Tools for Emotional Regulation


When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we often will leave our window of tolerance, which is the place where we can comfortably cope with emotions and situations that come our way. When we operate outside of our window of tolerance, we may be hyperaroused (flooded, over activated & anxious) or hypoaroused (shut down, dissociating). It’s important to have some tools that will bring you back into your window of tolerance and eventually expand your window of tolerance. One of our best weapons for emotional regulation is a tool we always have with us - our breath. There are a number of ways we can use breath to help us soothe when we feel activated. Breathing helps access our parasympathetic nervous system rather than continuing to live in our fight, flight or freeze sympathetic nervous system. Here are a few simple exercises for you to try when you feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Root Breathing
Remove your shoes, either standing or sitting, and notice the connection to the earth through your feet. Scan your body, imagining roots expanding feet deep into the earth, continuing to grow and expand to give you support. Imagine breathing in nutrients, strength, and calm from the roots, exhaling out any tension. For a guided recording, click here.

Self-Compassion Moment
Recall an unpleasant experience and notice how you feel in your body. Say out loud to yourself “This is a moment of suffering,” validating the painful moment rather than minimizing it. Say out loud to yourself “I am not alone in my suffering” and imagine others who may have gone through something similar. Finally, wonder “May I be kind to myself?” Think about what it is you need to hear to make you feel comforted, and say that to yourself aloud. For a guided recording, click here.

R.A.I.N. Breathing
In a moment of distress, breathe deeply and mindfully notice the following:
Recognize what’s going on
Allow whatever is going on to go on
Investigate with curiosity (what are the negative thoughts, where do I feel that in my body?)
Needs - Nourish yourself, what do I need?
For a guided recording, click here.

Tactical breathing
This is a breathing technique used to help you focus, not for relaxation. It’s a great tool for when you feel emotionally flooded, stressed, triggered, or need to re-direct your thoughts. Imagine tracing a square, inhaling for four counts up one side, holding for four counts across the top, exhaling for four counts down the other side, and holding for four counts across the bottom. Continue for a few repetitions, adjusting as needed.

Butterfly Hug
Place one hand on your shoulder, right below your collarbone, and cross the other on the other side. Slowly tap your hands on shoulders like a butterfly flapping its wings. As you tap slowly, breathe deeply and think of a positive memory, peaceful place of comforting person.  

5-4-3-2-1
Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
Name 3 things you can hear right now (“air conditioning” or “tv”)
Name 2 things you can smell right now (or 2 things you like the smell)
Name 1 good thing about yourself

Somatic Experiencing
Place one hand under the other armpit next to heart, the other holding shoulder as you breathe slowly and deeply. This self-hug feeling can help self-soothe and provide a container to hold emotions. Similarly, practice placing one hand on your forehead, the other on your heart. Notice physical sensations (warmth, heart rate, mind/heart connection).

Using Essential Oils
Place one drop on hands, rub and smell for grounding.

Shame Messages: Negative Core Beliefs


Shame & guilt are universal emotions that we have all experienced. The best way to distinguish between guilt & shame is this -- guilt says “Woops, I did something wrong, I did something bad.” Shame says “I am bad, there is something wrong with me.” Small differences in language, hugely different meanings. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling when something we’ve done, or not done, doesn’t measure up to our values. Guilt is usually specific to the experience, can be helpful and adaptive, and motivates us to change and grow. Shame, on the other hand, is the devastating feeling that there is something wrong inherently with who we are, thus making us unworthy of love and connection. Shame is typically consistent over time and experiences, a stable belief about who we are. Shame tends to be toxic, not adaptive, and is associated with depression, bullying, eating disorders, addiction, aggression, violence, and suicide.

Usually our shame messages, or negative core beliefs, develop early in life from family rules (be seen not heard, don’t be a burden, we don’t share hard feelings), family roles (the performer, the jokester, the all-star kid, the troubled kid), or from early childhood pain (abuse, bullying, family ruptures, trauma, etc.). Negative core beliefs often act as a magnet attracting evidence that supports its belief, but repelling contradictory messages. For example, someone with a negative core belief of “I’m unlovable” may have that message reinforced when a boyfriend cheats on them as a teenager, or can’t find a roommate in college, or when they feel lonely at a wedding in adulthood. These early wounds become tender buttons that get pushed in our adult lives. For instance, if someone yells at me or I feel I’m “in trouble” today as an adult, I will often feel exactly the same way I felt as a 2nd grader when I got in trouble for talking and had to pull a card in class.

