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Owning Your Recovery – Emotional Regulation (Episode 2)

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Episode 2: Emotion Regualation (feat. Liana Danese)

Kinga Burjan: Hi, welcome to Owning Your Recovery. You made the decision to look at your life from a different perspective and realize that the destructive behaviour of addiction does not serve you anymore. The grip of addiction can be strong, especially when times are tough. This podcast is created to remind you that ups and downs in life are normal and to provide you with professional and peer-related insights and support in your recovery from illness to wellness.

My name is Kinga Burjan and I’m a registered psychotherapist here in Ontario, Canada working with Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres. Today, my special guest is also one of my colleagues, Liana Danese a registered psychotherapist. Thank you so much Liana for joining me today and sharing some of the work that you’ve done and the experience you’ve had working at Trafalgar.

Liana Danese: Hi, Kinga, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me. This is really exciting and it’s just such a wonderful thing that you’re doing by entering the podcasting world and sharing all of our good information with more people, I guess. It’s lovely.

Kinga Burjan: Thank you so much. So, I know in our previous conversations we’ve talked a lot about emotional regulation, and I think this is such an important topic to understand in a bit more depth and even more candidly, because clients don’t get that backroom conversation that we get to have. So I’m so excited to kind of open that doorway and let them in.

Liana Danese: Absolutely.

Kinga Burjan: So I’m curious what is for those people that are listening, what is the definition of emotional regulation?

Liana Danese: So first off, before we even get into the definition of emotional regulation, I just wanted to say that there is this misconception out there that emotions are either good or bad, and that’s not true at all. In fact, emotions can be expressed or experienced as either pleasant or unpleasant. So that’s kind of where I want to start.

When we’re talking about emotional regulation, we’re talking about a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. And I just want to highlight two things that I said in that definition, which are the effective part and the response part. So to effectively manage our emotions, what that means is we want to be able to tune into what we are feeling and we want to be able to react or respond to it in a way that’s not going to make the situation worse for us.

When we’re talking about a response, it’s much better to respond to an emotion rather than to react to the emotion. So, for example, if I’m feeling angry, the reaction to anger might be lashing out. And oftentimes when we do react to an emotion, we don’t take into account the consequences of that reaction. So responding is a much better way to deal with an emotion because we actually create the space and we have time to think about what we want the outcome to be.

Kinga Burjan: And I also, I really appreciate you bringing up the point too of emotions because in working with addiction, so many people learn to disconnect from their emotions because it’s so, so painful. So I know the primary work that I do is helping people connect with their emotions and kind of befriend their emotions. Because, as you said, it’s not necessarily a bad or negative emotion. It just feels very unpleasant and that unpleasantness can be overwhelming, which causes those emotional responses.

But everyone has that power eventually, once they learn about their emotions like you’re saying, to respond rather than to react. And I think that’s where a lot of that transformative power comes in and that agency comes in for someone to work on themselves.

Liana Danese: Absolutely, I would agree with you completely. As well I think there might be a couple of reasons why it’s difficult for us to effectively manage and respond to our emotions, and that’s simply because we might not even have the ability to identify what those emotions really are.

Kinga Burjan: Mm-hmm.

Liana Danese: And on top of that, we might lack the understanding of what the purpose of emotions is because they do all serve a purpose and a very important one as well.

Kinga Burjan: So that’s a really good point, Liana, so many good points, there are so many things I want to talk to you about. What is the purpose of emotions? How do they serve us?

Liana Danese: So emotions serve many different purposes, but number one emotions drive our actions. We can see this in the fight, flight or freeze response, right? We feel maybe anxiety, we notice a threat and that’s going to cause us to react or respond in a certain way.

Number two, emotions tell others that we’re dealing with stressors and that we might need support, right? They give other people information as well as they give ourselves information. Emotions also have wisdom to them. They tell us something important in our life. They let us know if something in our life is changing or something needs attention. So it’s really important to actually tune into our emotions rather than suppress them or run away. The more that we kind of ignore and suppress our emotional responses, the more that’s going to keep us away from learning and taking action.

Kinga Burjan: And the other thing too, that comes to mind as you share, is when our brain can’t differentiate between what’s a good or bad emotion because like you’re saying, it’s not necessarily good or bad, it’s just pleasant versus unpleasant. So as it pushes away those unpleasant emotions, then that also pushes down or away from those pleasant emotions.

