Emotional Immunologist II

Part of my job is to help people to increase their emotional immunity from many of the inevitable toxic situations in life. Two clients were presented in the last article: Amy, very sensitive, who has a hostile and abrasive boss that rattles her, and Paul, indecisive and unassertive, who feels controlled by Andy, a well-meaning friend. Both Amy and Paul are disproportionately tense after interactions with these other people. Unless we develop control over our emotional lives, we can become adrift, like leaves in the wind, corks in the sea.

It would be pathological to be immune from grief, love, lust, loss of a job, etc. Feelings are very human and necessary to be in a community. However, when these feeling are controlling us, we should work to gain the upper hand.

How? We first need to gain perspective. Amy and Paul were presented because of how they amplified the magnitude of their problems. There are much bigger problems that we must handle—some involving life and death. Amy must recognize that Boss’ hostility is Boss’ problem and Amy need not own it. She made her boss bigger-than-life and Amy needs to understand that, by wanting acceptance or fairness, she is not accepting reality. Yes, she has a hostile boss, but that boss need not disturb her.

We have to cope with a wide variety of people in the human community and many are callous to our feelings. That is a reality, and not accepting that reality amplifies stress. Paul is angry with both himself and Andy when he feels trapped by Andy’s pushiness. Both clients saw their problems as catastrophic—they lost perspective. They carry the stress within themselves each and every day, even though their problems do not begin to approach catastrophic proportions.

Amy and Paul need to develop skills of coping with problems. For example, relaxation methods can be a great help. Life’s problems lead to muscle tension, that tension in turn amplifies those problems. The mind can cause body tension, and that tension influences emotions, creating feedback loops in the body. I demonstrate this with clients by challenging them to smile and try to think a hostile thought, then clench their jaws and fists and think of a warm, loving thought. Try it! Overwhelmingly, clients report that smiling inhibits hostility and tensing inhibits warmth. It is difficult to have one’s body relaxed and feel tension. I work with clients to develop these relaxation skills. In time, they find the body can be used as a tool to influence emotions.

In addition, I am working with Amy and Paul to use adversity as an opportunity to learn assertiveness skills. Adversity is both a problem and an opportunity. Amy is now looking her boss in the eye, and saying, “I would appreciate it if you could talk to me in a civil manner.” She is still rattled, but Boss is now her teacher who unwittingly provides on-the-job training in assertiveness and tension-reducing skills. In a similar way, Paul needs simply to say, “No thanks,” when Andy pitches him an activity. He knows Andy will say, “but…., You need to.. You should…” and this is an opportunity for Paul to realize Andy will not hate him and he need not feel guilty when he expresses his feelings.

Inevitably, we face problems more serious than Amy and Paul’s. These problems can become toxic and lead to emotional problems. By working on developing perspective along with relaxation and coping skills, such as being more assertive, we can reduce our internal turmoil. We also should learn to accept events we cannot control. These skills can increase our emotional immunity to problems.