Emotions are as Unpredictable As the Weather

Imagine yourself as a seasoned meteorologist, only you are tracking emotions instead of weather patterns. You employ tools to stay grounded like meditating for ten minutes, taking calming walks in nature, and doodling in your favorite coloring book. You have a very good theoretical view of how to handle life’s difficult situations. You feel prepared to take on anything. You can weather a storm when it’s planned for. Unfortunately, our emotions are just like the weather, volatile and often unpredictable.

Fast forward to a time when you are experiencing a cluster fuck of physiological and stress-related deficiencies: your PH levels are off, you are sleep deprived, you feel undervalued at work, and you got an unexpected parking ticket. At this point, you are teetering between “I have my shit together” and “I am about to lose my shit.”

One of two things can happen when you are in a teetering state: you deescalate and reground yourself or something hits you when you are most vulnerable. flash floodIn a state of vulnerability, you become emotionally responsive to any stimulus that sets off a negative thought or feeling. This could be seeing, hearing, feeling, or doing something that makes you emotionally uncomfortable. In this moment, regardless of the logical severity of the trigger, you are uprooted and flooded with boundless emotion.  You lose your grasp on reality and start flooding.

I used to use the word triggered to explain this onslaught of emotion, this gigantic burden of emotional weight that hits us when we are reminded of heavy times from our lives’ past. The Gottman Institute has a better phrase and definition. Emotional flooding better explains why we become overwhelmed by this onset of emotion. It is also so illustrative of what is happening–a flash flood of emotion, unplanned and unpredictable.

According to Psychologist John Gottman, when emotionally flooding, you reach the point when your thinking brain is shut out of the situation. This emotional hijacking is your nervous system in overdrive. Something happens, it could be almost anything emotionally, that sets off your internal threat-detection system. This is your sympathetic nervous system in action, preparing you for battle or flight. In this state, you lose some of your capacity for rational thought. Science describes this is as a decrease of activity in your pre-frontal cortex, the center of higher cognition.

In essence, you lose your shit, get ungrounded, and cannot respond from a good place.

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In these situations, it’s best to identify what is going on and step away until you can deescalate. Doing nothing, remaining silent, and walking away is okay.

Emotionally flooding begins with somatic symptoms, meaning you can feel them in your body first. This is a great way to identify early. You might feel a rush of adrenaline, or heat moving through your body. When you get nervous, angry, anxious, or experience any other negative emotion, what goes on in your body? Take note of these somatic symptoms and practice identifying them during times of decreased sensitivity.

If you are in a conflict situation and need to remove yourself from it, clearly articulate your sense of feeling overwhelmed and that you need to remove yourself. It helps to have conversations with your partner in advance of this situation so you both know what to expect. I once used a code language for my level of flooding with a partner. Code blue meant I was on the verge of flooding and code red meant that I needed to escape the conflict. With advance prep, the information should not be taken personally.

Finally, self-soothing is about lowering the activation of your sympathetic nervous system and allowing your system to come back into balance. For most people, it takes about 20 minutes for the body to process all of that adrenaline, so use that as your benchmark before you reengage. You may take longer and that is perfectly okay.

Emotional flooding is normal. We all deal with it. We are all at different levels of awareness when it comes to what floods us. The most important thing is to work to identify the things that set you off and to not feel pressured to engage in situations until you allow yourself to sooth. Nothing good will come from a brain that is six feet under water.

First, come up for air…

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What You Need vs. What You Want vs. What You Actually Need: Life Essentials On and Off the Trail

Whoa life, another break-up? Yeah, but I learn something every single time as long as I allow myself to. You will too. You have to be open to looking past the memories and struggling through the wacky neurotransmitter activity until you can gain a perspective worth holding onto. I ask myself, “what is the teaching?”

A life coach ago, I heard the words, “you have to focus on what you need, not what you want in a relationship.” Fast forward to a few days ago when I was sinking into the teaching from my last break-up and I realized, wow, this is a whole lot like backpacking when you spend countless hours creating piles of must haves and nice-to-haves because the added weight of a single purpose tool will make the difference between bearable and breakable weight on your back.

