Health Matters: What to Do When You’re Emotionally Worn Out
When under stress, many people hold in their emotions rather than letting them out, whether they’re sad, angry, fearful, annoyed, despairing, or even feeling happy or joyful. Sometimes people are worried that their strong emotions will overwhelm them; others are trying to uphold a standard they feel bound by, like the idea that real men don’t cry or that it isn’t ladylike to show anger. In reality, we are all humans and if we bottle up our emotions for too long, we become like a balloon that’s full to the point of popping. It may sound strange, but there is no such thing as a wrong feeling. The feelings themselves aren’t the problem; it’s how we deal with them that can either help us feel better or worse. Most people feel a lot better when they let a little air (emotion) out of their balloon. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep these emotions bottled up, which leaves very little energy for other, more enjoyable activities.
Obviously, there are healthy and unhealthy ways to release emotion. Lashing out at others is not a good idea, but allowing space to let it all out with a big ugly-cry (that’s a clinical term) or let loose with a punching bag can be really beneficial. Another great way to let feelings out is through journaling. Just start writing and see what falls out of your brain. You can burn the evidence later, but don’t restrict your outpouring while you’re in the middle of it.
Sometimes, unexpressed emotions can hijack our rational minds and take over. This can throw our thoughts, feelings, and actions out of balance. If the smallest things make you want to cry or break something, that’s a pretty good indicator that you may be out of balance. If you find yourself blaming others or yourself for things that happen to you, that can be a defense mechanism against feeling your emotions, another indicator you may be out of balance.
Usually, the best first step is to express the emotion closest to the surface—let ‘er rip (in a safe and healthy way). Then your rational brain has an opportunity to put things back in perspective. If you’re having trouble because you’re frequently worrying or feeling unsettled, it can help to go through an exercise that forces you to focus on things you can control, rather than things you can’t. It can help to do this with a trained therapist, but you can also do this on your own or with a trusted friend or family member. Make a plan for action on the things you can control and let the rest go.
Children may find it helpful to make a worry box. They can write down the things they cannot control and put them in the box so they can let them go. With adults, it varies. Some are able to lean on their faith and give their worries to a higher power. Others find solace in meditation. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there is a helpful coping mechanism for each individual.
Expressing our emotions helps restore the balance with our rational minds. The emotions that felt so overwhelming no longer have such a strong hold on us. If you never allow yourself to release your emotions, over time they can wear you down and lead to conditions like depression and anxiety. Many people think of depression as sadness, and while sadness can be a part of it, depression usually presents with a lack of interest or pleasure in doing things. We feel tired and weighed down. Similarly, while worrying can be a symptom of anxiety, many people experience anxiety as uncomfortable physical sensations in their bodies that come out of the blue. Knowing these symptoms may help you realize that you or someone you care about may be suffering from a treatable illness.
Our world is pretty stressful right now and if you would like some help finding some coping mechanisms that are a fit for you, consider making an appointment with a therapist. We’re here to help.
Ben Anderson is the behavioral health director at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. All MCHC health centers accept Medi-Cal/Partnership HealthPlan of California, Medicare, Covered California, and other insurance. Learn more at mchcinc.org.