A To Z Guide To Stress Management For People With Bipolar Disorder, Part 5: Develop Emotional Awareness

This is the fourth in a series of 26 posts covering a variety of stress management tools and techniques, starting with the letter A. For some background information on stress and bipolar disorder, the blogger recommends reading her three-part series, “Getting a Handle on Stress When You Have Bipolar Disorder,” starting with the first one.

Welcome to the A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder. In this series I will give you a wide variety of stress management tools and techniques to try. Some go hand and hand, and some may appear contradictory—for example, changing your thoughts and accepting your thoughts can both work. Everyone is different. There will probably be some methods you like and some that don’t work for you. Also, a particular tool or technique may work better in some situations than in others. Keep an open mind, experiment, and discover what helps most.

And now for “E”: Develop Emotional Awareness.

As I mentioned in the first post in my series on stress and bipolar disorder, a frequent source of stress is not recognizing or being aware of your own feelings. Emotional awareness involves:

  • Being able to recognize your emotional states
  • Becoming aware of why you feel the way you do
  • Understanding the impact of your emotional reactions on yourself and others.

Technically there’s a difference between emotions and feelings. Emotions are hard-wired physiological reactions that are pretty short-lived. Feelings are your individual internal experiences based on your beliefs, preferences, and desires, and they can go on a long time. Since I’m talking about developing an awareness of your overall affective life, I’m going to use the terms interchangeably.

Developing awareness of your emotions can help reduce stress for several reasons:

  • Just naming your emotions reduces stress. Simply putting a label on what you’re feeling may shift how you feel. As the saying goes, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” Labeling your emotions may help in a number of ways. It may help you focus on the present moment rather than thinking about the past or future; it may give you more certainty and a greater sense of control; or it may enable you to gain perspective from a part of yourself that’s not steeped in the emotional experience.
  • Your emotions give you insight into your needs, which can help you make good decisions. Emotions are connected with your needs for everything from basic survival to creativity and connection. If you don’t recognize your emotions, it’s hard to know whether your needs are being met. When you tune into your emotions, you often automatically start to recognize your needs. That may help you make a decision to stop doing something that doesn’t meet your needs, or to continue doing something that does meet your needs.
  • Your emotions can serve as a cue to use coping skills. If you recognize your feelings about something early on, you can apply coping skills more quickly. For example, if you notice you’re angry about something that happened with another person, you might come up with a plan to prevent it from happening again, practice communicating your feelings about it in a constructive way, or do something calming to regulate the anger. If you don’t recognize your feelings (or ignore them), you’re more likely to end up reacting in unhealthy ways—for example, by using substances, lashing out at other people, or self-harming. These unskillful types of coping don’t help in the long run and are likely to multiply your stress.

How to Build Emotional Awareness

There are a variety of ways to build emotional awareness. Here are a few things you can try:

1. Increase your emotional vocabulary. One of the simplest ways to build emotional awareness is to get a feelings list and increase your ability to recognize a wide variety of emotions. You can find lists, wheels, or charts with an online search. My personal favorite is a list used in Non-Violent Communication, which is a practice of remaining compassionate and empathetic in your relationships with yourself and others. Try to develop a rich and nuanced emotional vocabulary.

2. Keep a feelings journal. Writing can help you process your feelings and gain awareness of the subtleties of your emotional life. It can also help you clarify your thoughts and choose a course of action. Writing can bring out a wiser part of you than the part caught up in your feelings. You can write about a current, past, or upcoming stressor and focus on things like:

  • Feelings you’re experiencing, including the associated body sensations (for example, heavy heart, tension in neck, sweaty palms)
  • Triggers (what, specifically, happened that led to the feelings?)
  • Needs that are and are not being met
  • Thoughts about the stressor and the meaning of the experience
  • Your reactions and behavior related to your feelings.

Research shows that just venting your feelings in writing isn’t as effective as putting on your thinking cap and trying to gain a larger view.

3. Tune in to your emotions regularly. Check in with yourself on a regular basis. This may mean setting time aside to write, reflect on your experiences, or do practices that help you tune into your feelings. Recognize that you deserve that time and attention—and that it will probably save a lot of heartache in the long run. Another way to remain emotionally aware is a simple practice called “Name 3 Feelings.” Set a timer to go off once an hour or so. When it goes off, check in with yourself and name 3 feelings you’re currently experiencing.

4. Learn to acknowledge your emotions without judging them. Part of the reason people lack awareness of their emotions is that they don’t want to experience them. They may push down their feelings, numb them through various addictive behaviors, or react to them with secondary emotions such as guilt or anger. In some cases it’s preferable to deliberately regulate your emotions or change the situation that’s causing them. But in other cases it’s more appropriate to give yourself permission to feel your feelings. You can take a nonjudgmental stance toward your feelings by noticing them and allowing them to be there without reacting to them. Feelings are patterns of energy that pass through and come to an end if you don’t resist or hold on to them.

5. Go to therapy. One of the benefits of ongoing psychotherapy is having a regular opportunity to become aware of and process your feelings. Having a caring person reflect back what you’re feeling is tremendously healing and empowering. A trained therapist can help you clarify your emotions and gain insight into why you feel the way you do, what impact your emotions have, and how to effectively cope with your emotional experiences.

My personal experience: I’ve had a tendency throughout my life either to bury or ignore my feelings. I’ve found identifying and acknowledging them to be very powerful. Not being aware of my feelings about something significant is like having pieces of myself scattered all over where I can’t find them. I feel disjointed and discombobulated. When I tune into my feelings, it’s like gathering up all those pieces and containing them in a safe place. My breathing slows down and deepens. I become more grounded and centered. I’m able to see the bigger picture and understand all sides of the story. In other words, I become less stressed.

How to start: Get a feelings list and name 3 emotions you’re experiencing right now. Or try journaling for 10 to 15 minutes on your feelings about a recent stressor. Keep in mind that it’s important to gain awareness of positive as well as negative emotions.

Additional resources: Emotional awareness is part of a number of therapies. For example cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) thought records involve becoming aware of your current emotions. In dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emotion regulation is one of four sets of skills, and emotional awareness is a key part of developing emotion regulation skills.

If you’re struggling with overwhelming emotions or think you might have unresolved trauma, it’s probably a good idea to get professional help. Also, some individuals have a condition called alexithymia, which involves difficulty recognizing and naming their emotions. If you relate to that you may also benefit from professional help.

You can find the rest of Carrie’s IBPF posts here or read additional articles on her Addiction.com blog. You can also visit the website for Counseling and More, her private practice, or Bipolar Beast, a company designed to empower people with bipolar disorder.

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