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Waiting out the emotional storm

Tags: Coping

My client was having flying instructions a long time ago when instruments were pretty rudimentary, and the instructor was giving advice for what to do when you're in, or about to go into, a storm.

He told my client "If you get caught in a storm – never turn!"

My client asked why (since running away seemed like a very obvious thing to do).

"Because", said the instructor, "They never build storms in straight lines".

My client said a "blind went up" and he never forgot the advice. Of course, storms are not endless, as long as you stay the course, the storm will pass and you'll come out the other end – if you don't stay the course, you may end up flying in circles around and around in the storm, or get disorientated or lost.

When you're in an emotional storm, like the inexperienced pilot, you might panic, run around in circles, go off course and make hasty decisions. If you stay the course, keep going and wait for the storm to pass (which it always does), you'll be in much better shape.

Humans don't like emotional discomfort, whether its stress, anxiety, depression, anger, sadness or any other negative emotion, and when it's happening to us, our first instinct is to react. Often we rail against our feelings, getting angry and distressed. We can make things so much worse by panicking about our anxiety, getting depressed by our stress – and so the emotion we're trying to escape from is worsened and prolonged.

It seems counter-intuitive to our emotional brain to just wait and let the emotional storm pass.

In order to wait, we need to accept the discomfort of the feelings (remembering that acceptance doesn't mean approval – we don't have to like them). The feelings are uncomfortable, but not the end of the world. I often use the 'stubbed toe' analogy – that is if you stubbed your toe you'd accept it's going to take a while to get better – so why not apply the same patience to emotional discomfort.
Having accepted that we might be in for a rocky ride, we have patience and just ride it out. It will pass – it always does.

With patience and perseverance we wait out the emotional storm without exhausting ourselves by fighting it and "Distressing ourselves with imaginings"*.

Another useful analogy I often use is that of the wave. The emotional storm is like a wave that picks us up and dumps us on the beach. If we fight the wave, we exhaust ourselves and we're in danger of drowning. By going with the wave, we might end up a bit bruised, but in one piece and in fairly decent shape.

By letting the wave wash over us and through us and staying as calm as possible (with lots of deep breathing), when the wave goes away – there we will be. It passes, it always does.

So the skill is not just in allowing the emotional storm to pass, but in accepting the discomfort we feel while we're waiting. It may be pretty bad, but it won't last forever.

(The powerful phrase "This too shall pass' appeared in the works of ancient Sufi poets. Jewish folk tales attribute the phrase to King Solomon. The Buddha too, spoke of the passing of all things, even himself – "All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting.")

* From the poem 'Desiderata' by Max Ehrmann

If you are going through an emotional storm at present:

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800