So it’s very common if someone’s learned to push down negative feelings or unpleasant feelings, then it’s a lot harder for them to access those pleasant feelings and emotions too. And as they learn and to feel and sit with that discomfort, then those other more pleasant feelings come to the surface and are more accessible.

Liana Danese: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re totally right about that. This is why, again, ignoring and suppressing our emotions is just it’s not going to lead us to anything productive.

Kinga Burjan: So, how you were also mentioning about identifying emotions? So if someone has been pushing down their emotions their whole life because it’s been very painful or unpleasant for them, how do they start identifying them, especially if there might be more than one emotion kind of tangled together?

Liana Danese: Yeah, absolutely. I, always suggest to clients, journaling is a great place to start, really just kind of writing out what it is that you’re feeling, getting it into words as well as I love to use the tool called the emotion wheel. So that is just going to give us a better vocabulary for what emotion we’re feeling because oftentimes we just express our emotions as sad, angry, right? But there could be so much more to that.

It might not just be sadness, perhaps we’re feeling despair. Perhaps we’re feeling just dismay, right? Maybe there’s more to the anger. Maybe we’re feeling betrayed. Maybe we’re feeling rage, right? Those are different variations of those two emotions. So getting very specific, I think about what we are feeling is a really important thing, and journaling can be really, really helpful for that.

As well meditation is also a really great tool to take some time to just tune into the body. You know, understanding where am I feeling this emotion within the body is a really important way to begin to learn, to identify what these emotions are and when they come up for us?

Kinga Burjan: I agree in my experience, if there’s already that disconnect and that suppression of emotion, just even if you don’t know what the emotion is, but just going, oh, hold on, it feels like there’s something in my chest right now or, oh, I feel like I have a lump in my throat, or oh my gosh, the tension at my neck or my shoulders, that helps bridge the gap, especially if there are too many emotions that it’s hard to identify at first.

So definitely the body like you’re saying, the emotions give so much information, and I really believe it’s our job to take a step back and look at what’s going on inside and look at it from that more neutral perspective, rather than being a victim to it or feeling helpless, just going, oh, that’s interesting. You know, when I talk about this, this feeling comes up for me, but I’m not really sure what the emotion is, but I know it feels like heaviness in my chest.

Liana Danese: Absolutely.

Kinga Burjan: And when I sit with that a little bit longer, it feels like maybe my eyes are starting to water. Hmm, maybe I’m sad?

Liana Danese: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And the thing is as well is that for a lot of people, this is foreign, you know, depending on where you grow up, how you grew up, what your culture is. We don’t necessarily have a very good understanding or ability to really identify what our true emotions are.

And that’s just the truth, right? That’s what a lot of people experience. That’s what I notice a lot with my own clients, you know, they never have done this before in their lives and a lot of these concepts, although they are very easy to understand, they’re not something that we think about often.

Kinga Burjan: Especially if a person grows up in an environment where emotions aren’t necessarily talked about.

Liana Danese: Yes.

Kinga Burjan: Or someone’s told growing up, especially for men and an older generation that showing any emotions as weakness, talking about emotions as weakness. So there was not even room or space to learn about what an emotion is or the vocabulary around emotion because it was considered a kind of faux pas.

Liana Danese: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what I was getting at. And in addition to that, ignoring and suppressing our emotions, not only keeps us from learning and taking action but also adds to invalidating ourselves. We really do invalidate ourselves when we don’t tune in to our emotions. We almost tell, It’s like telling that little voice in our head, that intuition to just be quiet, that it’s not important, and that over time that can become a really bigger problem for an individual right.

It can lead to a lot of self-esteem issues not being able to trust yourself. And it doesn’t allow us to actually effectively manage and deal with whatever emotion we are experiencing.

Kinga Burjan: That’s such a good point. If someone’s emotions have been invalidated, it’s so hard for them to trust their own selves.

Liana Danese: Yes. Yes. Exactly.

Kinga Burjan: So you mentioned some techniques to help with emotional regulation, such as journaling, meditation, is there anything else that our listeners could benefit from?

Liana Danese: Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, there are two ways to handle emotional regulation. There are healthy ways and then there are unhealthy ways. So I guess we should speak a little bit about the healthy ways.

So as I mentioned, meditation, journaling is great. Even talking to friends, who is your support system? Reach out to them, someone that you can trust, someone that you know is not going to judge you. Exercising is another great way to regulate our emotions. Oftentimes, when we are feeling emotionally charged, you know we might our heart might be racing, right? And perhaps a great way to regulate ourselves is to get our bodies moving. Remove some of that cortisol that’s in our bodies.

