Image: "A nest for a dream." by Tsoku Maela, From "Abstract Peaces," 2016
Ever since I listened to A Seat at the Table, the one thing that has been on my mind is that dealing with difficult emotion is both challenging and incredibly human. It was right around this same time when we learned that Kid Cudi was voluntarily hospitalized in a psychiatric setting for suicidal thoughts and depression. At that time, it became very apparent to me that difficult emotion is something that we all will experience at some point in our lives, and at varying degrees of severity. Because of that, it is something that we must recognize, acknowledge, and learn to accept.
Not "Eliminate"... but "Manage"
Whenever I meet a new client who comes to me for mental health counseling/psychotherapy, one of the first things I say is this:
“I am not a magician, so I cannot make the difficult things in your life go away. I cannot make your difficult emotions go away either. But we can work together to help you manage them, because they are a valuable part of life.”
Every day, both personally and professionally, I meet people who attempt to stuff and suppress their difficult emotions, with the hopes that this process will make them all go away. Within our families, friendships, and even through the media, we are taught that we should be able to “control” our emotions. We are also taught that if we avoid feeling our difficult emotions, that they will eventually go away. Unfortunately, none of this is true.
Many days, I can’t help but wonder what our lives could be like if we embrace the idea that life will include both ups and downs, happiness and sadness, joy and dismay. I truly believe that if we are able to accept our difficult emotions as being an integral part of life, then they may begin to feel and look much different. I realize this can sound confusing or paradoxical even, but many times, the very thing we try to avoid is what we need to embrace the most. It’s like the elephant in the room: it is big and takes up so much space while we try to ignore it, but once we acknowledge that it’s there, it’s not so big anymore. It becomes quite manageable and we eventually learn ways to manage the discomfort. Sometime it may eventually fade away. Believe it or not, our emotions operate in the very same way.
So what contributes to difficult emotion? The list is endless, but a few of the most common contributors include:
It would be odd for someone to not experience negative emotions in response to these various circumstances and conditions. In that way, our negative emotions serve to alert us that something has happened, or that maybe something did go wrong in our lives. We can think about it like an alarm system that gives vital information about our bodies and mind. Without being aware of these emotions, we may miss an important piece of information about what has happened, and what we should then do to resolve the affliction and heal the wound.
How to deal?
I realize that there are so many questions that we may have about mental health and how to handle difficult emotions. This is especially true when we are not used to dealing with our emotions or sharing them with other people. But here are a few things that could be helpful to consider:
What is the difference between general emotional discomfort vs mental health crisis?
Emotional discomfort is a very normal and healthy part of our mental and emotional health. When we experience emotional discomfort, we are likely experiencing emotions like anger, sadness, guilt, jealously, envy, worry, etc. General emotional discomfort usually accompanies difficult situations, challenging circumstances, school or work stress, death or loss, and other life transitions. This type of emotional discomfort is usually not chronic and is more likely to fall in sync with other life events or circumstances.
The experiences of general emotional discomfort and mental health crisis are very different.
We may be experiencing a mental health crisis when emotional distress is chronic (consistent and unwavering for several months or more), seems to alter usual temperament or personality, and begins to interfere with our ability to function, be productive, or complete activities of daily living. Other hallmark signs of mental health crisis is active psychosis (auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, delusions, extreme paranoia, etc.), self-injurious behaviors (i.e. cutting oneself with sharp objects, burning, etc.), suicidal thoughts and homicidal thoughts.
At what point should I seek help?
Many times, general emotional discomfort needs patience, time, social support, and really good self-care (keep reading for tips on this) for it to pass. However, it can be beneficial to seek the help of a mental health professional for these experiences.
If we are experiencing a mental health crisis, this generally requires the help and assistance of a qualified mental health professional. Therefore, if you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms characteristic of a mental health crisis, seek help immediately.
What help is available?