Is the added weight worth the reward?

In backpacking, essentials are those imperative items that your survival depends on such as water, fuel, and shelter. Nice-to-haves are extra clean socks and puffy flavored marshmallows. In relationships, must haves are deal-breakers, those things that you just can’t live with or without because it disrupts your own personal connection to life. Common themes are life values, financial stability, addiction, family goals, lifestyle choices, or triggers. Nice-to-haves are a six pack abs, a huge bank account, a fancy car, a non-crazy set of in-laws, or any other physical attribute. The lines are fuzzy for many of us.

wantThe dangerous thing about these two buckets is that upon first diagnosis, those things that we perceive to be must-haves are just subjective preferences that can be shifted and with enough time, they become nice-to-haves. We use the somatic stimulus in our bodies as well as our previous experiences to determine the way we feel and react to other people. This is how we determine what is right or wrong for us. What we are missing out on is the opportunity to move away from limiting, binary beliefs, and just allow people to show up as they are. None of us are that rigid.

In addition, we often gravitate towards those relationships that are safe and don’t push us to challenge our beliefs about what we actually, not just think, we need. An example here is family goals or lifestyle choices. Sure, these are super important, but we can’t be so connected to our own ideals that we forego an opportunity to grow by experiencing something unplanned. A friend of mine met her current husband and is now living on a sailboat. She would have never envisioned that, but was open to what came to her.

The whole point! Life and relationships are not backpacking. Shifting more of our subjective mislabeled needs into nice-to-haves will allow us to experience more love, more life, and more abundance. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs expands dramatically after our physiological and safety needs are met. A decrease in rigidity in how we view others will open our lives up to invite so many beautiful people into them. It’s hard to go against what you think “you need” in order to experience what you actually do. Only experiences will tell.

 

Catastrophic Thinking is How We Rationalize Fear and that is Irrational

The Fear: Love spectrum was made famous by the movie Donnie Darko. The film is full of strong symbolic elements as well as creative metaphors all pointing to the reality that most of our lives are lived controlled by fear. We are afraid of being rejected, judged, failing, being alone, being lied to, dying etc. Fear keeps us stuck, stagnant, and from reaching our own personal potential. We are not living when we are living in fear. We use irrational fear-based thought patterns to convince ourselves that fear is a helping emotion. It is not. Fear tells us that something is wrong and that we should avoid it, but fear is not logical. Fear is rarely your ally.

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Catastrophic thinking is not rational, it is an overestimation of the likelihood of negative events occurring. When these thoughts surface, it can feel like a tornado of ruminating thoughts going through your mind and body. These worst-case scenario thoughts rouse unhealthy anxiety and prevent you from taking action. They are not rational. They are not helpful.

The film depicts love as the opposite of fear. Love is the ability to look at ourselves honestly and without judgment. We must truly love ourselves unconditionally if we intend to love others in this same regard. Love is also forgiveness for our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Love is not external, it is not validated by others, it is not waning. Love is the foundation of what rests inside each and every one of us, if we allow it to.

The Fear: Love spectrum is used to illustrate the range in which we live our lives. At times, we may be more fearful than others. Pragmatically, fear is associated with an inability to take risks and therefore, limits our experiences in life. Love is the willingness to open up and trust that things will work out and that a higher power will always watch over you. It is a trust in the universe. Most are stymied by fear in most areas of their lives, so never see who they really are. They self-limit.

We are biologically predisposed to a fight or flight pattern that preempts us to avoid potentially threatening situations. If left up to the guise of our biology, we are meant to live in homeostasis, a stable equilibrium. We fight off any threats to our stability. The problem is, we are reacting to threats that are no longer realistic. Our biological responses were helpful 1000 years ago when we, as humans, we living among wild animals, fighting for our territory, and hunting wild game for food. Our biological processes are the same as they were 1000 years ago, but the only thing we are fighting off is heavy head from drinking too many Manhattans or a pesky neighbor vehemently complaining about the volume your Friday night Clash revivals.