We work hard to avoid feeling shame, and often turn to hiding places to numb out the uncomfortable feeling. We may use food, TV, technology, exercise, alcohol, substances, sex, porn, control, shopping, gambling, people pleasing, busyness, gaming, work or anything else to protect ourselves from feeling shame. Learning to recognize our cycle, like reaching for the ice cream after a stressful day or controlling the household when feeling afraid, can help us replace those numbing behaviors with more healthy coping. Instead of pouring another glass of wine, pick up your journal, call a friend, go for a run, or sit and meditate. Taking the time to identify our negative core beliefs can help us notice when they get triggered and use affirmations to remind ourselves of truth. Instead of spiraling into negative self-talk about being unlovable, someone may think “That’s old stuff. I know I am beloved, I am perfectly imperfect just as I am.”

Ultimately, as Brene Brown says, vulnerability is the secret superpower to fight shame:

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.

How can you fight shame today? Healing your shame may help impact your family for generations.

Disclosure After Infidelity

There is often a mixed reaction when we talk about a full disclosure - some couples want to race into it, others are scared to face it. Sometimes one party wants it, and the other doesn't. Research shows, however, that 94% of couples that go through the full disclosure process find it to be healing, helpful, and are glad they did it.

Full disclosure is essentially the acting out partner giving a complete account to their spouse/partner of all sexual behaviors from the inception of the relationship and forward. Understandably, this is a very challenging day for both partners. Often the disclosing partner fears the information will hurt their partner, and the partner fears they may regret hearing information that they cannot unhear. Despite these potential risks, there are many benefits.

Often partners of sex addicts will experience staggered disclosure, bits and pieces of information gathered over time, either from an addict self-disclosing or being caught. Usually the information is spoken as if it's the full truth, so when more information comes along, it can be all the more traumatizing. This leaves the partners feeling uncertain if there is more information hidden and fearful of trusting again. Yet many partners need to know the full truth in order to move forward in healing the relationship. Therapeutic disclosure helps reduce that fear by creating a safe space to hear all of the acting out behavior in one setting. This is a painful day, yet the structure helps contain the trauma into one setting rather than being re-traumatized with each staggered disclosure. 

Though there may be some trepidation approaching disclosure day, the disclosing partner often reports feeling a sense of relief in having all of the secrets and information clearly out in the open. By bringing the secrets into the light, shame can dissipate and recovery can continue. The full disclosure is an important step that allows the couple to put secrets to rest, share the same information, and work through the pain to move forward.

I carefully walk couples through the disclosure process in three parts: Full Disclosure, Emotional Impact Letter, & Emotional Restitution Letter. In future blogs we'll talk more about what the next steps entail. 

If you think a full disclosure may be helpful in your journey, reach out today to get started!

Embodied Healing

I have recently been reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD., a book exploring the ways in which our brains, minds, and bodies both hold, and in turn, can heal trauma. Trauma may feel like a scary therapy buzzword, and it becomes tempting to push it away from ourselves “I am not a vet, I wasn’t abused, etc...I don’t have trauma.” The reality is, we all experience trauma in our life, whether it be “little t” traumas, or a “big T” Traumas.

Our brain holds trauma in a very primal, emotional part of our brain called the amygdala which is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze reactions. This part of our brain is responsible for keeping us safe. When we experience trauma, however, this part of our brain can become hijacked and triggered if it feels similar to the trauma of the past, though there may not be imminent danger in the present. This leaves our bodies in prolonged states of stress, tension, and adrenaline. Our bodies, like this part of our brain, hold onto the experience of trauma as well, manifesting in aches, pains, tension, and sometimes medical issues.

Trauma survivors often become disconnected from their body, unaware of what they are feeling or of what the body may be trying to inform them. Becoming connected to our bodies helps integrate both the little and big “t” traumas into our story, loosening the grip of its power over our present reality. Psychologists used to believe that merely talking about the traumatic story would help loosen its grip, but more current research indicates that involving the body in this process yields more lasting results.

If you are looking to heal the effects of trauma in your past to experience more freedom in your present, consider integrating your body into your healing as well. In addition to working with a trained therapist, finding a certified body worker or massage therapist can loosen tension, help you become more aware of bodily sensation, and allow you to experience safe physical touch. Practicing yoga similarly connects you with your body, releases emotion, and empowers you with core strength. Journaling is a helpful way to work through your story and moments of your day by tangibly using your body to write. Therapies like EMDR utilize natural body processes to integrate trauma. Mindfulness, breathing, and meditation exercises help ground you while teaching you to view yourself with compassion. Self-care activities, including exercise, eating well, and sleeping well will help maintain your results. We are embodied people, we cannot divorce our bodies from our inner world.

Please note that if your trauma history includes physical or sexual abuse or assault, some of these practices like yoga or bodywork may be triggering and challenging in the beginning. Safely working through these steps with your therapist will help you pace your healing well.