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Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Rollercoaster of emotions

One of the things that has been most important for me to work on throughout my therapy is my Extreme Emotion Intensity. It's hard for me to know when this problem developed because young children tend to experience very intense emotions but certainly it has been a problem throughout my teenage years. In simple terms it means all of my emotions are experienced at a high intensity. Emotions that should feel like a gentle wave, hit me like a Tsunami. It goes for the "good" emotions as well as the "bad" ones (I use the inverted commas because any of the therapists I've had would murder me for saying any emotion is bad as we have no control over them, they all need to be felt etc etc. I am merely trying to distinguish between the joyous and not-so-joyous ends of the emotional spectrum).
Perhaps its easy to understand with something like anxiety. If we took me and a person whose emotions were properly regulated and put us both in the same anxiety-provoking situation, there would be very different reactions. Let's say we're equally scared of snakes and we see a piece of string on the ground and for a second think it's a snake. We'll use a scale of 0-10 for anxiety. For the other person, their anxiety may hit an 8/9 for a few seconds before they realise that it's not a snake and then their anxiety will quickly drop back to a 2/3 for a while before settling out at basically 0 within a very short space of time. They'll be left with no physical symptoms and will probably laugh at their experience within minutes. For me my anxiety would hit a 10 and stay at that 10 for a good half an hour. It may then drop to an 8/9 which could last for hours, leaving me with a racing pulse and breathing, complete lack of concentration, paranoia and fear and a disabling panic that renders me unable to focus on or complete daily tasks. I'll feel on edge and jumpy for the rest of the day, irritable, unreasonable, out-of-balance and fearful and thoughts will be rushing around my mind at 100mph. I probably wouldn't be able to tell you why I was feeling that way because rationally I know that the piece of rope wasn't a snake but the emotions will be intense and long-lasting regardless of all logic.
We've all at some point experienced some kind of crippling fear so perhaps the anxiety is easier to understand than the problems of intense joy or excitement. What could be wrong with feeling super happy or excited? What does super excited even look like? There is plenty wrong with feeling super excited. Take a moment to think back to the last time you were really excited. There was probably a quickened heart rate, inability to think about much else, a feeling of time going incredibly slowly, an explosive exuberance that refuses to remain hidden. Now imagine that and multiply it's strength by 100. Oh and experience it for hours on end. The problem is the adrenaline that rushes round your body in these situations. Technically it is the "fight, flight or freeze" hormone that is an immediate attempt by your body to preserve your life. The effects (increased heart rate, diversion of blood from digestive systems to the peripheral muscle that will help your flight and causes butterflies in the tummy, complete focus on the situation and nothing else, primitive thinking, extra energy being released from stores etc) are designed to help you deal with a life threatening situation ie being chased by a  lion. They are not effects that are meant to be felt for a long period of time or all that often. However, when you have EEI, adrenaline is released far more often and over longer periods of time. This can be pretty debilitating. Imagine the effects above but in response to thinking about going on holiday and lasting for hours. Not exactly appropriate or particularly easy to cope with.
In the case of joy, my problems can range from feeling so elated that I feel invincible and therefore become extremely reckless to being unable to contemplate or consider others feelings through my own elation and therefore being highly insensitive which can lead to lots of problems in relationships. I also have a tendency to become very "hyper" and once again, can't focus on daily tasks due to the emotion being everything. Picture a 2 year olds reaction to a happy situation and you might be getting close. I can also swing from feeling very elated into depression when I come off of the emotional high which is very difficult to handle.
EEI is exhausting. I found a passage in one of my books recently that I wanted to share.
"I react to things so extremely. No matter what it is, or what emotion it induces, I seem to feel it so much more than I should.
I feel too much.
There is too much of me.
I once heard it being described as the emotional equivalent of someone with third degree burns all over their skin. And that's how I've always been. The slightest things seem to sear through me and wrench my heart out. When I am happy, I am elated. When sad, I am suicidal. Everything is so extreme and it's overbearing and suffocating and infuriating for anyone who comes into contact with me, but no more so than it is for me in my own head.
I'm scared of feeling. Scared of anything that will pierce through normality and balance and take me to the next feeling that is too overwhelming for me to even begin to react to rationally."
It sums it up so well.
One of the reasons that it had been such an important thing to tackle is because it goes hand in hand with the disease that could kill me. In its twisted way, anorexia or bulimia or any eating disorder serves it's sufferer a purpose. Why else would sufferers keep doing something so painful, soul destroying and life threatening if it brought nothing in return. For me one of the main purposes that my eating disorder has served me is numbing my emotions. When you are malnourished your brain cannot deal with emotions in the same ways it normally would and it shuts down pathways to preserve energy. Add to that the obsession with food, calories, weights, numbers, sizes, exercise, counting, charting and calculating and you have almost zero capacity to experience emotions. For me, that is such a relief. To be able to shut off and view life instead of experiencing it was the only way I had to cope with my lack of emotional regulation. However, on several occasions it almost killed me and it certainly ruined my life and severly damaged my health and relationships. I've also used self harming as an outlet for extreme emotions when it's too uncomfortable to keep them inside. An important part of preventing a relapse in my eating disorder has therefore been finding new ways to deal with my EEI. 
This has come mainly in the form of Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which combines tools such as distraction, mindfulness, radical acceptance and thought diffusion to help ride through extreme emotions and manage them healthily. It can be a challenge because the tools I'm learning can seem strange from the outside (if you see me clutching an ice cube, scribbling, ripping up tissues, mouthing poems or lyrics to myself, covering my ears and humming or closing my eyes and doing breathing exercises don't be alarmed!) and it takes quite a lot of effort to remember to use them but as I practice it is becoming more natural and I look forward to the day when I can keep my emotions at a manageable level without too much effort. For now though, you gotta do what you gotta do!

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