Catastrophic thinking needs to be disputed. In order to do this, you must first identify it for what it is, an irrational worst-case scenario, a set of unrealistic thoughts. The second step in the process of dealing with catastrophic thinking is to identify reality and play out those scenarios in your mind. It helps to write them down if you’re feeling especially stuck. Finally, look to your past as evidence of your present resilience. Were there other similar experience that you actually made it though? Within you, you have the ability to see a reality much less laden with volatility and disaster. Take the steps.

Ode to Fall Equinox: Relationship Transitions Are Like the Changing of the Seasons

In a utopian world, acceptance by others would include all parts of ourselves. In reality, the attraction we have for a person physically, psychologically, and emotionally is usually based on a preconceived notion of who they are, a limited understanding of what they are, or a set of expectations that have nothing to do with the person in the first place. It is superficial attraction. The quote that comes to mind is:

“You fell in love with my flowers and not my roots, so when autumn came you didn’t know what to do.”

In my last relationship, my heart shattered and I closed myself off when the “I am at a low attraction point for you right now” conversation happened. It still rests with me. Those words taught me something. It is really hard to love all of someone. It is really difficult to love others through the seasons of their personal change. It is even more challenging to love one other through the seasonal transitions of a relationship.

When I look back at the changes that took place over months and months, I can see myself transitioning and I can see him transitioning too. The movement through the seasons of our relationship mimic nature in many ways. It is beautiful in a sad sort of way. Think about the last relationship you had and how you processed through each stage.

In Summer, you meet and are both in full bloom. You may have been preparing by focusing on self improvement physically and mentally, centering yourself, getting over past hurt, and walking into dating with an air about you, a lightness, a glow. This is the “you” that the other person falls in love with. You are your best superficial selves at this time. Something like this: https://youtu.be/Pj7rZhF6rP4

In Fall, the relationship takes shape and more of your personality is revealed. You show character weakness through how you handle certain situations. You break down. You get weak. You might offend one another. You begin to see one another in a different light, a diminished light. The attraction fades. You are no longer the “you” that the person fell in love with. Your pedals have fallen off to reveal a you that is open, raw, and vulnerable. This is a monumental transition time for couples because it is when you give up on one another. It is a time you see that your expectations don’t match up to who someone actually is. You will contemplate, “do I still want to know this person?”

Winter is a difficult time, full of personal struggle. You are trying to maintain your own identity while learning so much about the identity of another human being. You deal with things in one of two ways: radical self care where the relationship has little impact on your stability or dependency where your focus and sense of worth are tied to the outcome of the relationship. Winter is the time you should hibernate with self and do everything you can to stay grounded, not lose perspective, honor your individual sense of self, and support your partner through their own struggles. Winter can be long and dark, but this is the deepest place you will go with your partner where you will see and fall in love with all of them. The transition out of this stage is into emotional intimacy.

Spring, oh spring. Your love is blossoming. You have seen the ugliest parts of one another and you have been real. The bond you have created by making it through the darkness has rewarded you with the gift of relationship confidence because neither of you gave up or traded one another in for another “summer.” You have trust in one another, acceptance of self within the relationship, and acceptance of the other person. After the thousands of miles you have journeyed together, you can now relax into your partnership and just be. That is, until the cycle through Winter and Spring begins again.

As human beings,  navigating through the chaos of the human condition, we can learn all we need to know from nature, especially trust in the cyclical nature of life. If we know that we will have lows as well as highs in relationships, we can see through the eyes of love and understanding instead of experiencing an icy, cold winter period. We have trust that we will always return to the light. Or, that’s how I think it works. I keep getting stuck in Fall.

 

The Magic Coastal Redwood: Their Role in Saving Our Planet

Trees have been labeled The Carbon Storage Experts by scientists because of their unique process of sequestering carbon. Trees use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugar, cellulose and other carbon-containing carbohydrates that they use for food and growth. Simply put, CO2 is warming our planet and trees pull this CO2 from the atmosphere to help regulate the temperature of our planet.  Trees are storing this CO2 and processing it for food and growth–this is the magic of nature, at work.