Therapy is also a great way to really process and discuss and further understand what emotions we are feeling, what emotions are really difficult for us to deal with. Taking care of ourselves when we’re ill. Right. That HALT acronym that I love to share with clients, am I angry? sorry, am I hungry? am I angry? am I lonely? and am I tired? right? These are simple check-ins that we can do for ourselves on a daily basis that really will help us to regulate our emotions.

If we’re eating well if we’re sleeping well. We’re going to have a better handle on our emotions. Getting adequate sleep, of course, is very, very important, paying attention to any negative thoughts that occurred before or after strong emotions. So really trying to understand the process of the emotions and kind of what comes up for us when we feel certain emotions. And then lastly, noticing when we need to take a break and actually allowing ourselves to give ourselves permission to take a break, it’s really, really important.

Kinga Burjan: And one thing to for me because even therapists get strong emotions, sometimes it’s not that we’re robots. Sorry, we’re not robots.

Liana Danese: We’re human beings.

Kinga Burjan: But one thing that’s been really helpful for me is breathing and focusing on my breathing, breathing deeply because I can do that no matter where I am. No one’s going to know that, oh, all of a sudden, I’m using this technique to ground myself. But because I’ve practiced it for so long, I really notice it turning on that relaxation response. And even if I’m still feeling overwhelmed with the emotion, just having that anchor of my breath really helps me stay grounded and be able to, as you were mentioning earlier, respond rather than just react to something.

Liana Danese: Absolutely, absolutely. Breath is such an important skill that we can use. And as you mentioned, it’s something that we can do very secretly, right? We don’t necessarily need to share it with the world. It’s just something that we can do for ourselves and bring us back down to a place where we can now manage and deal with our emotions.

Kinga Burjan: So I’m curious what unhealthy emotional regulation strategies do you encounter when working with clients?

Liana Danese: Yeah. So I mean, there are a ton of different unhealthy emotional regulation strategies. And unfortunately, if we don’t have prior knowledge of emotional regulation, we might automatically turn to these. So the first and foremost, because we are talking about and to a population with addiction, abusing alcohol and other substances is one unhealthy coping mechanism that people tend to use something that if they don’t have the ability to manage their emotions themselves, they might want to turn to a substance that can change their emotional state for them.

Another one is self-injury or self-harm as a way to feel something different, perhaps as a way to punish ourselves for feeling something uncomfortable. There are many different reasons in different forms of self-injury that people might turn to.

As well as avoiding or withdrawing from difficult situations. So realizing that there’s a situation and triggering situation that’s coming up and, well, you know what? I’m just not going to do with it. I’m not going to go to it. I’m going to completely avoid it. That might make us feel good in the short term, but overall, that’s not doing anything for us to actually build our tolerance to unpleasant emotions. And that’s going to make it more difficult the next time that we start feeling unpleasant emotions, we’re going to want to continue to turn back to these unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Sometimes people become physically or verbally aggressive when they are emotionally disregulated or when they are unable to handle their emotions and this goes really into the reaction piece that we were speaking about. You know, it’s not about responding to that emotion it’s I feel anger right now and so my urge is to lash out and so I’m going to do that. Oftentimes, it’s only going to make the situation worse.

Excessive social media use, which is a really interesting one. And I think that really speaks to today’s society because social media is huge. But that’s a huge way of avoidance, right? Avoidance behaviour being on your phone, scrolling for hours and hours and hours, it doesn’t allow us to tend to our emotions. It doesn’t allow us to tune in to what’s actually happening to us. It’s just kind of putting this filter up, right? We’re not able to actually engage with ourselves.

And then lastly, invalidating our own emotions. So telling ourselves that, our intuition is wrong and that we should not be listening to it, pushing and suppressing those emotions down. It’s not going to do anything for us.

Kinga Burjan: So it’s interesting because as I’m listening, you share the unhealthy emotional regulation strategies. The two things are kind of coming to mind. One is, as you mentioned avoidance of the actual emotion, such as distracting yourself on social media or abusing a substance that’s like avoiding it, not just putting it to the side. But it’s interesting because even the physical or verbal aggression, the pain is there and that person is trying in a way to communicate that pain to someone else, but not using healthy communication, right?

Liana Danese: Absolutely.

Kinga Burjan: And same with self-injury. It’s another way to communicate, look at all the pain I’m in. So perhaps another strategy is healthy communication, so that can be a whole other podcast.

Liana Danese: Absolutely. I think that’s another layer to this whole thing, right? Once you learn to identify your emotions. It’s also really important to learn how to how to express those emotions and how to express them effectively.

Kinga Burjan: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Communication’s so important. That’s a whole other language. Emotions.

Liana Danese: Absolutely. Of course. Yeah.

Kinga Burjan: So I’m wondering given all that we’ve talked about so far, what would be like a therapeutic approach that’s helpful for clients and that they might experience, say, in your therapy sessions?

Liana Danese: Okay, ao something that might be really helpful for clients is cognitive behavioural therapy, which basically, as the name says it, cognitive we’re talking about our thoughts and behaviour we’re talking about our behaviours. In cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT what we say is that our emotions and our thoughts and our behaviours, they’re all interconnected.

So in a situation, in an emotionally charged situation, it’s not typically just the emotion that makes a situation feel overwhelming. It’s more than that. It’s the interpretation that we place on an emotional event, for example. And this is something that I’ve experienced many times when I was working in the residential treatment center and now working with clients online. Events might happen where the client begins to interpret the reasons why the event has happened, the way that it has happened.

So in the example that I like to use, I’m walking down the street and I see my friend and I wave hi to my friend, but my friend doesn’t seem to acknowledge me back. And they just kind of keep on walking and going on their way. All of a sudden, my mind starts to race, and I kind of come up with all these different explanations and interpretations as to why my friend didn’t wave back. Perhaps my interpretation is my friend must not like me. From there, it’s going to impact my thoughts, which might be, I’m not good, I’m not worthy, I’m unlovable. From there, it’s going to impact my emotions, which might be sadness, perhaps some shame, maybe some anger. And then from there, that’s going to impact my behaviours, which might be isolation, maybe avoiding friends, maybe any of those unhealthy coping mechanisms that we were just talking about, right? Substance abuse, et cetera.

In reality, what might have happened and we didn’t even think about this because we were so stuck on our interpretation. Perhaps our friend didn’t see us, and it could have been as simple as that. Or maybe your friend has something else going on in their heads and they just weren’t paying attention, right? But yet we have made it all about ourselves, and now we’ve allowed it to impact our whole day.

Kinga Burjan: And as you’re sharing about the CBT model and how our thoughts, emotions, behaviours are all connected. I know you mentioned self-awareness and how whenever I visualize that I actually visualize the thoughts, behaviours and feelings literally on a piece of paper.

Liana Danese: Yeah.

Kinga Burjan: Right. So it’s kind of two-dimensional.

Liana Danese: Yes.

Kinga Burjan: And then I like to think of mindfulness or that self-awareness piece as this piece hovering above it that can see the cause and effect and. Yeah. And watches the oh, hold on a second. So I’m thinking this, then I’m starting to feel worse about this. And if I’m feeling worse about this, how am I going to behave or how am I going to prevent myself from behaving?

So just noticing that connection and how that cause and effect, if we’re not conscious or not self-aware of it happening, how it can lead us into these negative cycles that make us feel worse and worse or make us do things that make us feel worse.

Liana Danese: Absolutely.

Kinga Burjan: But that’s self-awareness piece rising above it and seeing it for what it is that gives us some choice and gives us some space to make different decisions.

Liana Danese: Right, exactly. And allows us to really break that cycle, right? We don’t have to go through that whole example that I explained, you know, maybe we can stop it right at the thoughts. If the thoughts are, I’m not good, I’m unlovable, I’m unworthy. Are we able to challenge that if we have that self-awareness and we can notice, hey, I had this thought right now, can I put a stop to it right then and there and challenge that thought, Well, you know what? I actually know that I am lovable. I have all these people that do love me. I know that I am worthy. I know that I am a good person, right?

Kinga Burjan: Yeah, and even just identifying, because sometimes depending on where some of these unhealthy beliefs come from, we might maybe at the moment we don’t actually feel good enough. However, if we look at our thoughts and reframe those thoughts and say, well, actually, I’ve done this, this and this. So technically I am good enough, even if I don’t feel good enough and still take those actions that demonstrate that I’m good enough.

