Anger- Working with the flames


Anger- Working with the flames

I am so excited to kick off my emotion blogs with one of my favorite emotions-- Anger!

Anger is such a powerful and passionate emotion. It tends to get a bad reputation because when it’s out of balance it can lead to rage and fury, and leave destruction and devastation in it’s path. I have learned to love the fire of anger though, because it can also fuel us into something better like the phoenix rising from the ashes. Just like all of the emotions it hard wired with signals for us if we can learn to slow down and heed its messages before getting burned in the flame.


According to DBT theory anger is doing it’s job when an important goal is blocked, (ie you don’t get your way) you or someone you care about is being hurt or attacked, you or someone you care about is insulted or threatened. Tara Brach simplifies this even more by stating anger simply means we have a need that is not met.


I think the first time I really understood the power of anger was when I was working at my first job as a therapist. I was going over emotions with a young client through art and her picture was related to Martin Luther King Day. "Holy cow," I thought, as I finally made the connection. What if no one ever got angry about racial injustice? Things would never change. Martin Luther King Jr. himself expands on this by saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” To me this could also echo, “Please don’t stop listening to your anger.” 


I started thinking more about this idea of anger as a vehicle for change, and how it can impact our personal lives as well. I see it over and over in EMDR therapy as people repeat dysfunctional patterns they have learned until they allow anger show them they deserve to be loved more fully by both themselves and others.


Brene Brown touches on this in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness as well. She explains, “Anger is a catalyst….It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.” Anger makes the way for all of these beautiful things if we heed the smoke signal when it comes through.


I think where we tend to get into trouble with anger is when it takes over our bodies before we can catch up. Keep in mind it is designed to do this so we can attack and fight when needed. I self compassionately remind myself of this when I too get carried away as should you!


The first intervention is to learn how to feel anger in our bodies and to bring ourselves down. I feel like such a cheesy therapist here. Most of you know the tools: The stop sign, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and deep breaths all apply here. For some comedic relief check out this link to anger regulation in one of my favorite childhood show, Family Matters.


In all seriousness, let me tell you something about these, though. They are evidence based interventions! When we are angry our heart rate increases and our breathing is shallow. Slowing down and taking deep breaths kicks in our parasympathetic system and brings us down. It’s biology and absolutely necessary to get the more mature parts of our brain in control. We can also use more proactive strategies that strengthen this system ahead of time such as meditation and yoga.


Once we are no longer flying off the handle we can slow down and listen to our anger. What is the threat or unfair treatment? What is the unmet need?


Another hard part is to really look at if what we are angry about is true. Much of the time we react with anger without having all the facts or jumping to conclusions (Yes, even you! :P). Also, often under anger are stories of vulnerability, feeling ashamed, rejected, or not enough. As I like to tell my clients although these feel completely true to us, they are also horse poop! Often times we can meet these lies with gentle correction and compassion for ourselves soothing that anger that is trying to brew.


Sometimes, however, we are not wrong. If this is the case, it’s time to problem solve. If our boss is overworking us for example, it’s time for a chat. If our significant other isn’t prioritizing us, maybe we can work toward a solution. You might be sensing a theme here, as often times what is needed is better communication or better boundaries. The good and the bad news is as much as we like to blame our anger on others both of those are controlled by you! I got a kick out of myself after complaining over and over angrily about a toxic person, when the problem was finally solved in an instant when I told them what they were no longer allowed to do! My anger was probably like, "Whew, thanks for finally listening!"

If our anger is still more extreme than we want or we are still feeling the fire when we don’t want to we can pull in some opposite action to bring it down.


One of my favorite lines from the movie Frozen comes from the wise trolls when they say, “People make bad choices if they're mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way, and you'll bring out their best.” This is my first defense against anger and it kicks it’s you know what. Usually if people have upset us they are also hurting themselves or they wouldn’t do things that are unkind. In fact if you really want to up your game you can practice what Tara Brach calls Radical Compassion. It works by thinking of a time when being upset didn’t work out so well for you either….yup, there it is. Just like me, you’ve done some nasty things when angry too. This one is a real pride killer, but the anger dies right along it’s side. The people who anger us are human, and while in some cases boundaries are needed, some grace is often necessary too.