I just finished reading a really interesting article about the power of Coastal Redwoods in absorbing CO2 contaminants in the air and how this one species of tree is especially effective in this process. They remove and store more carbon from the atmosphere than any other forest on the planet!! This evidence warmed my heart because I grew up surrounded by Redwood Trees. I have always felt connected to the year-round dampness of the soil, the deep sense of moisture in the air, and of course, the beautiful sight of these majestic giants.

In this study, researchers set out to locate old growth Coastal Redwood forests (Sequoia sempervirens forests). These forests have the oldest and largest sequoia redwood trees in the world. Most of the area is made up of state parks, but logging is still prevalent. Scientists wanted to illustrate the benefits of CO2 absorption by this particular tree species with goal of protecting them from future logging activities.

The group was led by Robert Van Pelt of Humboldt State University selected 11 “old-growth forests” between Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. What the team discovered was amazing. Data revealed that some of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park forests store “2,600 metric tons of carbon per hectare.” In contrast, Pacific Northwest conifer forests only store about 1,000 metric tons. The Coastal Redwood is 2.6x more productive in absorbing harmful pollutants from the air we breathe. Based on this evidence, doesn’t it seem logical that this is the last species of tree that should be considered for logging?

“The carbon part of a redwood may be more important than the lumber part in the coming decades” Van Pelt shared. These giants are not only stunning to gaze up at, but they serve a purpose in our entire ecosystem.

Read the full study.

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Photo: coastalhikes.co

Or better yet, visit some of the state parks featured in the study.  This is a cool interactive map of the state parks. 

 

Solo Backpacking: Creative Activities to Soothe Yourself When You Feel Scared and Alone

Even ultralight backpackers can find the space for a few folded up pieces of paper and a pen or pencil. Those two things are all you will need to amuse yourself out of loneliness, fear, and isolation. Each of these creative exercises will draw you up and away from the situation that might be distressing you.

Creativity is a magic stress reducer that helps to lower the levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol in your body. Creative stimulation engages and focuses our minds on the task at hand and distracts us from feelings fear and anxiety. Here are several scientifically proven activities to uplift your mood and get you back onto the trail with a more positive outlook.

Express Yourself With Words

Experts have studied the connection between creative writing and stress reduction and results show that “emotional writing can influence immune function, stress hormones, and blood pressure” (Stuckey and Nobel, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health). What this means is by writing freely, from your emotional center, you will decrease all of the hormones and somatic responses in your body that are causing you to feel on edge in the first place.

What you need: pen and paper

Write your own nature quotes or prose. John Muir can be your muse. Look around you, at your surroundings. What are you appreciating about where you are? Close your eyes and focus in on the sounds you hear, the sensations in your body, what you can recall about your day. Now, write out a list of nouns that pop into your head. Follow with a list of adjectives. Repeat with a list of sensations or emotions. Piece your words together to create flowing prose sentences or quotes.

Write a Haiku. The beauty about a Haiku and nature is that they go together. The ancient Japanese poem structure traditionally uses subjects from the natural world, including seasons, months, animals, and even the smallest elements of nature, down to the pedal of a flower or a drop of dew on a leaf. The focus is on a brief moment in time that ends with a sudden sense of enlightenment and illumination. Haiku poetry is syllabic, meaning it follows a set of guidelines based on the number of syllables in each line. The structure is 5-7-5.

Don’t get too hung up on the craft, just open yourself up to your surroundings for inspiration. You can use the same brainstorming exercise from above to come up with a set of useful words. From there, start with your first line of five syllables. I usually speak words out loud while counting on my finger. The phrase “while I hiked today” is five syllables and could easily be a first line. Now, repeat this process with seven syllables to create the second line of the poem. Finish up by writing a final five syllable line that is light and illuminating.

Here is some Haiku inspiration.

Write a letter: We all have something we have been meaning to process or a person we have been meaning to reach out to. We even have words and thoughts jumbled up in our psyche that we want to share with someone, but can’t. These are all writing prompts for a personal letter. The act of putting your thoughts down on paper is not only naturally distracting, but it is also cathartic. Writing down thoughts that are balled up inside of you helps to relieve tension in the body as well as decrease feelings of worry and stress. Finally, writing to another person can help draw you away from the present situation that might feel unsettling. By focusing on someone outside of ourselves, we can shift attention away from an unpleasant reality.

