Keeping Busy to Avoid Your Feelings
Have you ever felt like the only way to deal with heavy or hard feelings is just to keep constantly busy?
When you're feeling anxious, hopeless, or dissatisfied, it's natural to want to avoid those feelings.
Keeping busy used to be my go-to strategy. I packed my days and evenings full of time out with friends or work. And if I didn't have anything to keep me busy -- well, there was always TV, or scrolling through social media.
Because the truth was, whenever I was left with a quiet moment alone, those feelings became so much louder. It seemed impossible to ignore the negative thoughts or the feeling of heaviness in my chest once the noise of distraction was gone.
I was like Dory says in Finding Nemo, "Just keep swimming".
But what if there was a better way to deal with those feelings? A way that didn't fix the problem only temporarily, keeping the feeling at bay until they came rushing in again, but allowed me to resolve it and get some much-needed relief?
Here's what I wish I'd known about keeping busy to avoid your feelings:
1. Difficult feelings get bigger when you avoid them.
Back then, I didn't know that emotions are really messages from the part of the brain responsible for keeping you safe. (I've nicknamed this "The Protective System").
The Protective System in your brain has something to tell you, and it's going to do whatever it takes to make sure you hear that message.
If you try to ignore the mind's message by keeping busy or avoiding facing your feelings, it gets a little worried that you're not hearing what it has to say... and so it turns the "volume" of that feeling up.
If you're keeping busy to avoid your feelings, they'll grow bigger, and you'll end up with more emotional intensity to deal with.
But maybe you feel the way I did back then: that if you admit how you feel to yourself, it will be like opening a floodgate of emotion you don't know how to control. Maybe you feel you have no choice but to turn away from your feelings because if you were to admit how you feel, they would be too overwhelming.
So here's what you need to know next:
2. You don't have to know how what to do about it. You just have to acknowledge the feeling.
Studies show that simply recognising how you feel and naming the feeling actually reduces brain activity in the brain's Protective System.
In other words: once you've received the message your brain is trying to tell you, your mind goes, Oh, they've heard what I have to say... I can turn the volume down now.
This might go something like this:
"I'm feeling anxious."
"This is a low, empty feeling."
"I feel lonely today."
"Something feels off, but I'm confused about how I feel."
This isn't too different from how validating it feels when you share your feelings with a friend and they just get it -- compared to how much worse you feel when someone dismisses your feelings.
Be that first friend to yourself. The friend that says, "I see how you're feeling, and I'm with you."
Sometimes, that's all we need. And it's something you can start giving to yourself right away.