On holiday recently, during the heat wave in Europe, I was enjoying a cooling swim in the sea when I was stung on the bum by a jellyfish. The shock of this intense pain had me out of the water fast, seeking first aid treatment. Afterwards, as I lay on a sun lounger recovering, it got me thinking how very strong physical pain is an immediate sign that we can’t ignore. Our body literally forces us to respond to the message it is sending us.
But this also got me wondering about the times when our mind and spirit feel intense emotional pain. Why, so often, don’t we listen and respond immediately in a self-supportive and self-nurturing manner? Why do we carry a crippling emotional burden around with us for years – ignoring the fact that the stress of it is making us ill, and is preventing us from living a fulfilling and happy life? I know all about this because I learnt this lesson the very hard way.
But the most worrying thing of all was answer I came up with.
In our modern society people are socially conditioned with the need to get ahead and succeed financially. They are afraid that if they stop, for even a moment, they are going to fail or lose out. So, when an unexpected crisis strikes – redundancy, grief, loss of an important relationship, a betrayal, overwhelm/burnout, the diagnosis of a serious medical condition, or a gross injustice – many people fail to properly acknowledge the searing pain in their heart. They may also do this to try to normalise a distressing event, or as a response they think will be ‘seen’ as an acceptable method of coping.
If you experience serious loss or change that rocks the foundations of your world, you need to allow yourself space. You need to take some time out to absorb the impact of this event and allow the natural healing process to kick in.
Ignoring, trivialising, or burying a painful emotion is literally going to come back and bite you on the bum at a later stage. Left too long to their own devices, blocked emotions will manifest as either physical or mental illnesses.
If you don’t put your hand up in time, there is a strong possibility you will drown.
I learnt from my experience of becoming ill from stress that it is very important to acknowledge to yourself that you are feeling uncomfortable. Of course, the problem with this is that many people live under such a constant barrage of busyness they become unable to discern the point when they become seriously compromised or unbalanced. The warning signs can be quite subtle, too – headaches, tummy upsets, disruption to your sleep pattern, colds, and flu. These are things you can often put down to causes other than stress. It’s very important to ask yourself at times like these if your current life situation and problems could be causing these physical symptoms.
Another impediment to sensible self-nurturing are feelings of never doing enough for others or general unworthiness of deserving a better deal. But remember: if you don’t take a break, you will break! And what will happen then? Other people will have to cope, or assume some of your burden also. The point being: no one is indispensable.
If you’ve ever stubbed your toe badly, you will remember how much it hurts. It’s so eye-wateringly painful that if you were then to see a person without a foot – no matter how much compassion you had for their situation – you would be unable to ignore your own pain!
Emotional pain does not magically disappear when you choose not to acknowledge it. The pain of it sits in your physical body, causing a blockage, a bit like a short out in an electrical circuit. Then, if you go on adding other pain and grief on top of it, there will come a time when something has to give and your whole system shuts down. You want to avoid this at all costs.
Call the lifeguard!
The grim reality is that only you can save yourself. And sometimes you have to muster the courage to ask for help. Changing your current situation may require sticking your neck out and enforcing a necessary personal boundary, or speaking your truth sooner rather than holding it in, simmering away like poison in your body. It may mean making life-altering changes that seem very difficult. It may mean moving away from dangerous people and places. These things can be very difficult to achieve alone, without any support.
As soon as you begin to understand that your emotional problems are impacting on your life and you’re finding things tough, it’s wise to seek help by confiding in a trusted friend, or from a reputable professional. Get rid of your insecurities around having to ask for help. The long-term risks of not asking for help when you need it are really not worth it. When things are closing in, it may help to remember that people seek professional advice for their businesses, weight loss, diet, health, and motivation. We shouldn’t have an imagined barrier to getting assistance for emotional problems.
If you’re interested in evaluating the level of stress you are facing in life, take my stress test. It’s free and comes with no obligations.