The new strategy with grief, sadness and depression

Inspired by almost a year of working through Karla McLaren’s Dynamic Emotional Integration model, and more recently specifically by Jessica Moore’s articulate video on situational depression (the one that comes closest to my felt truth on the matter so far), I have recently on a long train ride taken up the resolution to try out what I’ve been trying to try out with emotions in a slightly even more radical and a bit reckless way.

Ever since I’ve decided to stop being (chronically) depressed (as a permanent state) perhaps a year ago or so (see my old articles on the topic, chronologically: 1 2 3 4 5), coming across the idea that perhaps at this point it’s better to confront a number of very scary things that need to be confronted in the outer world rather than freezing my inner world into immobility, what has (perhaps) gradually been happening is that I’ve been un-digging layers and layers of other difficult emotions (appropriate to difficult situations) that were so difficult for me to handle that it was better to just press the SHUT DOWN button that depression (along with dissociation) sometimes is. Shut down means paralysis, but it is sometimes better than acute pain and what feels like, to the instincts, the expectation of somehow being torn apart into inexistence (again, here feelings mix with outer social and other situations).

The major, major step taken this spring has been learning to feel grief; after learning to feel sadness last year. (And again, I only realise this retrospectively at watching Jessica Moore’s other vid on grief.)

I didn’t realise it, but at some point in childhood I learnt to be so scared of sadness and grief (apart from not even being able to recognise and name them, as my emotional literacy was zero) that feeling them coming I had no idea what the wave of sensations was, and the impression was that it’s something that would either kill me (or something equivalent on the psychological level) or tear me down into hellish realms of hungry ghosts from which it was basically impossible to emerge: at least it was completely unpredictable when you would – whether in hours, or in weeks. [Or ever.]

Basic emotional education (mostly through McLaren’s The Language of Emotions) has helped me immensely, first in being able to attach names to sensations and second in learning the basic functions of the individual emotions. Over time I learnt that certain utterly disorienting and random-appearing sensations were not diseases or random missiles from the devil, or whatever, but that they were called for example sadness, anger, grief, depression. (Fear was perhaps the one emotion I could recognise and name beforehand.)

I further learnt that each emotion has a function to fulfil, and that if you don’t block it from doing its natural movements, or even support it, it will do what it came to do and recede quickly, and your system will naturally feel rebalanced after that – without special efforts, techniques, whatever. The process of coming back to balance (relatively quickly) after an intense emotion has been allowed to complete its function is natural and does not require work, skill, mentalising, intelligence. It’s a natural, perhaps basically physiological process.

This is the key for me. Since I had never fully allowed to let myself sink into the flow of most emotions, I had never learnt that after the deepest point, something releases and you naturally buoy to your (more or less) balanced state again, effortlessly. It’s not necessary to do work or to scramble your way up, if you go with the waves.

There is a lot more to be said about this, it’s not banal, it’s not a cliché, it actually requires skill and preparation if you don’t have “it” naturally or from the crib. It took me years of preparation.

Still, up until recently my preconception was that as a person experiencing super-intense emotions basically all of the time (such is the temperament that was given), the only thing I could do was essentially to spend all my energy (mostly mental energy, but also physiological and emotional and physical energy) trying to play various tricks and strategies – again, mostly mental, but also in the way I manage my day, relate to others etc. – to prevent myself from sinking deeper into any of those emotional “pits”. (Made up of various combinations and amalgams of fear, grief, anguish, anger, terror, confusion, depression, sometimes also ungrounded, destabilising forms of elation and euphoria.) I figured that if I stopped working for a moment and allowed myself to sink, I’d have to work tens or hundreds of times harder to dig myself out later.

This was of course utterly exhausting.

It was perhaps also burdening for people who tried to support me.

At this point, I have learnt through enough repetitions that even extremely intense and gut-wrenching emotions like profound grief and anguish recede – for me sometimes in minutes – when felt and handled skilfully (e.g. in the case of sadness, allowing it to ground me and to let go of what was too much; in the case of grief, allow the profound inner re-adjustment as the deep significance of loss is acknowledged and somehow celebrated and made real in a way that solidifies and preserves my identity and appreciation/respect). I also try to let depression speak its message when it comes up – and I sometimes speak it out loud to others (my depression so far has said a lot about what is simply wrong, what cannot be accepted, what must be changed even if there are what seems like huge risks or potential losses; so in a way it has sometimes mobilised me. Sometimes it simply speaks about exhaustion and the need to stop being frantic and obsessed with things which are peripheral). In this way, it actually sometimes lets up and gives way to deep-rest and then to deep (inner) our outer action within perhaps a day, half a day (what would previously have been many days or a week of anguish and fighting it).

So … essentially, after having collected enough data enough times to be convinced that – there are ways “out” of the depths that are far less gruelling, frantic and energy-consuming than I’d thought (because I used to block everything out of fear of the unknown and the unarticulated and the crazy intensity with which everything comes on – and, frankly, also simply out of never having had attuned accompaniment or support in any of this; crucial), the “new strategy” might be to switch to this more natural and free-flowing manner of self-regulation, from the frantic and intellect-driven attempts to control emotional intensity that mostly ended up in obsessions and neuroses (I am sure I am not alone in this).

A bit like an attempt to switch from trying to frantically box-in water (the usual emotional tsunami) by running around nailing together improvised walls to stop it from overflowing (i.e., intellectual self-control, neurotic habits, avoidance of a lot of situations, isolation, inner freezing, etc.) towards learning to somewhat swim and dive and knowing that strong currents that pull you down – by some odd emotional law of physics/physiology – are naturally designed to carry you up again if you manage to touch the ground sand in a soft-relaxed state in which you can sense that currents that will take you back up (or you don’t even need to sense them; you just need to stay “soft” enough to be moved).

This of course works if your system is healthy up to a basic degree. But surprisingly, I have felt that this stuff is robust: in my case it seems to work even after decades of having stuck up certain pathways. Sure, there is the initial phase of major spillover-accidents and drama and being triggered to the point of thinking you will die or whatever in the learning process – but in my case that’s not worse (just different) than what was before, in the frozen state. At least it feels alive. And over months and years, I have felt that the system actually is healthy because of how I can feel it pulling in towards a point of balance, towards a whole that somehow re-aligns the dancing and quivering parts in an instinctual, dynamic way that the intellect can’t figure out or manage (because it’s too rigid, one-pointed/localised and slow; and anyways, it’s not made for that type of task).

Having at a point read quite a bit of research and theories about the self-regulation towards homeostasis of various biological systems (cells, organisms, organ systems), it does make total sense on an intellectual level that the instincts (the whole interlinked web of emotions with their tasks and functions) would form part of that for emotional animals. It’s still quite fascinating to observe it, to sense how another level and type of human (quite shared with animals I believe) intelligence awakens, emerges when it gets the right conditions – how there is almost a whole other autonomous intelligence acting within from the more visceral level of increasing emotional integration.

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