Managing Unfamiliar Emotions During These Uncertain Times
“How are you feeling?” they asked? I don’t know, I said.
“Can you please tell me how you’re feeling?” they asked again.
I really don’t know, I said. Confused, maybe. Good. I don’t know.
This was the conversation I found myself having with close friends and family in week 3 of this lockdown.
I always took pride in being someone who was in touch with my emotions.
But for the first time, I was unable to identify what I was really feeling.
I initially thought I had dealt pretty well with the news of this quarantine and physical isolation.
For the first two weeks, I had immersed myself fully in a few creative projects. I’d worked harder than I have in a while.
I’d checked in with my closest friends and spent more time at home with my family.
I had it all under control, right? Wrong!
Amidst all of this uncertainty surrounding the virus, I’d failed to stop and really acknowledge the emotions brewing inside me.
In reality, I was feeling powerless, impatient, uncertain, and scattered.
This period of uncertainty had given rise to a whole new set of unfamiliar emotions inside me.
I was experiencing high highs and low lows.
I was seeing my entire world through a lens of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.
- When will I get back to my home base next?
My two-week trip from Malaysia (where I work) to visit my family in India was now officially entering its third month.
- When will I meet some of my best friends next?
A surprise that I’d elaborately planned for my best friend’s birthday had to be completely shelved and I had no idea when I was going to meet her next.
- What about my space? And all my familiar personal routines?
I’d gotten so used to living in my own house that all of a sudden, going back to my childhood room felt almost constraining.
- What about all the business plans and goals we had laid out for our startup this quarter? I was really looking forward to hosting the next Life Circles Retreat in a gorgeous venue in Goa but that now had to be canceled indefinitely.
While waiting for things to return back to “normal”, I couldn’t help but wonder what normal would even be after this. And when is that “after’ even going to come?
The emotions that I thought I’d kept peacefully bottled, were revealing themselves now, both in leaks and bursts.
“How are you feeling?” they asked? Helpless, I said finally. I feel really helpless.
My usual way of coping with something is to DO something to change it. But for the first time, I felt powerless to do anything, to change anything.
I thought I knew what people meant when they said: “Just BE”. But I believe I only learned the real meaning of those two words, last month.
BEING is about letting go of the things you cannot control. And focusing on the things you can.
So I started to focus on the one thing I know I had full control over — my Breath. I started observing my breathing patterns at different times of the day, in different situations, with different people.
Next, I consciously distanced myself from elements that were causing spikes in my emotions — Instagram, Whatsapp groups, and the news. I even left my family Whatsapp group because I felt the daily updates about the virus there, wasn’t really serving me.
Then I started tracking my Emotions every day - being blatantly honest with myself about how I was feeling every morning.
There is something so powerful about naming exactly how you’re feeling without holding back.
Earlier, if I felt sad, I would end up telling myself not to feel the sadness because other people had it so much worse than me. What I didn’t realize is that by failing to acknowledge the emotion, I was giving it free rein to show up whenever it wanted and have full control over me.
One of the biggest challenges I faced during this time, was to put a label on the exact emotion I was feeling. I know what it felt like in my body but I didn’t have a word for it.
This is when I realized that my emotional dictionary and vocabulary was so limited!
And so I started studying human emotions deeply. Reading different fields of research and perspectives about how our emotions really work.
What really intrigued me were the Buddhist and Evolutionary Psychology approaches to managing your emotions, especially during crises.
Instead of simply studying it, I decided to combine these approaches to manage my emotions, every day, for the next 21 days. And see what it teaches me.
I just completed my three-week emotional experiment earlier this week!
And today, I wanted to summarize what I have learned here so it serves more people who might be in a similar place.
My most important realization — You can not only manage your emotions during a crisis but also find meaning in the crisis.
Here are three important stages of this emotional journey;
Awareness is an important first stage.
Awareness means understanding how your emotions are triggered and what they feel like. According to the Dalai Lama, awareness itself is a strategy since it helps us understand our emotional experiences.
Awareness requires you to come into the present and to really dial into the sensations of your body. And to try and name your feelings without trying to fight them off. This is where meditation really helps.
I realized that the unfamiliar feeling I was experiencing was actually Helplessness — a form of sadness you experience when you cannot make a situation better or easier.
And what really helped me was to also remind myself that the future I’m imagining in my head is probably far worse than where I am right now — the current moment.
Managing our emotions is the next stage.
You cannot choose your emotions — they are an instant human response. But you can choose how you want to respond when you feel them.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
- Viktor E. Frankl
Emotion at its essence is simply energy in motion. And anything you do to release that energy and keep it in motion will help you manage your emotions.
This is where physical movement like exercise, yoga, walking, and breathwork really help. Followed by acts of self-expression like music, writing, drawing, and journaling.
The next time you’re feeling sad, angry, or anxious, try delaying your response time by adding in elements of physical movement and an act of self-expression. Observe how differently you cope with that emotion.
Developing Tragic Optimism is the crucial final stage
Tragic Optimism is a term coined by Holocaust survivor Viktor E Frankl.
Tragic Optimism is the human ability to maintain hope and find meaning even during crises. It is a way for us to turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive
— Viktor E. Frankl
Building tragic optimism during crises gives you control over your emotions instead of allowing them to control you. You are no longer the horse running which is running blindly but the rider on the horse who is directing its motion.
Looking back now, I truly am able to see meaning in the same things that were causing me to feel helpless, just a few weeks earlier.
- I couldn’t make it back to Malaysia. But that gave me an opportunity to spend quality time with my sister who’s entering a new phase of her life and my parents and my grandmother who are only growing older.
- I couldn’t physically be there for my best friend’s birthday. But that gave me an opportunity to be with my parents on their birthday and make it truly memorable for them. While also throwing a virtual party for my best friend with all her friends from across the world.
- I might not have my house. But I could recreate a space that fuels me even in my childhood room and build new routines that keep me going through the day.
- We canceled our physical Life Circles Retreat. But we found another way to serve our community by hosting our circles and workshops online — and the response to this has been amazing!
Why am I sharing all this?
Because this pandemic has not only threatened our collective physical health but also destabilized our emotional and mental health.
A lot of us are facing an outburst of emotions, especially unfamiliar ones caused due to prolonged uncertainty, loss, and stress.
My invite to you is to stop locking down your emotions during this period of lockdown.
Instead, be aware of what you’re feeling, deal with it mindfully and finally see if you can find meaning in whatever you’re going through.
I hope some of the things I’ve shared here serve as a good starting point on your journey.
I’m also hosting an online workshop next week to guide you through this process step-by-step to help you manage your emotions.
In this 2 hour workshop, I will be going deeper into this process that has helped me move from feeling helpless → finding meaning during this pandemic.
The workshop is designed to be an intimate space — so it’ limited to 20 people only.
Let’s grow emotionally stronger, together!