Is your Emotional Reaction Coming from the Past?

Events, people or situations can sometimes upset us. However, there are times when our reactions are so much more intense than the situation warrants. You may be wondering why that is, or maybe you assume that the situation is the cause of your intense anger, frustration, anxiety, or hurt. While the situation could definitely be the cause of the emotional response, at times, the situation might be minimal and you will still have a strong emotional response to it. Furthermore, you might notice that your friends or family members have quite a different response than you do for the same exact situation. For example, in the case where you are standing in line and someone cuts the line in front of you and your friends, you might feel such rage that you end up punching that person. While you experienced rage, your friend might not be even bothered by the person who cut him off. Finally, another one of your friends might be saddened by it. So, while the situation is the same for all three of you, the response to it might be completely different. Therefore, while the situation contributed to your emotional trigger, it is not the actual situation that caused you to rage and punch the other person. Rather, it can be an accumulation of multiple experiences throughout your life.

Grounding

If you are in the midst of an intense emotional reaction, you might first want to find ways to ground yourself. This could be done by noticing how your feet feel on the ground. Try to really connect to the sensations that you notice on your feet. You could also pay attention to how your breath feels as it enters or leave your lungs. Try to get curious with it, by either finding a spot that you notice your breath the most, noticing what part of your body moves during a breath cycle, or even sensing the temperature changes in your throat or nose as you breathe in and out. You could also use any of your senses (smell, touch, sight, hearing and taste) to notice your surroundings and return to the present moment. This could look like noticing the colours in the room, the shapes, or the objects. You could also listen to the sounds that are present. Maybe you can feel the wall on your hands or the seat on your legs. Feel free to alternate between these until you notice a shift towards calm in your body.

Notice

Once the strong emotional response has settled a bit, you could start by reflecting on it. The first thing that you can do is to return to the recent event where you had a strong emotional reaction. You could start by noticing what emotion you are feeling and asking yourself what you are noticing in your body that tells you that you are feeling that particular emotion. Perhaps you are feeling tension, pressure, or a burning sensation in your chest. Then, see what thoughts come in as you go back to the recent situation. If it helps, you may want to observe feelings and thoughts right before the situation occurred, during, or after. This might helps you notice a shift as the events progressed. Then, see if what you are thinking is true. For example, when the person cut you off in line, your thoughts might tell you that the person is inconsiderate, that he hates you, and did this on purpose. Then, you might notice that you are thinking that everyone is out to hurt you and that no one cares about you. This may trigger a feeling of helplessness and anger. After noticing your thoughts, you could try to see if they are entirely true. In this example, you could ask whether it’s true that no one cares about you by looking to see if there have there been times that people have shown acts of kindness. Do you know for a fact that this person intentionally does not care about you and wanted to hurt you? The facts are that the person cut you off, but you do not know his intentions. Perhaps the person genuinely did not see you and your friends standing there, or maybe he is in a big hurry. Doing this helps to see the bigger picture and that the entirety of what your thoughts are telling you aren’t always true. In addition, the next time that you get triggered, you can look at what your thoughts are telling you, so that you can change the internal message. Noticing the emotional response can help create distance from it so that it does not control you.

How Old do you Feel?

As I mentioned in the beginning, your emotional response usually stems from an accumulation of experiences. Therefore, one final thing that you can do, that might bring you awareness, is to first connect to the emotional response once more. You can ask the emotion what it is telling you. Once you listen and connect to the emotion, ask yourself how old you feel. You might notice a number come up or feel a certain age. This step might be easier in a meditative state, but is also not required. Try not to judge what comes up. Once you connect to the age of the emotion that you are experiencing, ask yourself what is happening. You might be surprised to find that you have felt this way before. Once a situation comes to you, just notice what emotions you are experiencing. Let yourself experience what comes to you for a moment, listen and observe what is happening. Once this feels complete, ask that younger part of yourself what it would have needed at the time. Maybe you needed someone to support you, listen to you, validate you, protect you or hear you. Once you figure out what you needed, see if you can bring that to yourself. For example, if it was support that you needed, some people might find it useful to see a supportive part of themselves come in and bring support. Others might connect to a person or a spiritual being who was supportive and experience this person bring them support. If you are still struggling, you may want to see a friend, a family member or someone that you love experiencing what you did. Then, see yourself bringing the support for them. You may want to notice what happens as you bring support to that person. Then, see if you can replace that friend with that younger version of yourself and bring the support to it.

This exercise is helpful to see where the emotional reaction comes from. In fact, strong emotional reactions can come from unhealed parts of our selves. Being able to bring what was needed helps to slowly repair the unhealed parts. It might also give perspective on why you are having a strong response to a recent event. For example when doing the exercise, you may have found that you felt the same way when you were 4 years old and that your siblings were pushing you around. When you were upset, they would laugh and tell you that no one cares about you. This might help you understand that the person who cut you off in line triggered this part that was helpless as a child.