Health Hacks 6/21/17

Oh That Feeling

During a recent talk, the Dalai Lama emphasized that certain emotions like hate, anger, and fear are inherently negative and destructive. But they are real, they arise from time to time, so how should we handle them? His Holiness noted that most people manage such negative emotions using outside stimuli such as drugs, alcohol, sex, or the accumulation of material objects. But true happiness (his definition of what all humans are meant to strive for), real peace, comes first from within - the internal - and never the external. To be sure, the use of things like alcohol, while making us feel ‘good’ (or more likely numb) in the moment, only temporarily masks the negative emotions: they don’t deal with the feelings on a fundamental level.

I ask you to consider the following the next time you contemplate turning to something external to deal with the internal (e.g. challenging emotions):

  1. We are all old enough to have experienced countless emotional highs and lows in our lives. We often don’t know when they will hit, or why, but we do know they will pass. Intense in the moment, feelings of sadness or anger or fear are temporary in nature.

2. When we use substances like drugs or alcohol, not only do we mask – and thus prolong (making it worse!) the emotions, we put ourselves further from a state of mind to deal with them effectively. How many good decisions have been made by people who are drunk? Not many. Bad decisions? Countless.

3. Try just sitting with the emotion. Find a quiet corner in your room - or your bed - and, unimpeded by external stimuli, just let the emotion flow over you. Acknowledge it. Pay homage to it. Don’t resist it. You will be amazed at how quickly it can come and go when you just let it out, let itbe.

4. Flip the emotion around by examining what is at its root. As a teenager I was fortunate enough to be contending for world sailing championship titles. I would get very nervous prior to the competition. Imagine if I had dealt with those fears by pounding 3 glasses of wine! Not a very effective way to manage the emotions. Somehow I happened upon the idea that the nerves I was feeling were agoodthing, and to welcome them, to be thankful for them. My rational was this: I only got nervous when I was competing for some prestigious title, when the stakes were big. Fundamentally, when I was not in competition, when I didn’t feel these nerves (at a time of calmness) I knew I wanted to be in these competitions. I enjoyed them, they were good for me, etc. Being nervous meant I had put myself in a place I wanted to be. The alternative, I realized, was to never have these feelings – and thus to never be in a position where I could excel in my chosen sport. Never being nervous – but never being in the game – was far worse than being occasionally nervous but challenging myself in ways that ultimately made me happy.

Often behind a negative emotion is actually something fundamentally positive. Stressed over work? That means you have a job! It might be a lot more stressful to not have work! Kids creating uncertainty for you, fear, anger…? Think of all the people who wished they had kids but never could. So those emotions are actually a gift: you get to feel those emotions, they come with something amazing, namely being able to raise a child. Let’s say you are going through a bad break up. You are sad, perhaps even bitter or angry. The reality is, if you had no real, deep feelings for that person to begin with then the break up would be no big deal. Your emotions are basically telling you, ‘hey, that was a really great thing you had going, I’m sad it is ending.’ As the saying goes, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all….” So honor your emotions, let them be, be thankful that you experienced such a meaningful relationship that you now have these feelings (as Dalai also notes, much of our negative emotions comes from attachment, so when we ‘lose’ something we become sad, but we’ll address that at another time). Why suppress your emotions with alcohol or other external masks? Why dishonor the past, the feelings you have? Give them their due, let them have their moment, they too will pass, and as with most challenges you face in life, you will emerge stronger on the other side.

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