How to overcome strong emotional reactions?

Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body’. This is the strong bundle (or body) of emotions in most of us that get triggered by specific events, words or people. Its like something takes us over – we either explode in anger, or sink into an abyss of sadness. Often, it causes us extreme pain and suffering. This pain body is a bundle of memories of bad events from the past that is like a ticking time bomb. The external event, person or thing is merely the fuse that sets it off. Anytime you remember a very strong emotion that was not proportional to the external cause, then know this is the deep irrational pain body that has been triggered.

Let’s look at what caused this ticking time bomb to get implanted in the depth of our emotional psychology. At the root of any strong negative emotion is fear. Fear that we will be harmed. Fear that something will be taken away from us. Fear that we would diminish in some way or the other. And therefore, if a cousin locked us into a dark room, our brains would have associated locked dark rooms as something that makes us separated, alone and therefore harmed. This invokes a strong ‘threat to life’ message that gets firmly implanted into our minds (or brains if you are a neuroscientist). This fear stays implanted in us and gets triggered each time we walk into a dark alley or a room without adequate lighting. As adults, we might rationally know that this cannot harm us, but emotionally this is a very strong response. And therefore, we feel it deeply in our gut. It is very visceral.

Scientists tell us that the reason why we have two “us” is mainly due to the way the brain process information. The neocortex (or the new part of the brain) processes rational information. However, the older part of the brain (known as the limbic system or the reptilian brain) processes emotive information. Therefore, whenever our senses relay information to the brain, the emotional part of our brains get triggered first and only then the rational part. Once triggered, the brain registers this as a “pleasure or pain” impulse. If it is ‘pain’ (fear) then appropriate chemicals are injected into the bloodstream that elevates the heart rate and creates tightness in our body (constriction of blood vessels). The point to be noted here is that we have two processing centres, which is why we have this dual heart versus mind fight that goes on in us.

The question is what do we do when we are overwhelmed by strong emotions? We could follow these five step approach:

  1. Awareness: Become aware of what is happening within us. What is the emotion that you feel? Where do you feel it? Observe that the emotion is in you and not you. This is the critical step in order to begin to gain mastery over managing the pain body. Breathing helps as it counters some off the effects of that limbic response from the emotional part of the brain. Take deep breaths. And just observe that you are being triggered. If it is a place or a person, then see if you can remove yourself from that place. Go to the bathroom or outdoors. Breathe and observe what is happening. At this point it is very important to not judge. The mind usually starts apportioning blame – ‘How dare this person do this to me?’ or perhaps on yourself ‘See, you are useless, you cannot even handle this simple situation’. This is okay. Observe the tricks being played by your mind. Remain neutral and let the thoughts and feelings play their role. Imagine you are watching your child’s school play, in an amusing detached manner. Developing a detached attitude towards your thoughts and emotions during the pain body attack is crucial. And if you fail at being detached – that’s okay too. The point is do not judge yourself too harshly. Everything is okay. Just become aware.
  2. Replay: This step is known as exposure in psychology. What this means is that you sit in a quiet place and replay the event in your mind. Maybe it was your partner telling you something that triggers great sadness in you. Maybe it was your boss that shouted at you for not doing a good job. Whatever the trigger, replay it like a movie in your mind. Notice how the memory, which is just a thought, creates the same emotions in you. Notice how the heart beats faster, how the chest gets tighter, how your face flushes, how you feel butterflies in your stomach. Breath. Allow the emotions to subside. Importantly, if your mind starts creating stories of self blame or ‘other’ blame, gently bring it back to your body and its sensations. Then, when you feel the emotions have subsided a little, begin again. Replay the same situation once again. Again notice the feelings. Do this one thousand times. When we repeatedly expose ourselves to our deepest fear, we begin to realize one important thing. What is that?
  3. You are not your Fears : This is the only way you can begin to create distance between your fears and you. As you practice this awareness technique, you begin to realize that these fears do not harm you in any way. Ask yourself this: “Okay my heart is racing. I feel fear. But do I diminish in any way?. As we saw earlier, all fears stem from a fear of being hurt or reduced in some way. We fear something in us will be lost. But this is simply not true. While these emotions may create strong reactions, they do not fundamentally take away anything from us. This us is the awareness that is able to watch these emotions. That is the eye of the storm. After you have repeatedly mentally exposed yourself to the specific fear, as yourself – Have I reduced in any way? You will begin to notice that the question is somewhat absurd. And that is precisely the point!
  4. Realize you are untouched: This is the most profound realization. This comes with time. When we practice this technique with all external triggers, we begin to realize that nothing can touch us in reality. A part of us is beyond the impacts created by thoughts and emotions. This becomes a very powerful realization. This awareness serves as a talisman during troubled times. Someone passes away suddenly and we are overcome with grief. But we soon connect to this part in us that cannot be touched by this grief. Yes, we experience grief, but we also sense a deep peace that can observe and honor this grief. This blank canvas \is the perspective that we so badly seek. Photographers will know this from the white balance setting on their cameras. In order for the camera to accurately perceive and render colors, it needs a reference white. Our consciousness (or who we are) is this reference white. The blank canvass.

Do try and practice this technique and see where it gets you. Personally, this has made me much stronger and much more capable of handling some of the saddest and most painful events in my life. And yes, it also gives you perspective against the happy things in life. You experience happiness (more accurately excitement) but you know that you are some distance from it. This makes us sensitive to emotions of ourselves and others, but also a little aloof. That is a paradox. But it is one that is worth exploring. For in the end, we all want peace. What use in excitement without lasting peace?

1 Comment

  1. What is the use of being aloof, maintaining distance and all that? Life is short and sweet. Accept it as it comes and make the best use of it. Take care of yourself.

    On Mon, 14 Dec, 2020, 8:28 PM Journey of a thousand words, wrote:

    > Akhilesh Magal posted: ” Eckhart Tolle calls it the ‘pain body’. This is > the strong bundle (or body) of emotions in most of us that get triggered by > specific events, words or people. Its like something takes us over – we > either explode in anger, or sink into an abyss of sadness.” >

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