Years ago, I saw a documentary about a little girl who could not feel pain. She was adorable and did many of the same things as other children but, she almost never cried. Her parents became concerned because she kept getting hurt but did not stop or seek comfort or care when she was injured.
As it turns out, this little gal had a rare disease called CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain and anhydrosis). It affects the body by making people unable to sense temperature, pain, or the ability to sweat. Since these kiddos don’t feel anything or have the ability to regulate their temperature, they can end up in some really dangerous situations. As you might imagine, it’s hard to know what pain needs your attention if you can’t feel it to begin with.
Since I’m not a doctor but a mental health professional, you might be able to guess where I am going with this today. Our emotional protection system is designed in many ways like our physical protection system. However, because emotions can feel more subjective, sometimes we ignore or fight against this important information. So, to help us give our emotional system the attention it deserves, below are some tips to help us tune in, understand, and appreciate it.
5 Tips for Engaging with Painful Emotions
- Painful emotions usually have a purpose. Sometimes we know why and sometimes we don’t. Regardless, they’re asking for our attention. If you are feeling sad, scared, anxious, unsettled, or anything else uncomfortable, your body is trying to tell you something. Listen.
- One of the best ways to listen to uncomfortable emotions is from a neutral mindset, almost like a detective. Instead of judging the emotion as “bad” or pushing it away, treat it as information. “What is this feeling trying to tell me?” “What has been going on that might have me feeling this way?” “How can I observe this rather than let it take over/control?” “When have I felt this way before?” (See a great process for doing this here.)
- As mentioned, painful emotions usually have a purpose. However, some people do experience painful emotions that are unfounded (generalized anxiety is a good example). In these cases, sometimes you can move into a more peaceful space via self-compassion and focusing on what is true. However, if painful feelings keep up with no obvious cause, you may need therapy or medication to figure things out. There’s no shame in that. Brains sometimes need intervention to run right, just like the rest of our bodies.
- If you were physically sick or injured, a doctor would give you recommendations for medicine, rehab, rest, etc. The same is true for experiences with emotional pain. If you suffer from PTSD, anxiety, or depression, or have gone through a difficult experience, I’d tell you to avoid your “triggers” and take good care of yourself. That may mean setting boundaries around your sleep, activities, workload, or even the company you keep. If you want to heal and/or maintain your health, you have to do what’s necessary to let that process take place.
- Lastly, feeling painful emotions is normal and necessary sometimes. It’s the way our brains and bodies were designed to grieve, stay safe, address fears, etc. When we give our emotions permission to be felt, they often resolve in time. Reminding ourselves that painful emotions are not bad or permanent can help us accept them for their intended purpose and then let them go when they’ve done their job.
The baby we talked about at the beginning of this post kept getting more and more injured because she couldn’t feel the pain that was designed to help keep her safe. Similarly, please know that your emotions, even the painful ones, are gifts designed with information to help keep us safe, healthy, and connected to ourselves and others.