Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Learning to Ride the Emotional Waves

Emotions for most people naturally seem to come and go. Most people experience either euphoria, grief or anger as passing extremes. For me, I get stuck with damaging emotions, experiencing the emotional pain as a groove I cannot break out from. Hyper emotions are similar I find it hard to manage myself in social situations when I am 'up'. I have been known to follow urges to self destruct in an effort to short circuit emotional distress. After these periods of extreme emotion I am exhausted and vulnerable. Unlike other conditions which can cycle between extremes of emotion over longer periods, I can experience the extremes of the swing from extreme grief and distress to euphoria several times in a day. These periods of swinging emotions can last for hours or can last up to two or three days. It is like constantly riding a roller coaster, without any hope of being able to escape from the constant rise and fall of feelings. Feeling sick (a lot of the time physically) over and over with the constant, sudden changes in mood. My overall experience of life has been lack of control.


It was a revelation to me when I was told during DBT skills group that my moods were not constantly either up or down, that they actually come and go, more swiftly than I thought. For anyone who struggles with emotional dysfunction this seems to contradict the day to day experience. For me, the distress I felt was so overwhelming that it felt as if I was experiencing my feelings as emotional 'white noise'. I cycled constantly through distress, relief, exhaustion so rapidly I was unaware of any distinctly identifiable feelings.

I worked for some time with people who struggled with addiction to Class A drugs. I learned a lot from them about the extremes of cravings and the need to give in to the urge to use their drug of choice. One of the skills they learned was to 'surf the urge'. I could not imagine at that time the extremes of the pain of their cravings. However, as they developed the urge surfing skills a number of them would talk about the moment they realised that the height of their cravings was relatively short lived. Of course managing Class A drug addiction takes a lot more than the realisation that cravings are not actually constant even if it feels like it. But it was a small step in helping those who were ready to regain control from the ravages of their addictions.

It is not an exact parallel but for those of us with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) the realisation that the extremes of our emotions do not have to be out of our control, is also a key moment in recovery. In DBT the Emotion Regulation Module includes the skill of 'surfing the emotion wave'. For me this skill has been all about first recognising that the fast cycling of emotions can be slowed down. I no longer see myself under a constant cloud of unidentified emotional mists.

There are a number of steps towards 'surfing the emotion'. Here is how I see them:

1. I press the 'pause' button. Using Mindfulness I focus on what is certain around me. 'This is a cup of coffee, I can smell, it, I can notice the warmth spreading to my hands from the mug, I can enjoy the sensations and taste as I drink it'. I allow myself to use my senses, I take the time to experience what I am doing in that moment, noticing my feelings, but not allowing myself to get stuck with them. I also slow myself down by using breathing skills. Either deep breathing focusing on my lungs, the rise and fall of my tummy. In these ways I take my mind away from trying to analyse feelings which cannot be rationalised and simply focus on what is certain. Grounding myself in my surroundings.

2. Once I am able to focus on my breathing or on my surroundings, I try to name the feelings. Often the most immediate feeling is not the problem. My main problem is when my immediate emotional response to the present trigger connects with feelings about and from my past. Often these historic feelings are painful and linked to past traumas. I need to be able to separate present feelings from those from the past. If I can name my 'enemy' I have a better chance of winning.

3. Accept that 'this too will pass'. No matter how I feel about the intensity and life of my feelings, they don't last forever. And there is a rise and fall in the intensity. Again, using mindfulness exercises which allow me to observe my feelings without losing control, helps me to notice and observe the rise and fall of the feelings. They do come in waves. If I can survive the 'crest of the wave' for a time, it will ease. This is a safe place visualisation I use when I need to calm myself and cope with waves of intense emotions: It's a You Tube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPBxNLpOLNU

4. Sitting with the emotion. If I recognise that the feelings are not permanent, or that they don't have to remain as painful all the time, I can then allow myself to learn that no matter how painful, they cannot kill me. Sitting with the emotion has so often been the last thing I have wanted to do. However, DBT acceptance skills tell me that trying to avoid or push away the emotions will not help in the long run. In a sense I need to allow the wave to wash over me, in the knowledge that I will be safe and once the wave has receded I will still be standing. Again, the ability to allow myself to feel the emotion is a mindfulness skill. I use a mindfulness visualisation which identifies the feeling, then gives the feeling a visual form in my mind. As I breathe through the waves of emotion, I return to my image of the feeling and observe it. I continue to switch focus between my surroundings and my image of the emotion until finally I can observe it grow smaller and disappear. There is a version of this in The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Skills Workbook (2007, McKay, Wood and Brantley - New Harbinger Publications, Inc).

5. Another way of managing the wave of emotion is to listen to classical music. Popular music is not complex enough, I feel, to be able to help ride the emotion wave, although I do listen to pop music as Opposite Emotion exercises. However, movements from the classics have shades of emotion. They rise and fall, the orchestra builds to crescendo then dies away. Allowing myself to focus on the rise and fall of the music, allows me to naturally fall into the concept of waves. Once I am comfortable I can connect my emotions in a similar way and allow them to rise and fall along with the emotions. I have explained a bit more about how this works for me in this blog: http://bpdlifeinthemoment.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/my-dbt-classical-music-playlist.html

I have found these explanation of the DBT Emotion Wave helpful too: