Welcome to Joy Lab!: Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach
Aimee: Welcome to Joy Lab. So I'm Aimee here to introduce our next lesson of our podcourse. So in the last few episodes, Henry discussed those normal everyday emotions which can be gnarly as well, but here's where things get even more tricky. Still totally normal. We all experience this, but Henry will get into emotional reactivity or what we sometimes call "emotional storms" around here.
All of us, all of us hit turbulent weather now and then. So this is helpful to understand for all of us. And then after this lesson. In the next episode, we'll have a meditation for you to work with emotional reactivity and emotional storms, calming those storms. It'll be available in your workshop section actually already if you're in our resilient community.
So join us there if you haven't yet. And as always, friends, do tune into this lesson and the meditation that follows in the next episode, with lots of self-compassion.
Henry: There is another aspect of emotion that we really need to talk about and that is often referred to as emotional reactivity. Emotional reactivity turns out to be one of the very strongest predictors of who will have recurrences of depression. I want to explain the term a little bit and then talk about how, how we can work with it.
So emotional reactivity means essentially that a person has a very, very strong reaction to something that happens in their lives. An overly strong reaction. it's, too reactive. And the way I think of this fits very much with the notion of neuroplasticity that we talked about earlier, and that is that once you have had an experience of let's say depression, that might have been triggered by a lot of different things the very first time, but in future times it becomes a little bit easier and a little bit easier to keep going down that same pathway of kind of a downward spiral. A cascade into depression.
And so, after the first time, it may take a lot less to trigger it. And even less and even less because that cascade of reactivity is just waiting to be brought to life again. And it doesn't take very much to do that. So I say this not to make you feel scared that you're going to keep having recurrences, but to really try to highlight that there's something you can do about this. That this is not the end of the story.
And, um, in fact, it really would be in your interest. It's in everybody's interest to learn how to deal more effectively with these big storms, these emotional storms, that can take us down pretty quickly, to get some skills, both to keep yourself steady, to hold yourself a little bit more emotionally steady, and also to try to learn how and where you can apply some mindfulness skills in the different stages of this spiral.
So let me give you a real life example. This is a patient that I saw a few years ago and she was a woman from a different country. I'm going to call her Elena. And she met her husband who was from the Minneapolis area, who was doing business in her country. So they married and she came here with him, even though all of her family and all of her friends were back in her home country.
So when I started seeing her, she was lonely and she was feeling kind of isolated. And she had a previous history of depression. So it wasn't that it was all caused by this. Um, it had been there previously, but she was being treated with medications. She sought me out. Someone referred her and I began seeing her and she was doing pretty well with all of this, even though she was feeling lonely and missing her family and her culture.
She had, adapted and she was doing pretty well. And we happened to have a just a routine follow up visit scheduled and she came in for that session and she said I was doing so well, until a few days ago and now I'm just in crisis and I am feeling suicidal and she kind of went on to describe everything.
So, you know, I'm trying to understand what happened and she doesn't really know. She just knows that she felt good and now she doesn't and it's really bad. Well, so it took us a while to get this to come out because she didn't realize the connection here. But this is what happened. She and her husband went for a walk in their neighborhood.
They lived in a very nice neighborhood. And they were just out walking and they happened to come upon a neighbor man who was working out in his garage or driveway and so they stopped and had a conversation with him. And she was feeling fine. In the course of this conversation, the neighbor man, said that his wife and another neighbor woman were inside the house having tea.
Pretty simple. However, this is a woman, and the neighbor, the other neighbor woman as well, are people who Elena had tried to make friends with. She'd invited them to her house for tea. And when she found out that they were there, and that she wasn't invited, in spite of knowing that she's lonely and from a different country, she felt badly.
She felt hurt. Now that hurt, if it had stopped there, would have been a little bit painful, but that's all. And this is where emotional reactivity comes in. Because that initial hurt became something much bigger because of the very rapid and very strong reaction she had. So she really took off with that.
And in her mind, she started thinking. So this is step two. The first step is the initial hurt, which feels like just a little bit of a... contraction, usually. When you feel wounded, hurt, or upset in some way, there's, there's a tightening, usually, just a tension or a, uh, you could call it a contraction, somewhere in the chest or belly, usually. And if you were aware enough of your emotions and where they reside in your body, and you knew how to draw your attention to it, it might stop right there.
But it didn't. For Elena, it didn't stop. And she went to stage two, which is the entry of thought. What kind of thoughts do you suppose she had? Well, you can guess. She thought that they intentionally excluded her, that the neighbor women are doing this all the time and they're not inviting her, that they don't like her because she's from a different country, different culture, doesn't speak great English, or you name it, any number of reasons.
