Dress For Your Emotions!
So, emotions are like the weather. That’s how I started a recent video post on my social media. Bear with me, it makes sense, it really does. Maybe this is just a British thing but think how much importance we attach to the weather. If it’s a hot, sunny day we tend to greet people saying, “lovely day”, or something similar. Sunny days are good days 😊. On the other hand, if it’s a rainy day we tend to say, “what a miserable day”, or similar. Rainy days are bad days ☹. The same is true for emotions. How many times have you thought of being happy as a bad thing? Or feeling sad, or angry, as a good thing? Probably never. We think of happy as good and sad as bad. And for the most part that’s logical. But here’s where emotions really are like the weather:
1. They are both transitory. That is, neither one is here for ever. A rainy day gives way to sunshine, just as sadness will eventually give way to a happy mood.
2. Just as all weather serves a purpose, so are all emotions good for something. The rains come and nourish the plants, just as anger and sadness can show you how deeply you care about something.
Where people get caught out with the weather is when they dress inappropriately. Now I wouldn’t say I’d never wear shorts and a t-shirt in a rainstorm, but generally I think you’d agree that shorts and t-shirts are sunny weather wear. That doesn’t mean that you need to stay out of the rain. It just means you need to dress appropriately. Give me some warm clothes, a waterproof coat and my winter wellies and I’d give Peppa Pig a run for her money in the muddy puddle splashing contest! It’s the same with emotions. If you approach a mood with the wrong mindset you’re going to get wet. If you prepare your mind appropriately for each emotion you face you’re likely to splash your way through to the other side in much less time.
The first step in dressing appropriately for your emotions is in understanding the value of each emotion. Now, a recent study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1702247114) has suggested that there are as many as 27 distinct human emotions, with several other emotions emerging from these distinct 27. Most people are comfortable with the traditionally considered ‘good’ emotions, it’s the ‘bad’ ones they want help with. So, instead of going through all 27 of these, lets just look at 2.
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted that these are 2 of the 7 stages of grief (the others being shock, denial, guilt, bargaining and acceptance). There’s a very good reason for this. For children any sense of loss forces them to go through the whole range of the grieving process (and that can happen when they have an argument with a friend, don’t get invited to a party, feel like they are being pushed to the end of a friendship group, or any number of other reasons).
What positive purpose could it serve?
Anger shows itself by triggering our bodies ‘fight or flight’ response. This is when our bodies release elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which are both used in physical exertion. Our bodies are preparing for action. Our blood pressure rises, and we begin to tense our muscles (sometimes unconsciously). More blood flows around our heads and we become flushed.
Anger is useful. It shows that you care about something deeply enough to react to it, to stop it being taken away from you when thinking about children experiencing a sense of loss. The rush of adrenaline and cortisol give you the energy needed to act, and the confidence to be heard, as well as making us become hyper-focussed on the matter at hand.
Depression can be hard for children to put into words. But when adults describe it they use phrases like ‘feeling empty’ or ‘hopeless’. Leaving aside depression as a long-term illness, in the short-term it can cause listlessness, headaches and other bodily pains.
Depression is useful. It lets us know that we have been pushing too hard, our metaphorical cup is not just full, it’s overflowing and formed a not so small pond on the floor! Depression reminds us to take a break, to ask for help, to accept that we’re not superhuman after all.
So how do you dress for your emotions?
Dressing for your emotions is no more complicated than choosing what to wear for a sunny or rainy day. The only difference is that for the weather you can get a pretty good idea of what’s ahead by checking the weather reports…usually! With our emotions it’s a lot easier to get blindsided. Especially as a child. One minute you can be happily chatting with your friends, the next you’re in an argument and being left out of the social group without really knowing why. Or, for younger children who find it even harder to master their emotions, it could be that you’re happily counting ladybirds in the garden, when you’re suddenly pulled away to get ready for dinner!
So, with it being more likely that one of the traditionally negative emotions will unexpectedly sneak up on them (rather than them planning for it), we need to help children develop the ability to drop into the right mindset quickly, for them to recognise what is happening to them, and to move through it swiftly. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Through mindfulness we train our minds to connect with our bodies, not to change anything, but to recognise what is there, and to accept it. When practising mindfulness, whatever else you add in to that day’s session, there are 2 key elements that will happen every time.
1. Breathing, and
2. Body Scan.
Focussing on the breath teaches children to be able to focus on one sensation, and to track its movement throughout the body. They first learn to feel their belly rising and falling with their breath (or how to belly breathe if they don’t already know), and then how to track the breath at other locations – the tip of the nose, the throat, the chest.
A body scan once again teaches children to focus on one area of the body at a time. They spend time with their attention on one body part, recognising actual feelings versus impressions, from both inside and out, before they move on.
Once children have these two skills as part of a regular practise, we teach them to ‘drop into’ them for short periods of time throughout the day, focussing on understanding feelings. At any point we say to them:
“Stop. Focus on your breathing.” This gets children to block out distractions and calm their minds.
“How do you feel? How do you know?” With this we begin to teach children to talk about their feelings in terms of their bodily sensations. So, for example, “my chest/heart feels funny” might indicate anxiety. “My arms and legs are cold” might indicate fear.
Once children can do this, they are able to dress for any emotion. With a greater awareness of their minds and bodies, and how feelings affect the body, they are more able to recognise when they are beginning to feel out of sorts and stop it fast.
So, taking our two examples above and imagining a child suddenly feeling each of these.
Anger – “Uh oh, this doesn’t feel right”. Stop, focus on breathing, track the feelings. “My heart is beating faster, my head is pulsing, my hands are clenching…I think I’m angry.” Then children can ask themselves why, what is happening? Something is being taken away.
Depression - “Uh oh, this doesn’t feel right”. Stop, focus on breathing, track the feelings. “I have no energy, my head hurts, I feel empty…I think I’m depressed.” Then children can ask themselves why, what is happening? I’m trying to take on too much.
Finally, with a recognition of these sensations and the reasons behind them, we teach children to accept that they do not normally feel like this, not to panic, and to know that it will pass. With older children we can begin to have them assess their next steps - what they need to do next for them.
So, through a regular mindfulness practise we ensure that what ever the emotional weather forecast, we, and our children, are always dressed for our emotions. We do not stop ourselves from having negative feelings, we accept them as being transitory, we recognise their value, and we learn from the lessons they are trying to teach us.
If you would like more advice on mindfulness, or to enquire about mindfulness lessons for children, please get in touch via my Connect link.