One of the most common experiences that I’ve heard from people with mental illness and that I’ve experienced myself is the inability to trust your emotions. After enough times of realizing that your emotions were an overreaction or having people tell you that you weren’t reasonable, after spending time in therapy and having to check what you’re feeling against the facts over and over again because so often your emotions aren’t a reliable guide to reality, you start to discount everything you feel as irrational, unhelpful, and out of touch with reality. Of course a good therapist will still validate those emotions, but the underlying lesson for a lot of people with mental illness is “your emotions probably don’t make sense in this context”.
In many circumstances this is helpful. You learn to feel your emotions, but not necessarily to trust them as a guide to your situation. You learn tactics to manage them and bring them back in line with reality. But where it can backfire is when your emotions are appropriate. I recently started temping while also looking for work, moving, and trying to get my foot in the door of freelance writing. Finances are tight, I’m busy, and things are a little stressful. Anyone would feel a little bit anxious and a little bit worried in my situation. However my first instinct was to use skills to change these emotions, to feel worried that I was anxious because it clearly meant I was relapsing, to wonder how I could “fix” these emotions. It took me a few days to realize that my basic assumption was that my emotions were out of whack rather than an appropriate response to a stressful situation, motivating me to find work and keeping me on my toes for my first few days at a new job.
One of the hardest things about moving towards recovery is when things are actually normal. It’s confusing, and the overcompensation for being sick that you’ve gotten used to is suddenly unhelpful. Periodically checking in with yourself or support people to see if you’re discounting your emotions simply out of habit can be a good way to curb this tendency. Think about what you’d say to a friend if they were going through the same things. Would you reassure them that it’s ok to be stressed out or anxious? Would you tell them that the situation calls for those reactions? If so, try to do the same to yourself.
Perhaps the hardest thing about emotions that fit a situation is that it might be a good idea to just let them be. If you’re someone (like me) who hates being anxious and just wants to fix whatever might be causing anxiety, this is incredibly hard. Of course there are some things that you should probably fix if they’re causing you anxiety (being unemployed, a relationship that’s not going well, that weird bump on your thigh), but some things are simply situations that provoke anxiety and you have to live through them (starting a new job, going on first dates, being sick). And for those situations that are a simple part of life but that are new and confusing, you just have to ride out the hard emotions.
One helpful tactic for not getting overwhelmed in those situations is to remind yourself what those emotions are doing. In my case, I try to remind myself that the adrenaline rush of worry and stress helps me to stay focused and learn in the first week or so of my job so that I can get a solid grounding on what I’m supposed to do. It helps me take care to dress appropriately and behave appropriately and make a good first impression. Remembering that makes the stress less…well…stressful.
Part of the transition to health is learning what it feels like to have emotions that aren’t utterly painful and debilitating. It takes some adjustment, but it’s fairly exciting to know that you’ll survive the bad feels because they’re just a normal part of life. Hot damn. That’s cool.