you’re experiencing. Not from an intellectual place of trying to make sense of things but from a place of openness and discovery, allowing for whatever comes. Listening to whatever is there.
Try to look beyond your distress to see what feelings might be underneath. Ask yourself, “What’s coming up for me?” Just notice what reveals itself. Notice how it manifests in your body. See if you can identify and name what emotions you are feeling. Then, just do your best to stay present and allow the feelings to move through you. Surf the waves of energy inside you. Feel them move through you. Stay with them as long as it takes for them to begin to shift.
If you start to feel overwhelmed, pause and focus on your breathing for a moment. Take a few deep breaths and let them out slowly. Use your breathing and grounding tools to help regulate your experience and make it more manageable. Do whatever you need to do to bring yourself to a place where you’re able to stay present to your felt experience without exiting in any way. Find a balance between leaning in enough so that you can be present with your feelings but not so much so that you feel overwhelmed.
Then, come back to your emotional experience and give it another try. Picture the triggering moment and notice what comes up for you now. If it’s helpful, you can alternate between focusing on your breath (or some other neutral point of focus) and touching back into your emotional experience. Keep coming back to your emotional experience and staying with it until it shifts.
What was that like? What did you experience? Were you able to stay present with yourself? Was it as difficult as you anticipated? Did it help to observe and describe your emotional experience? Were you able to identify what you were feeling? What did you learn about your inner experience? Did you discover any feelings you weren’t aware of?
There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. There’s only your experience. What matters most is that you’re trying to stay present to yourself. You’re stretching and expanding your emotional capacity. You’re widening your corral. With these practices, your emotional experience will become clearer over time, and you’ll have a powerful tool to use when you feel strong, overwhelming emotions.
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