Hum a Tune

What you need: your amazing voice

Ethnomusicologist Joseph Jordania has theorized that the relaxed, happy feelings elicited by humming may be rooted deep in human evolutionary history. This isn’t hard to imagine given that many meditation disciples include humming activities. And think about the act of soothing a crying baby with humming or gently singing a tune. Humming is proven to calm and sooth us, dissolve stress, ground us, quiet our mind, slow down breathing and lower blood pressure and to top it off, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system that triggers the relaxation response in the body. Doesn’t this seem like a magic pill?

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Image: Om, Wikipedia

While in Nepal, I learned that the om chant is universal. Om is one sound that can be created by every culture, every language, every dialect in the world. There is an obvious beauty in that. But humming this sound is not just beneficial as a spiritual practice. The literal vibrations of the humming sound promote a sense of well-being. Participants in a brain imaging study were monitored while humming “om.” Scientists saw reduced activity in certain areas of the brain associated with depression, speculating that the vibrations from om chanting stimulate the vagus nerve, which sends out electrical signals to deactivate stress areas of the brain, triggering relaxation. Wow!

Whether you choose to hum your favorite song, a nursery rhyme, or even make up a new tune, you will experience a lightening of mood. Trust the sensations and the science on this one and if you need more convincing, give it a try the next time you feel like emotions are boiling up. It really does calm and sooth, ground and quiet a racing mind.

It takes a certain level of self-assurance and courage to go into nature all alone. After a few days on the trail, the initial stimulation of the experience has waned and negative thoughts can creep into your head. It is inevitable that feelings of loneliness, fear, or even regret will come up. These feelings are temporary. These simple exercises will help ease you through those tough moments so you can be present and one with nature again.

 

Feeding Your Soul One Step at a Time: Backpacking to Cure Loneliness

I hike a-lot, alone. This leads to the #1 question I get.

lonelinessisthepainof0abeingalone0asolitudeisthejoyofbeing0aalone-default“Maria, don’t you get lonely out there all alone?”

and I exclaim, “No, I don’t. Loneliness and being alone are two very different things.”

 

Let me explain…

Generally, People are Pretty Lonely

We are living in the Age of Loneliness. According to the AARP Loneliness Study, 50% of Americans over the age of 46 suffer from chronic loneliness. But loneliness isn’t just impacting this demographic. It is a reality for most of us. The General Social Survey found that the number of Americans with no close friends has tripled since 1985. “Zero” is the most common number of close friends reported by 25% of those surveyed. People lack meaningful connections. They feel alone.

One consistent explanation for this increase in chronic loneliness is our dependency on the internet and cyber-social engagements in lieu of in-person interactions. We are losing our ability to deeply care for individuals, to identify social cues, and to co-exist in collective harmony. In addition, many people are focused on their individuality and don’t consider emotional intimacy to be an essential need. This need is perceived to be a weakness or a sign of codependency. Often the urge to connect is temporarily satisfied by a behavior that further isolates the individual. Online gaming, watching TV, scrolling through Facebook, and online chatting, are all replacing in-person meetings.

In addition, society promotes an overly competitive self-serving mentality. These behaviors work directly against those that promote a collective society, including the forging of social bonds, building of trusting relationships, and our ability to empathize with others. In his controversial 1970’s book The Pursuit of Loneliness, sociologist Phillip Slater argued that America’s individualism “is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence.” We are disengaging from our biological norms by attempting to live lives devoid of enriching human relationships. We are detaching from our innate existence by perpetuating the philosophies of “take care of number one,” and “you can’t be dependent on anyone else.” Further, these philosophies are directly tied to positive character descriptors such as “independent,” “strong,” “self-reliant,” and “confident.” If that is the case, why are so many people of these people so lonely? 

Based on all of the evidence, we can surmise that Americans are lonelier than ever before despite constant contact through digital connections and social media.