And then thought turns into something even bigger and trickier, and this is stage three. And that is when the personal storyline comes into play. This is really important because this happens unconsciously, most of the time. And it happens to all of us in one way or another, but when your personal narrative comes into play, this is going to be pretty hard to stop.
This, this cascade is going to be hard to stop. So, her storyline went something like this, that she's lonely in another country, she doesn't have friends here. She is never going to have friends here. She can never be happy unless she is with her family. Her husband is not doing anything to help with this and on and on and on.
That's the story. And then it doesn't even stop there for Elena because she took it yet another step. And so far, all of this experience had happened in just moments, but it all happened interiorly. Then she took it to the level where she decided to speak or act. And once you do that, then this internal pain or discomfort can become harmful to others too.
So sure enough, she kind of laid into this neighbor man and, you know, into his wife who was inside, but she, she told the wife off through the wife's husband. And, you know, about how they're excluding her and all of this. And then she and her husband left and she couldn't stop, you know, talking about her husband and how he had failed her in this and why did he ever bring her to this country and all of that.
So then there's the damage that that causes and all of this happened from this very simple statement that his wife and another woman were in the house having tea. So this is a really I think a really clear example of the power of emotions when they take off and they explode into some much bigger thing.
And how hard it is, quite honestly, how hard it is to stop that in its tracks. It's possible, but I recognize how hard this is. So there's two very different ways of approaching this that I want to talk about. And this is really important because this has a lot to do with preventing recurrences, future episodes of something like depression.
And a lot of this depends on building skill. Okay, so lot of what we're talking about now is really enhancing your skillset with your own thoughts and your own emotions so that you can learn to let them do less harm to you. One of the skills that you could use for this is just the ability to stay grounded.
I think of this very much like a ship in a storm. If you have big ship or a big boat and it's in a harbor, you know a storm is coming, the best you can do, if you don't have time to, to get out, the best you can do is to get some kind of mooring for it. To try to hold it steady. And that's very much like what we want to do emotionally, when we're overcome by an emotional storm. We want to find a way to hold ourselves steady and very much like the boat, it involves getting yourself grounded more effectively.
So this might be something as concrete as going for a walk rather than sitting there with that emotion. And when it's overpowering like that, it might mean, eating some food that's really soothing, warm or soothing or comforting in some way. It might mean using an aromatherapy, which is a really good way to connect with your body and get yourself grounded in a physical experience.
If you have a pet, it might mean holding or petting that. Or doing something else that is tactile, or something else that involves your senses. So grounding, there's lots of ways to do it, you should experiment and find what works for you, but you ought to have a couple of things that you can use when you're starting to feel overcome by a strong emotion like this.
And then deeper way to look at this is how can you develop the skills so that, when another event like this happens and you start to get triggered down that cascade that you can stop it. At any one of those stages that we talked about. And remember the first stage is that initial contraction. When the first surge of emotion that hasn't yet amounted to much.
If you can stop it there, you can avoid a whole lot of unnecessary suffering. Second stage is when thought comes in. And again, if you can become aware of your thoughts as they're happening in real time, you can choose to stop them and get a little separation or distance between your thinking mind and your body's reaction and your emotions.
And then the third phase is where your old stories usually old, unhealthy stories about yourself come into play. That really is deeper work. That's the stuff of therapy to some extent. But you can also work with that through mindfulness practices and skills and through greater awareness. Really, it's about becoming more aware that this is just a story. It's not the truth with a capital T. And then fourth is when you're about to speak or act, try to recognize that you're about to do that so that you can stop yourself. So you can refrain from doing that because you know It almost always makes things worse. But let's say you've gone through the whole cycle.
You've spiraled down. Still after the fact, maybe when the storm has calmed down, you can go back, you can do a meditation much like we're going to do, and you can kind of rework it and try to learn from it, teach yourself what you can do differently. If you could apply mindfulness in any one of these stages, how would it have been different?
And how can you set yourself up for responding, more skillfully in the future?
So remember that this is not an easy practice. This is graduate level mindfulness. It takes a lot of skill and you, you are not going to be likely to master this very quickly. So just keep working at it, stay with it, and remember that anything you can do to break that cycle that would otherwise keep happening, it's going to be good.
If at any point in the cycle, anything that changes it and breaks it so it doesn't really continue down that path of depression, it's going to be helpful to you.
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