Monday, 20 October 2014

How do I know when that 'gut feeling' is just my body talking?

When I was sixteen one of my best friends had a boyfriend who could be euphemistically described as 'an interesting character'. He was an unfortunate soul, who seemed to attract disaster. On one occasion a riot spilled over from a neighbouring area where he lived in Belfast. The rioting hordes descended on his street and rioted along its length. One solitary car was severely vandalised - Geoff's.

One day he announced to my friend that he was emigrating to Russia, as he believed this was the right thing to do. The thing was that he had never shown the remotest interest in that part of the world, never even mentioned it to anyone, let alone his girlfriend. In fact, Geoff had never even been abroad for a holiday before. Nor did he have any idea of purpose or job when he got there. As she explored his desire to emigrate to - not just visit - Russia, she asked him what made him think it was a good idea. 'My stomach' he answered. I actually admire the stickability of my friend as they lasted nearly two years in a relationship!

In some ways I am more like Geoff than I would like to think. How many times have I said to myself, this or that 'feels' right. Or how many times do people tell me to go 'with your gut feeling'. Instinct is a useful tool for navigating the big and small decisions of life. However, when you are emotionally dysregulated, knowing what is your gut and what is an extreme reaction due to unrecognised feelings becomes a real problem.

I have learned very late in life, that I am not always as good at reading people and situations as I think. This is not because I am unable to empathise or understand facial expressions, or read and respond to circumstances in the normal course of life. It is because, when my emotions are involved, I do not always recognise that I am interacting with them through the filter of whatever emotion is predominant in a given situation. Over the past week, I have believed that someone I value highly has started to hate me. This may seem dramatic, in fact many of my reactions to everyday ups and downs in friendships and relationships are seen by others as dramatic, theatrical even, because those on the outside are not privy to the power of the emotions evoked. So, when I have a disagreement, sometimes even just an exchange of views on the current economic situation, with a friend I can feel as if I have destroyed the relationship simply based on how my gut is guiding me to interpret what is going on.

I think the feelings that 'present' most often in my gut are anxiety, fear and anger. It is hardly surprising because these are the most difficult emotions for me to manage. They invariably involve physical sensations as part of the body's normal defence responses. This is fine if I am being chased by a lion or bear and need to escape and stay alive. This is not okay, when I am in the middle of a political discussion with a friend. The feelings are natural, but in context, they are out of place. This means that my body and mind are reacting to an unreal situation, but with very real threat responses.

For those observing me, my reactions appear over dramatic and long lasting, for me bringing my threat level back to normal takes effort and skill. This process is invisible to those around me and has resulted in my being dismissed, misunderstood, patronised and belittled in the past, thereby increasing the gut feeling of threat and keeping the cycle going.

In response to these experiences, I have developed some checks and balances to make sure that when I am tempted to rely on my gut feeling, alone, I am able to slow the process down and take stock. When I realised I was reacting to my friend in a negative way, I was able to ask another trusted friend if they thought I had damaged my other friendship. I also considered the information I had on the friend I feared 'hated' me. I considered the level of reaction - hate is an extreme - was I misinterpreting a lesser emotion in him such as distraction, preoccupation with other things going on? The DBT skills are aimed at restoring balance when emotions take over and throw me off kilter.

Wise Mind helps me to walk the mid line between trusting entirely in my 'gut feeling' which in certain circumstances can be so wrong it's funny (with hindsight) and a tendency I have had to dissociate myself from all emotions and become entirely rational. The latter resulted in me being emotionally numb for over ten years, the former resulted in some of my most explosive and unflattering moments ever.

If anxiety or anger are distorting my decision making or affecting my relationships because they are misplaced or out of proportion to the situation I try the following:

1) Quickly ask a trusted friend if the situation warrants my emotional response.
2) If I have a decision to make I use Pro's and Con's to ensure that any action I take is based on something other than how I am feeling in the moment. Don't make promises when you're happy, don't make decisions when you're angry.
3) Using Wise Mind I consider my experience of a person or situation - is what I think is happening in accordance with my previous experience of that person or situation? Has anything significant changed in the relationship or situation that would make my extreme emotions understandable? Can the reaction of the person or the situation itself be understood in a less traumatic way than I am currently seeing it?

Useful worksheet for decision making from @DBTPath

Ultimately, my gut feeling is only trusted by me when I have gone through this process. Taking the time to ask myself to notice and describe what is happening around me often changes the gut feeling anyway.

And what of Geoff? Well a couple of weeks after his stomach 'told' him to up sticks and move to Russia, he was admitted to hospital with an inflamed peptic ulcer. His stomach had been out of sorts simply because he was physically unwell. He didn't get to Russia after all. My friend broke up with him not long after.