Not why the addiction but why the pain.Dr. Gabor Maté, Physician and Addiction Expert
A Day In A Life Of An Overwhelmed Human
The below used to be a common routine of mine that gave me great stress and anxiety on a daily basis:
I wake up before the sun rises because I need to finish work from the previous evening or fit in personal time ahead of a busy day.
I’m so tired that I can’t imagine functioning for the rest of the day, so I reach for two cups of coffee to get me going.
I make my way to the airport to fly or drive to my client’s office – either way, I battle traffic and deal with impatient people trying to get to where they need to go.
At the office, meetings get canceled or run over, deadlines get pushed, accomplishments are delayed, disagreements occur, politicking ensues, teams get frustrated, leaders get aggressive, and clients get demanding.
Finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and comparison are the topics over lunch.
So tired. More coffee.
When most people leave the office, my team and I continue working into the late evenings. We try our best to squeeze in dinner, a workout, a phone call with family/friends, and getting work done. If we’re lucky, we get to do three of the four, and it usually involves scarfing down food from the nearest restaurant or eating in front of our screens.
While I’m exhausted from the day, I’m also very aware that I’m missing a friend’s celebration, connecting with my partner, bonding with my furry pets, nourishing my body with sunshine and healthy home-cooked meals, and the comfort of my bed at home.
I finally crawl into my hotel bed, too exhausted to “entertain” any feelings and frustrations from the day, and set my alarm for way too early to finish up what I didn’t get to tonight.
The Root Cause Of My Stress & Anxiety
Some would conclude that the events of my day created stress and anxiety for me, but in retrospect, that really wasn’t the case.
The root cause of my stress and anxiety was that I did not prioritize, notice, acknowledge, and fully experience the emotions that were bubbling up throughout the day. Even minutes before I closed my eyes for sleep, I would often be distracted by my phone, planning the next day, or by pure exhaustion.
I ignored important cues from my intuitive self, and over time, paid a price for it.
I’m delighted to say that this is no longer my life and that my day-to-day looks so different now that reflecting on it makes me feel very grateful for where I am today.
While everyone’s life can look different on the surface, the similarity is that it creates an emotional experience that is either acknowledged or ignored.
Emotion Is Energy In Motion
Our emotions usually tell us two things – they let us know who we need to build relationships with or what actions to take.
If we tune into our emotions, the energy that comes with each emotion moves and stirs within us a desire to take the appropriate action, be it rest, apologize, console, fight, celebrate, connect, create, make love, etc.
If we are wise to our emotions, they can be used as a powerful tool to gauge our distance from our truth, purpose, happiness, and well-being at any given moment. But more on that later.
In modernity, we are feeling more than ever before because we are inundated by information and “social” interactions (virtual or IRL), facilitated by technology and culture.
Let me explain…
While our ancestors were able to flee, fight, or hide from threats, modern “predators” follow us at every turn, from the moment we open our eyes to the moment before we fall asleep. It’s not just the tiger or our neighbors we need to keep watch for anymore. In the modern world, we’re also keeping our eyes on our investments, student loans, mortgages, social security, 401K, our image and appearance, traffic, our boss, workplace culture, team morale, client satisfaction, discrimination, social inequality, animal rights, the environment, what’s in our water, what’s in our food, what’s in our medication, wars, hacking, fraud, getting ripped off…the list goes on.
To add fuel to the fire, modern portable devices amplify the increased “threat” in our environment, creating greater stress for us all. Our brain’s survival feature, negative bias, turns us into hyper-vigilant watchdogs on steroids, constantly assessing and interpreting our environment for safety. Every facial expression, performance evaluation, survey result, ad, video, post, like, follow, and digital interaction hooks us into either a “promise” or a “challenge.”
It’s no wonder most of us are stressed and anxious even before the day begins!
Emotions Carry Important Messages
Many of us are completely overwhelmed by the information coming at us and how it makes us feel (the basis of media and advertising is to elicit strong emotions!).
At the same time, we are encouraged by society to push away our feelings, so that we can:
“behave,” “be normal,” “get a grip,” “look professional,” “be strong,” and “blend in” to be accepted.
And conveniently, we have tons of tools at our fingertips to help us do just that. Meet: food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, social media, dating apps, video games, caffeine, reality tv, endless streaming media, adrenaline adventures, work, etc.
By no means am I suggesting that these things we enjoy so much are wrong or bad. I know they can be wonderful and they make us feel happy, and paradoxically some are even essential for our well-being.
My point is that because they are such effective tools for making us feel good quickly, it’s easy to automatically reach for these short-lived dopamine hits to our brain as a way to relieve our emotional pain or discomfort (and it’s always short-lived since we always need another drink, bite, or item in our shopping basket).
When we distract ourselves from facing our emotions, those feelings do not go away. In fact, they will grow and gnaw at our core to get our attention. Truth does not go away.
Do Not Ignore Your Feelings
I get why we don’t like sitting with our emotions – it’s uncomfortable at best and painful at worst. It can feel awkward and difficult. It can be dark, brutal, gut-wrenching, and impossible at times.
But I’ve learned that our biggest, most beautiful lessons are often behind those uncomfortable feelings. And until we’ve learned our lesson, evolved, and grown, the same lesson will continue to show up in our lives. Have you ever noticed that?
As the saying goes, “What we resist, persists.”
If we ignore our emotions, we will spiral downward and be forced to meet them with a face plant.
Here’s a common example of coping with emotional discomfort with distraction.
I’m feeling like crap, so I’ll open up a shopping app and buy something that delights me. As a result, this action will give my brain a dopamine hit (aka the pleasure and reward chemical secreted in the brain). Right away, I will feel some relief, and I don’t feel as crappy as I did just a few minutes ago.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem to be that destructive. However, when we repeat this behavior dozens, hundreds, and thousands of times, we reshape our brains to believe a few things:
- Shopping makes me feel whole
- My ability to buy is an important value to me
- I’ll lose a piece of my identity if I’m no longer able to buy what I want
For this individual, a few things can create a downward spiral very quickly:
- Financial troubles creating an inability to purchase at whim
- The need for a bigger home to house all the items acquired
- Clutter and disorganization created by purchases
- Feelings of guilt and shame when realizing all the “junk” acquired
The Addiction Of Avoiding Our Feelings
When a downward spiral happens, it drives a person further into feelings of discomfort, and the need to reach for the thing that is known to relieve discomfort in the past (in this example) – shopping. This creates a cycle of “unhealthy behaviors” that begets more “unhealthy behaviors.”
There is a similar cycle of dependency and a downward spiral for anything we reach for to distract us from our feelings. It’s essentially a model of addiction.
When we suppress our emotions, we create distress as we are resisting what we’re naturally built to experience.
If we continue to ignore our emotions, our minds and bodies will continue to sound the signals louder and more frequently. Sometimes signals come in the form of ailments, distress, and mental breakdowns when our body is trying to get our attention.
In Dr. Gabor Maté’s words, “Emotional stress is a major cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases.”
Feel Your Emotions – Receive Its Message – Then Let It Go
In our current stress epidemic where 80% of Americans say they are stressed, and many are experiencing anxieties, one of the most effective things we can do that won’t cost a cent (unlike weighted blankets) is to notice, acknowledge, and fully experience our emotions.
Emotions exist to serve us. They tell us if we’re safe or threatened, who’s a friend or foe, if we’re practicing self-care or self-harm, if we’re stepping into our truth or betraying ourselves.
To feel emotions is to be human – but we learn at an early age how to “appropriately handle” our emotions.
In our society, there are certain emotions that are more acceptable to share, like frustration, stress, and anger. But other feelings such as disappointment, vulnerability, depression, loneliness, and shame are less commonly discussed with colleagues over lunch.
It might be why we feel so alone when we feel the way we feel – because we think it’s unique to us and that others don’t feel this way.
As a coach who sits with other people’s emotions, I’ve come to know that people experience the same emotions deep down, but different people express it or handle it very differently on the outside.
Our emotions need the “message received” signal before they are released from our bodies. Like a loyal friend who cares about us, our pent-up emotions do not leave us without us first receiving their message. And they will wait a lifetime if required.
Have you ever noticed that people who suppress or push their emotions away tend to see unresolved emotions show up in other areas of their lives, like a game of whack-a-mole?
When we follow our emotions, we tap into our intuition. When we listen to our emotions, we acknowledge our truth. When we take action that honors our emotional needs, we practice self-care and self-compassion.
Let’s not resist our emotions and our inner life – they’re one of the most beautiful things that make us human and alive.
Where do you start?
Instead of whacking the mole, I invite you to find the mole, sit with it, receive its message, give it what it needs, then see what happens next.
Consider sharing this article if you benefited from it.