I’m not going to lie to you—I love numbing out. When a wave of feelings comes my way, I take one look, say nope, and reach for my Nintendo Switch. Or Netflix. Or my bed. Or a glass of wine. Whatever can shelter me from the storm of depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, guilt, hurt, or whatever emotions I don’t feel like dealing with at the moment. But as a human in therapy, I know well that this isn’t a great coping mechanism—in fact, I know it’s often a majorly counterproductive one.
“When you’re busy numbing out your feelings, your feelings are in the other room doing push-ups,” Caroline Fenkel, D.S.W., L.C.S.W., executive director of Newport Academy, tells SELF. “Then when you’re done smoking weed or watching Netflix or whatever you were doing to numb out, and you walk into the other room, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. These feelings are worse than they were before.’ That’s because you gave them all that time and space to do push-ups.”
So what’s the alternative? Well, to start, feeling our feelings. But that’s not as simple as it sounds. Therapists tend to use “feel your feelings” as shorthand for a multi-step process of acknowledging and dealing with your emotions in a healthy way, often known as emotional regulation. “There are two parts to feeling a feeling,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. “There’s the emotion coming up in the first place and then there’s the choice you make: Do I want to deal with this emotion or do I want to ignore it?”
Developing ways to give time and space to our difficult emotions is especially important right now. Amid the new coronavirus pandemic, there are a lot of feelings going around. If you don’t have practice tolerating discomfort and harnessing unwieldy feelings into something manageable, there’s a good chance you’re having a really hard time right now. To help, consider these therapist-approved tips for tackling your emotions head-on.
1. Know what your go-to “numbing” behaviors are.
We’re going to be talking about what to do instead of numbing your feelings, so it’s important to know that this “numbing” looks different to everyone. Basically, it’s anything you do intentionally or unconsciously to avoid facing your feelings. It’s often in the form of some sort of distraction, but not always.
Immersive entertainment (like video games and streaming) are classic choices, as are alcohol, drugs, and food. But there are some sneakier behaviors that you might not realize you’re using to numb out your emotions. “Busyness is a big one,” says Howes. “Packing your calendar full and saying, ‘I’m too busy to feel anything right now, I’ve got too many things to worry about.’ Or chronically putting your nose into other people’s business, offering support and advice to avoid facing your own stuff.”
Obviously, you can enjoy a lot of these habits safely in moderation and it can be hard to draw the line between what’s “healthy” and “unhealthy.” Because listen, it’s a spectrum. We’ll get to how to tell the difference between a helpful and unhelpful distraction later. In the meantime, go with your gut on what you think might be your go-to way to numb out your feelings.
2. Start with identifying your feelings.
It may sound weird, but funnily enough, many of us aren’t in the habit of investigating our emotions as they strike us. We kind of just make a quick judgmental call about what’s going on or even brush it off. But given how complex our emotions are, we do ourselves a disservice by not taking a moment to name what we’re experiencing and why.