So when we feel the wrath of anger coming over us. Let’s check in. Take a deep breath. Get centered. Do we have something to change? A place in our heart we need to soothe? Maybe we need some boundaries, but could there be room for forgiveness too? Let’s be kind to both our anger and the unmet needs of others, and let it fuel us to be better to ourselves and the world around us.  



Emotional Regulation

I don’t know about any of you, but sometimes I feel like my emotions are straight up out of control! I have been working on a presentation on DBT skills, and they have helped me so much in my ability to get curious about my emotions and respond in a way that honors them rather than reacting. DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was a therapy developed specifically for borderline personality disorder. People who suffer from this disorder often have a particularly hard time managing and regulating their emotions, however, I think this is something we can all use a little wisdom and support with at times.


Just this morning I was listening to a podcast by Tara Brach and a main tenant of the podcast was to “feel our feelings.” Intuitively we know this is true, but on another level we will do anything in our power to avoid them. Bring on wine, oreos, netflix, and facebook! Something I also love about Tara Brach’s work is that she is quick to point out that much of our tendency to avoid is completely hard wired as a natural limbic system response. She added that we have a huge amount of conditioning when feelings are difficult to do anything but feel them. To me this is at the heart of difficulty with emotional regulation. When we have the courage and increased skills to dive into our feelings rather than do anything we can to escape we can learn to ride the waves of emotions with much more grace and maybe even learn a thing or two from them.


Dialectical Behavioral Therapy adds to this with the idea that if we can better understand and name our emotions we can work with them more effectively. This seems so simple, yet can be so empowering. If we know the messages emotions are trying send and we are not afraid to listen we can work together far more harmoniously than our typical push and pull that often times leads us feeling up and down and out of control.


DBT uses a model of emotions to describe this process. According to the model something comes along that activates us. The model calls this the prompting event: Dun, dun, dun. You know those lovely little life events that just love to ruin our day it seems. For the sake of illustration say you see a Bear-- This event will likely start the process of an emotional response-- as it should...


Next comes step two. Our interpretations. In the case of the Bear we might think, “Oh crap, this is not safe!” This will lead to the next steps where the emotion comes in our body and finally the last step that prepares us for action. We run away and live to see another day! Emotions for the win!


Sometimes, however, we get stuck at one or more of these phases in the process. Let’s start with interpretation. Unfortunately, we often have ones that are not correct. Ever busted yourself with this? Assuming the worst, making mountains out of molehills, taking things personally that have nothing to do with you? Don’t worry, you are not alone. In fact, there is a whole theory of counseling based on this. Cognitive behavioral therapy is essentially revolves around the fact that we have faulty “cognitions” Ie thoughts or interpretations, and these are often hard wired too. They can also be ways of warning us to be careful of things that did not go very well for us in the past. Remember the bear? Jumping to fear in that case would be good, but sometimes it leads to running from a teddy bear, or a figure that resembles the bear. If we learn to pay better attention and tune into these thoughts before reacting we can nip our emotions right in the bud! Or, even if we aren't able to catch it right away it can still offer valuable information about the stories we often tell ourselves or where we get tripped up.


Next, the emotion takes over our body and prepares us for action. This part is so important too. Sometimes if I am not feeling particularly mindful I feel emotions in my body first. For example, my first clue that I need to relax is when I feel tightness in my chest and my breathing gets shallow. If I address this, I can often work backwards to find the events and interpretations that got me there before things get to out of hand. Emotional patterns are also very hard wired into our body and can often help us clue into what we are feeling. For example, shame likes to present like a sick feeling in the gut, anxiety loves the chest, ect. As we become more aware of where these live in the body we can learn more about the emotions underlying them and how they can be better attended too. Another strategy here is some good ol’ coping skills. For example, if my breathing is shallow and chest is tight taking some time to meditate, work on some deep breathing, or taking a quick time out can help bring me back into balance while I sort the rest out.


