Tools for emotional integration

There are two typical challenges related to emotions that people on the spectrum often face, sometimes without realising that this is what it is (I didn’t for a long time).

One challenge is what they call alexithymia – having no clue, or at least not being able to articulate, how you feel emotionally (“How do you feel?” –> “Cold / hungry / tired / dunno”). This naturally leads to many limitations both in taking care of your own emotional needs (since you might not even realise you have them; I had no functioning concepts of “emotional needs” until in my late 20s) and in relating to other people (as it’s hard to recognise, respect &/or respond to their needs and your own at the same time if you don’t have a rough working model of either ).

The second challenge is emotional outbursts (they come as explosions or implosions) – emotions often/only showing up in their most extreme forms: not as mild irritation but as rage (that leads to a meltdown); not as soft melancholy, but as despair (that leads to a meltdown); not as cautiousness and instinct but as panic (that leads to a panic attack); not as contented, grounded joy but (in some cases) as excitement that is so intense that it goes into a loop and deregulates our system (un-grounds us and brings an exhausted “hangover” afterwards).

In some cases being around other people’s emotions can have the same effect, as when meeting a sad friend and then falling into despair ourselves.

Btw. I don’t think intense emotions are bad; they can bring both colour and in some ways wisdom to life. But they can also be destabilising and exhausting when any-thing (or even no apparent thing) seems to bring them on all the time.

Both “not-enough” and “too much” emotion can cause problems in relating to others, and sometimes in steering our life in general (since emotions contain a lot of information about our authentic needs).

If you pull the lucky card, you can score on both – a general lack of awareness of emotions, with the intermittent destabilising emotional explosion. I enjoyed this from my teens through to my late 20s.

If you have similar difficulties, the “clue” might be that it’s related: the lack of awareness is part of what leads to the extreme intensity (the other ingredients are natural/inherited sensitivity and life circumstances – extreme emotions can be called for when you need this massive push of energy to shift something in life).

That’s the part you can work on, through quite simple methods such as learning to recognise and name your emotions in their intense and gradually also in their “seed” states. That’s because they usually grow gradually and often get “loud” only when overlooked for long enough (though there are exceptions – situations which need an intense response, and post-traumatic reactions). Research (Lisa Barrett’s work) shows that just naming helps.

Karla McLaren’s work *, which I use a lot, provides a further step: learning rules of thumb for what each emotion (she has 17 in her system) usually alerts you to and what it is trying to motivate you to do (to pretend it’s a little creature with its own will).

It’s a bit like learning to distinguish hunger and thirst: one tries to make you eat, the other drink – and once you’ve done the correct thing, the sensation subsides. Emotions work in a similar (but slightly more complex 😉 way.

On this approach even “negative” emotions are usually trying to motivate you to carry out actions that are beneficial for you in the long run. We usually aren’t trained to read them in that way, but that kind of training can be caught up on as an adult and for me has been a major life tool.

With generic advice like “just feel your feelings” (argh!) or “breathe and let it go” etc. I never had a clue as to what that means, or what I am concretely supposed to do. Discussing at least 17 specific emotions and the actions that will “satisfy” them and make them recede is infinitely more useful. And since emotions usually build up gradually (but we aren’t trained to pay attention), we can also learn to notice and at times take useful actions before the emotion reaches an intense level unnecessarily. (Again, I don’t think intense emotions are bad; it’s just too much when you have them all the time about everything.)

The second tool I found helpful in dealing with “too much / little” emotion is a somatic meditation style, Vipassana (there are many variations of it, I’m not attached to the particular technique). While this one doesn’t tell you what to do with emotions, it can be helpful if your emotions always come at an intensity that is hard to tolerate (just floods your system & makes you unable to work with any of the approaches above) – or if you never notice any emotions the first place. In the first case it can help to provide a steady, safe “island” from which you can observe what is happening even when it seems too much. In the second case, you can learn to notice and work with emotions via how they feel in your body.

Learning what emotions are for and reading their messages is useful for any person, but I find that it is absolutely crucial in the context of mental health, and can be especially helpful for the “typical” spectrum difficulties around emotional regulation and relating to others.

* Credit: Almost all I say about emotions goes with credit to Karla McLaren and the team at Dynamic Emotional Integration and Empathy Academy (despite the mildly cheesy name, this is by far the most intelligent, thorough and effective emotional skills program I have found, and I did look). I highly recommend reading The Language of Emotions, or if you like videos, check out Karla’s youtube channel.

Published by Supertramp

Genderqueer neuro-philosopher turned multicultural nomad then inner-space traveler. Blogs about neuro & gender diversity, complex trauma recovery, and other existential themes of the human condition.

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