The Danger in “I Need You So I Don’t Feel Lonely”

When we are submerged in everyday life, we can’t help but have expectations for normal human interaction. We want our best friend to call us and ask us about our day. We want our boss to comment on the superior job we did with that last product launch. We want our ex boyfriend to send a letter saying he misses our laugh. We want to and need to be externally validated.

We also deal with rejection. We reach out to a friend excited to share news of a promotion and they can’t talk. We text a guy we went on three dates with and he doesn’t respond for four hours. We walk by strangers, smile, say hello, and they ignore us. We want to and need to feel seen.

Sometimes life makes us feel invalidated and invisible. This is based on a set of expectations we have for how things are supposed to go and how others are supposed to treat us. That’s not how it works. Tying our self worth to things outside ourselves is dangerous for many reasons, one of which is the disintegration of community in society. We have to be okay being alone to stay grounded during those times when we are feeling especially lonely. We must trust that the wave of emotion will pass and our wholeness will return, appreciating the natural division of self and others.

You are Not Alone: Resetting the Connection to Self

The one place I have found to reset this connection to self is nature. While backpacking alone, I am inevitably reunited with my innate power by doing, not thinking. Through action, I regain appreciation for who I am and rekindle the relationship with self that I had been neglecting in pursuit of other, external relationships. In those times when I am inclined to need something outside of myself, it isn’t accessible. This reality can be scary at first, but then it begins to build a layer of unshakable trust in myself. I can get through anything and I can get through anything by relying solely on myself.

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While backpacking in Olympic National Park, I had my first bear encounter. In my trail journal I wrote, ”

“Hard as hell day of climbing. Thought I would never reach Hoh Lake. Expected to see people after being alone, hiking in on an overgrown cut-over trail all day. Arrived at this beautiful mountain lake and the camp was deserted, only me. Oh shit! I accepted the fact that I might be alone and then pow, as I am getting water, a bear. I moved away, yelled, and fiercely banged two rocks together. He went away. I shook for ten minutes. I watched him slowly circle the lake, then disappear. Shit got real. The lake, camp, views, water (full skinny dipping bath), and setting are absolutely breathtaking. I am brave and resilient. I will make it to tomorrow.”

I am reading this and comparing it to everyday life and how I might have responded differently to a trying situation. First of all, I saw the positive in the experience and my surroundings regardless of my fear. The beauty I saw all around me was exaggerated because of my solitude. Their was a rawness to my response to stimuli, almost super-powered by the stillness of everything else around me.

I allowed myself to feel scared for ten minutes, then I had to regroup and accept my reality, accept that I was alone. Finally, I complimented myself for being brave and resilient and trusted in my own tomorrow. For anyone that has issues staying connected to self and maintaining a positive self perception, this is quite profound. Without effort, I became my best self. Through action, I was everything I wanted and needed to be.

When I come out of the woods with this mind-set, my aura is glowing as bright as the northern lights. It can easily be diminished if I allow the impacts of everyday life to start weighing on my trail persona. I try to take what I learned on the trail, off the trail, and into my toolbox of ways to deal with unpleasant everyday realities. If I feel bewildered, I try to visualize how I was on the trail and how I would have handled the situation. I am reconnected to my best self and I have trust that I can make it through anything alone.

Here are a few of the kick-ass character traits that are acquired on the trail:

  • self-reliance;
  • bravery and resilience;
  • intuition;
  • ability to be your own best friend and companion;
  • ability to be one with your thoughts and learn to let them flow through you, understanding the temporary nature of situations;
  • ability to accurately weigh experiences in terms of level of threat and respond accordingly;
  • ability to see the positive in all situations.

We are living in a world that can feel isolating. At times, curling up with a friend to watch a movie is what you need. Other times, when loneliness begins to settle deep into your core, it helps to find ways to reconnect to yourself. Many of my friends experience cycles of being very close to people and when that interaction dwindles, the hollowing in their core is excruciatingly painful. The first inclination is always to seek others first. Sometimes it’s best to nurture the relationship you have with you and look at your ability to be alone, but not lonely. Who is this person? You need to get back to her. Maybe you’ll be like me and find her on the trail.