Liana Danese: Right, exactly and again, validating that emotion for ourselves. We’re not always going to feel great about ourselves one hundred percent of the time, and that’s completely okay. Emotions again aren’t good or bad. They might be pleasant and unpleasant, comfortable and uncomfortable, but they all again serve a purpose, right? And that’s what makes us human.

Kinga Burjan: So just I’m noticing the time here, I really enjoy having you on here, but just for our viewer’s sake, what are some closing comments about what our viewers or listeners can do in terms of their emotional regulation.

Liana Danese: Right, so I think, as you know, going back to that self-awareness piece is really, really important. Self-awareness is key. This is what I tell my clients constantly and what I try to build with them this idea of being able to identify what our emotions are as well as safeguarding. So if we know we’re going to go into an emotionally triggering event, can we plan for ourselves some self-care activities afterwards? Can we do some deep breathing before? Can we maybe do a meditation beforehand or afterwards set up something really nice for us to go home afterwards?

Kinga Burjan: That is such a good idea.

Liana Danese: Right? And you know, another idea is to really learn how to tolerate emotions, because the truth is our emotions aren’t going anywhere. We’re never going to get rid of the anxiety. We’re never going to get rid of anger, sadness. They’re always going to exist.

And so we really have to learn to sit with them and learn that our emotions are not going to kill us because oftentimes we especially if we’ve had this pattern of avoiding our emotions, we build up this huge fear about those emotions, right? So realizing that we’re not going to die from these emotions, we’re going to survive this. Observing what those emotions are, we can learn to feel these emotions without actually having to react to them as well. Right.

Kinga Burjan: When you share that, it makes me think of being at the gym, lifting weights and how so for me, personally painful and annoying it is. But then if I keep doing it over and over, I build my tolerance to that and I end up getting stronger and stronger.

Liana Danese: Yes, and you build that mind-muscle connection, which is the exact same thing that you can have with emotions, you know? Oh, I feel this pain in my chest. I feel this tightness in my chest. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of sadness or anxiety, right? I know that that’s what that feels like for me. As well as again, validating your emotions, right? Validation is not approval or acceptance it’s non-judgmental. It’s simply the acknowledgement that I’m feeling this way right now. It is the way that it is, and that’s okay with that.

Kinga Burjan: Then there’s so much power in that just to be able to be present and not be pulled in all of these different directions of how I should be or how I could be. And just being easier said than done whole other podcast.

Liana Danese: Right, it is, but the more you do this, the easier it becomes, right. It really is a skill that you have to develop over time, doing it over and over again. And I’ve spoken to many clients who know they have learned these things and they have implemented them into their lives, and it has made all the difference, really, it has.

Kinga Burjan: Nice.

Kinga Burjan: And then also to those strategies, you’re mentioning. Such as journaling.

Liana Danese: Right, exactly. So, using those skills, doing anything that you really like to do, learning to soothe yourself, right? Learning what is your self-care routine? What works for you? Because something that works for me might not work for you, right? Learning to do things that calm you down, that make you that puts you in a better headspace. Yoga is a great one as well, right? It kind of brings in that breathing and that exercise piece together. But again, it’s up to the individual, you know, to find things that really do work for them.

Kinga Burjan: And I really like that expression. You soothe yourself right? To me, when I hear that, I think of, wow, you’re treating yourself with care, you’re treating yourself with compassion. We’re not necessarily doing something wrong. It’s just you’re in an unpleasant state and that’s okay.

Liana Danese: Absolutely, and I think that self-compassion piece is really big in emotional regulation as well. If you’re able to validate yourself, also be able to give yourself some self-compassion because it’s difficult. It’s not pleasant to feel unpleasant emotions. And it’s hard. So yeah, be kind to yourself.

Kinga Burjan: Thank you. So I really, really appreciate all these amazing points that you’ve shared. I think this is going to make a difference in someone’s life. So thank you, Liana.

Liana Danese: Thank you so much Kinga for having me. This is awesome.

Kinga Burjan: Thank you. And I really want to emphasize for those listeners that we have that there are so many ways to own your recovery and some of the things that Liana mentioned, such as self-awareness, building tolerance to emotion, healthy communication by identifying what’s going on for you and being able to communicate it and that self-compassion piece is so important to own your recovery. So thank you so much again, Liana and I look forward to you joining us in the future if you’re up for it.

Liana Danese: Absolutely. Yes, I’d love to. Thank you.

Kinga Burjan: It’s been a lot of fun. Thank you. Have a great day, listeners.

Liana Danese: Bye.

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