Overwhelming emotions

One of the things I experienced, especially in the early days of grief, was being overwhelmed with emotions. The pain was so real and so strong, it would frequently keep me from functioning in my day-to-day life. Gut-wrenching crying. Breath-taking horror. I felt like all of my emotional responses were turned up ten-fold. Or maybe 100-fold. I tried to get my emotions under control, but nothing seemed to work. I would just end up bottling them up, only for them to explode out later, even stronger. I was a mess, and in so much pain.

A friend who’s a professional therapist, suggested I try a technique she’d been teaching for many years. Mindfulness. I thought she was asking me to meditate or to somehow focus on the pain. It sounded too simplistic to actually be effective. But as I came to understand Mindfulness as she intended, I found it helped tremendously. Your mileage may vary, but I thought I’d share in case it may be helpful to someone else.

Every time I felt overwhelmed with emotion, I would take a deep slow breath, and then focus on the current moment. If I was feeling afraid, I’d ask myself if there was something in that moment that was threatening to me. No? Then breathe. I would sit quietly, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing. One breath. Another. What did breathing feel like? Was the air cold or warm? I would keep my eyes closed and focus on my skin. Could I feel a breeze? Or the soft touch of my socks? I would breathe quietly and listen silently for sounds in the room. The whir of an air-conditioner. The sounds of a cat. Then I’d focus on the sounds outside the room or outside the house. A lawnmower. The birds at the feeder. Children playing. Then I’d come back to my breathing and find that I was calmer and more centered. Less apt to feel overwhelmed. And the next time the overwhelm happened, I’d go through the process again.

Focusing on the present moment can help turn our thinking away from the what-ifs of the past and the future. The present, this very moment, is what matters right now. When you feel overwhelmed by past hurts, losses, or future imaginings, try focusing fully on the present moment. Take a breath. Take another. Feel your body. Hear the birds. Actively and gently turn your thoughts from the past and future, while you look at the realities of right now.

Breathe. Just breathe. I still practice Mindfulness and it still helps, even in these times when my emotions aren’t as overwhelming. Give it a try. It can’t hurt, and it may prove to be a gentle, helpful lifeline that can bring a little peace in the midst of the turmoil.

Mindfulness (2)

If you missed Part One in the Mindfulness series (that sounds so official, but it’s just me sharing my thoughts and experiences), you can catch up at Mindfulness (1).

Flying home from Florida last Friday, I had the chance to use Mindfulness to overcome one of my most anxiety-producing activities. Flying.

I knew from experience that Mindfulness could be helpful with everyday anxiety, social anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and even some PTSD symptoms, but for some reason it never crossed my mind it might be helpful with my fear of flying.  I’ve lost a number of people to plane accidents over the years.  In one crash, I lost four people who were important in my life.  Oftentimes people would talk about how flying was safer than driving in a car, but it just didn’t register for me because I’ve lost more people in planes than in cars.

After each loss, the anxiety grew exponentially until I reached a point where the crippling fear would begin weeks before I had to fly.  And then when the time came to travel, I’d have a full-on panic attack.  Travel by air became impossible.  I planned all trips around cars, trains, or busses.

Long story short, when talking to a new doctor I’d started seeing, the topic of my flying phobia came up.  He told me he didn’t like seeing me missing out on so much of life when there was a quick and easy treatment that would enable me to fly again and give me back my travels.  Xanax.  (More about that at the end of this post.  I want to get onto the Mindfulness practice that helped me last week.)

Our flight home was almost delayed due to severe thunderstorms, so I spent the pre-flight time looking lists of flights that were being delayed or cancelled.  Fortunately, ours was on schedule.  A couple of minutes into the flight, I felt some turbulence, and I my stomach did it’s thing that signaled a coming panic attack.  Uh, oh.  I’d forgotten to take my Fly Happy meds!

I’ve been practicing Mindfulness so much lately, that my first response was to think, “I need to calm myself down so I can think clearly.”  I closed my eyes, took several long slow breaths.  I focused on my feet pressing firmly on the floor.  I felt my thighs against the seat of the chair.  My arms on the armrests. My head on the back of the seat. I took a few more long slow breaths, and then opened my eyes.  I was calm.  I was peaceful. I was flying on a plane in turbulence. And I wasn’t panicking!  I wasn’t even afraid.

I decided to put off taking my meds until I felt I actually needed them.  A couple of times during the flight I had momentary pictures in my mind of worst-case scenarios.  But I just asked myself, “Is this fearful event in my mind happening now?  No.  Now I’m quietly watching a movie [or eating, or reading].”  Deep breath in and out.  And I’d be fine again.

This may sound like silliness to people who don’t experience fear of flying to the level I do (did?), but for me, it felt almost miraculous.

I was so surprised — and happy — about newfound calmness when flying, I’m still in a bit of shock.  But if I hadn’t been practicing Mindfulness everyday when I didn’t necessarily need it, I wouldn’t have had the habit so instilled in me that it took over automatically in a severely stressful and anxious situation.

There was a reason it took me many years to be willing to try a medication to help me with my fear of flying.  In the somewhat legalistic church world I was living in at the time, it was considered sinful, and showed a lack of faith, if someone used a “crutch” or medication to handle a fear of flying.

Many times in ladies’ Bible studies, women would be in tears as they asked for prayer for their fear of flying and their family’s upcoming vacation.  It was a common theme.  And always they cried and expressed their guilt and shame.  And always the apologies for not having enough faith.

One day, I was that woman asking for those prayers, and an Elder’s wife came up to me quietly afterward and said she believed that God could lead us to doctors who could help us with our weaknesses.  She said that being afraid and being weak weren’t sinful, they were just conditions of being human.  If I hadn’t had that conversation with her, I don’t think I would’ve been open to the idea of the doctor’s medication suggestion.

Just telling someone to calm down isn’t effective if they don’t have the tools.  Mindfulness can be one of those tools to bring calmness in the midst of the storm (or the turbulence).  🙂

When I feel like practicing something I already know how to do, like Mindfulness, I tell myself , “Practice when you don’t need it, and you’ll have it when you do need it.”

Hope you had a great Easter!


This is Rufus the Rabbit.  🙂