Dealing with unwanted emotions when deprived of usual pastimes or work
Focusing on things that need to be done can help you to get through shapeless and dissatisfying days
Because you’ve nothing else to occupy your attention an annoyance such as a buzzing fly can become more upsetting than it’s worth. Photograph: Getty Images
I was surprised one morning last week by a feeling of pure anger. It reminded me that in the strange situation we are all in now, we can expect feelings to arise that don’t make sense. Because they don’t make sense we need to let them pass, which they usually do, in their own time.
My anger feeling wasn’t directed at anybody or anything in particular. I couldn’t say it was directed at everything in general either. It wasn’t the righteous anger that gushes from Twitter in a torrent these days, for instance.
It was just anger, pure and intense. I got on with things and it faded away in 20 minutes or so. On other days I felt a sense of loss, again without being able to link it to anything because I don’t know what I will have lost when the dust settles. It was just a pure sense of loss.
And, of course, fear made an appearance too now and then, like a sort of shadow passing through me.
When it comes to unwanted emotions the options are: accept that they are there and wait for them to pass, whether that takes 20 minutes or 20 months; dispute them, which is an approach taken in cognitive behavioural therapy; or do something about the issue behind the emotion, if you can find something useful to do about it.
Question it’s validity
Disputing an emotion means using your thinking to question its validity. When I said above that a feeling of loss doesn’t make sense for me at the moment because I don’t know what I’m going to lose, I was disputing the feeling.
Another way to dispute would be to ask and quickly answer three questions I’ve mentioned in this column before: What do I fear will happen? What do I hope will happen? What’s likely to happen? The answer to the third question is usually somewhere between the answers to the first two and is easier to handle than the worst case scenario.
It’s also important, if you are deprived of your usual pastimes or work, to watch out for the “fly in the empty room” scenario.
Suppose you are in a room that is normally fairly noisy with people and devices. Suppose also that the room contains a fly you don’t hear because its buzzing gets drowned out in general chatter and other sounds. Now suppose you want quiet – maybe you want to meditate – so you get rid of all the noise.
Almost all. Now you can hear the fly. It seems terribly loud. You become like a Mr Bean sketch, your peace of mind destroyed by a buzzing that won’t go away. This is hilarious only if you are watching it happen to Mr Bean.
The fly here is any irritating thing that normally you don’t pay much attention to because you’ve got lots of things on your mind. It might be something annoying about your partner or a colleague, or maybe it’s something rude a neighbour said to you a year ago.
Because you’ve nothing else to occupy your attention this annoyance can become more upsetting than it’s worth – I imagine this is also why we can obsess over situations in the middle of the night when our daytime distractions are absent.
Focusing attention and effort on a series of things you need or want to do can help you to forget that irritating mental fly most of the time. Moreover, it can help you to get through days that can too easily become shapeless and dissatisfying.
It also helps to talk to people about anything at all. It doesn’t have to be about what’s upsetting you so long as you have a sense of human connection in the conversation.
A conversation in which you use your actual voice, for example a phone call seems to work faster to reduce painful emotions or preoccupations. The key is the sense of connection.
Meanwhile, if you go to padraigomorain.com/gettingthroughthis you’ll find a list of free resources drawn from mindfulness and from general psychological approaches.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).