Then finally we have an urge. This is so natural and necessary as well. This is usually fight, flight, or freeze depending on the emotion or situation. It can be our one final chance to listen before responding. With the bear it keeps us out of danger, but can also be where maladaptive responses come in as well such as avoiding, numbing, lashing out, ect. If we learn to befriend this response and come at it with more curiosity as a natural response we can often learn from it as well. It can gives us clues leading to something below the surface that we could be running or hiding from.


So stay tuned as I talk about each emotion as it relates to this process in the upcoming blogs...what I have learned from them on my own, my clients, and how you can tune in yourself. Through attending and befriending we can all get along and learn to cope in this crazy emotional world we live in. We can stay present and learn the message they are sending. Messages that can motivate us for action, let us know our stories need some gentle correcting, telling us we need a quick break, or that it might be time to face that painful wound we don’t realize we are hiding from.


What is EMDR Therapy?

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. At it’s core it is an integrative therapy that uses the power of eye movement to assist people in healing negative experiences and beliefs that have not been processed successfully in the past. EMDR began as a chance observation by  founder, Francine Sharpio as one day walking through the park she observed that by moving her eyes back and forth quickly she was able to change the way she felt about certain problems and lessen the “charge” they had over her. Since that chance discovery in 1987,  it has grown into an evidence-based psychotherapy to treat multiple issues including  post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, panic disorder, grief and loss, and somatic symptoms.

How does it work?

Well, the truth is we don’t know the exact answer to that, but the dominant theory is that EMDR works in same way things are normally processed in REM sleep. During REM sleep eyes also move back and forth and help to process memories and make needed connections in the brain. According to Getting Past Your Past,, Shapiro explains, “That’s why you can go to be worried about something and wake up with a better solution.” Overall, however, the book also admits, “it’s a complex process, many elements are involved and research is ongoing.” Bessel van der Kolk corroborates this idea in his book The Body Keeps Score by stating, “While we don't know precisely how EMDR works, the same is true for Prozac. Prozac has an effect on serotonin, but whether its levels go up or down, and in which brain cells, and why this makes people feel less afraid is still unclear.” The truth is there is still much to be learned about the human brain and why the eye movement used in EMDR is effective. What we do know is that evidence has clearly shown improved outcomes with this intervention.

EMDR therapy is also rooted in the Adaptive information processing model (AIP). According to this theory much of a person’s current troubles are due to incomplete or dysfunctional processing of traumatic or disturbing events and/or adverse life experiences--and unless you grew up in a bubble you likely have some of these! We all cope with them in the best way we know how, but sometimes these experiences impair our ability to integrate them in an adaptive manner. This often leads to some of our unwanted beliefs and and behaviors that can be difficult to shake. Through accessing these traumatic or difficult memories and providing back and forth eye movement a person is able appropriately process these experiences and function in a  healthier way.

What can you expect in EMDR therapy?

An EMDR therapist has been trained in the eight phases of treatment included in the EMDR protocol. The beginning phases of the protocol include a more thorough history of the client and presenting problems that map out the symptoms or behaviors that brought you to therapy. Next a negative belief is selected to match the associated memory and the eye movements are used to process that memory. Eye movement can be done by following the therapist’s hands or a light that moves side to side. Once the memory and negative belief are processed fully  a positive belief is focused on and instilled using the eye movements as well. There is also special attention to what is happening in the body, making sure a client is able to tolerate the emotions that often come up, and ensuring the client leaves feeling calm and in control. Progress is then evaluated, and once the memory is no longer distressing the cycle can begin again for any additional memories that are in need of processing.

How will I know if EMDR can help me?

I am passionate about this intervention and continue to be encouraged by the transformative power it has had in the lives of many of my clients. It is truly a gift to use this process as a tool to help others sort through difficult experiences that have led others to feeling “stuck” for so long.

EMDR is very effective if you have any difficult memories, experienced any type of trauma, have difficult behaviors or symptoms you don’t feel you are able to manage, or are just looking for a new approach.  I encourage you to make an appointment and we can work together to identify the negative experiences that may be contributing to your current difficulties, and use the power of eye movement to help you process these in a healthy way. This will enable you to feel more in control of your symptoms, beliefs, behaviors, and ultimately give you the freedom to live in best version of you!