Professional mental health support usually falls within one of the following categories:
Mental Health Counseling/Psychotherapy- Counseling or psychotherapy is typically what is seen on television and in the media as the primary form of mental health support. This involves speaking with a licensed mental health professional on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis about any distressing thoughts, feelings or life circumstances that may be contributing to our current emotional distress. This form of mental health support is usually temporary (6-12 weeks) but can also be long-term (several months or more). The time spent in mental health counseling/psychotherapy really varies based on our mental and emotional needs at that time. As someone who is a licensed mental health professional and who has also benefited from counseling/psychotherapy in the past, I recommend this type of mental health support for everyone. Speaking with a mental health professional can help improve our ability to understand our thoughts, emotions, and other life circumstances. A mental health professional can assist in developing coping skills to handle current emotional distress. These coping skills can also be used for future experiences of emotional distress. Mental health counseling/psychotherapy is also ideal for receiving help in dealing with any past traumas or other adverse experiences (i.e past abuses, previous deaths and other relationship losses, etc.) that may still have lingering effects on us.
Psychiatry/Medication Management- Psychiatric medication management is another form of mental health treatment that involves using medication to help alleviate distressing mental and emotional symptoms. Medication management cannot be facilitated by every mental health professional, and is generally provided by a licensed psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or a family physician. For many people, chronic emotional distress or other serious mental health conditions (i.e. Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, etc.) may not be easily alleviated with mental health counseling/psychotherapy alone. For these instances, medication is extremely beneficial. Alternatively, medication can also be used to relieve temporary emotional distress (i.e. grief after death of a loved one or a ended relationship, situational anxiety around public speaking or flying in an airplane, etc.).
Crisis Stabilization/Psychiatric Hospitalization- Crisis stabilization or psychiatric hospitalization is the most extreme form of mental health treatment. Typically, this form of treatment is needed when we are experiencing a mental health crisis (as was explained above). The purpose of this form of treatment is to stabilize us (primarily with medication, intensive counseling/psychotherapy, and medical supervision) to our pre-crisis state, with the hope that we will then seek continued mental health treatment via counseling/psychotherapy or medication management. The length of crisis stabilization/psychiatric hospitalization can range from a few hours to a week or more, depending on our mental and emotional needs at that time.
Do I need medication?
This is a question that I receive often, particularly from people who are skeptical of the effects of psychiatric medication. For some reason, our society does not have a positive impression of psychiatric medication and those who choose to use it for optimal mental health. However, I have found that psychiatric medication can be very beneficial and even life changing for many people. Therefore, the decision to utilize psychiatric medication is personal one that is best made by yourself and with the support of a licensed mental health professional. There should be no shame in making a decision to enhance your own mental and emotional health.
For those who remain skeptical and wish to seek alternative methods, I suggest mental health counseling/psychotherapy, in addition to the very best self-care possible. Often times, mental and emotional distress is linked to our lack of care for ourselves. At the very minimum, prioritizing adequate sleep (7-8hrs per night), proper eating habits, and consistent physical activity can be enough to positively impact your mental and emotional health.
What is “self-care” and why is it important?
Simply put, “self-care” is the practice of taking care of yourself. The best self-care is holistic and involves care for physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health and well-being. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught to believe that self-care is “selfish” or a sign of “weakness.” In reality, the practice of self-care is vital to our overall health and well-being. Therefore, the act of self-care must be deliberate. It cannot be something that happens by chance, or “if time permits.” It must take priority in all of our lives.
Inadequate self-care leads to deficits in all areas of health and well-being, particularly for mental and emotional health. For instance, many people do not realize how essential, sleep, eating, and physical activity are for our physical, mental, and emotional health. If these three things are not taken care of consistently, the body and mind cannot function properly. This leads to a variety of physical ailments, and an increased risk of mental and emotional health conditions. Therefore, quality sleep per night (which typically ranges between 7-9 hours for adults), proper eating habits, and regular physical activity are the minimum requirements for adequate self-care.
What else should be included in our self-care practice?
Dr. Amber Thornton
Clinical psychologist with a passion for family, community, culture, and diversity.