As the Center for Cognitive Therapy continues to support members of our community during a time of uncertainty and transition, we are happy to provide you with the second of a series of articles that highlights some of the most significant mental health trends and challenges our clinicians have observed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with their recommendations and suggested resources.
The Issue: Getting “stuck” using the same defenses against our feelings
Dr. Greta Carlson is no stranger to strong and complicated feelings in her therapy office. As a trauma specialist, she has worked with adolescents, adults, and families struggling with a wide range of crises and losses well before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred. When asked about what she has noticed in her work since the pandemic unfolded and as our community attempts to shift back
to some semblance of normalcy, she identifies an increase in behaviors and habits that serve as emotional defenses.
Dr. Carlson elaborates: “People often develop defenses, or protective barriers, against our feelings if we learn through past traumatic experiences that it is unsafe to be connected to our bodies. Individuals may avoid their genuine but difficult feelings about traumas or losses over the past few years through avoidant or distractive behaviors, such as overworking, impulsive use of social
media, withdrawing from others, or excessive use of food, drink, or substances.
These behaviors can create temporary comfort and distract us from emotions that are painful to feel in the moment, but ultimately, they serve to distance ourselves from our bodily sensations, and thus, our feelings.”
So are psychological defenses bad? Dr. Carlson clarifies: “Absolutely not. Defense mechanisms are present in all of us, and are our subconscious’ way of attempting – often successfully, at least on some level – to protect us. However, defenses become a problem when they interfere with our holistic wellness.”
The Recommendation: Allow yourself to feel your emotions
Though Dr. Carlson acknowledges that allowing oneself to feel painful or
uncomfortable emotions is easier said than done, she emphasizes that coming to
understand and know one’s feelings is an essential part of wellness and getting
to the root of unhealthy or destructive behaviors and habits. “Feelings aren’t
dangerous, although sometimes it can seem as though they are.” Her advice:
“When you notice you are falling back on old patterns of repetitive, unhealthy
behaviors, pause and check in with yourself, like you would with a friend who is
going through a rough patch.”
Sometimes, she notes, it is necessary to gain insight into one’s emotions slowly when they feel confusing or difficult to verbalize: “A person can have so many mixed and layered feelings around one topic or event that they feel overwhelmed with just a vague feeling of ‘badness’ or dissatisfaction. At times like these, using a support tool like a colorful feelings wheel to label a range of emotions can be
helpful. Art can be used to illustrate how your feelings might look. If it is too difficult to start expressing your inner experiences in emotion-based words, you may start by asking yourself, ‘What do I feel in my body in this moment? What sensations am I experiencing?’”
Dr. Carlson adds that it is important to allow for the likely possibility that when individuals begin to become aware of their psychological defenses, they will recognize multiple emotions at once, and some of those emotions may be easier to access and name out loud than others. Dr. Carlson gives the following example: “Social anxiety surged as communities began to come out of quarantine. Depending on the acuity of their anxiety, a socially nervous person may have looked for many reasons to withdraw or refrain from returning to in-
person get-togethers. Staying in isolation and cancelling meetings or outings may have resulted in temporary relief, but this person may also have noticed increased negative feelings over time. A therapist would want to explore how that person’s withdrawal may cover up a multitude of feelings: fear of social rejection, shame in their excuses, or grief over an uncertain and ever-changing world.”
Dr. Carlson asserts that doing the internal work to get “unstuck” from defensive or harmful habits and exploring their underlying emotional roots leads to catharsis and clarity: “Once you’ve named the feelings hiding behind defenses, you can make a more informed choice about how to soothe and address them in a more flexible manner. Using a journal to put written words to your feelings, tracking emotions on a mood-tracker application, or even simply stating your emotional thoughts out loud can bring insight and a healthy sense of emotional
release. Maybe you’ll notice how sharing and expressing true feelings can bring you closer to loved ones or offer you a sense of relief from tremendous pressure. Or perhaps you’ll observe how expressing your feelings creatively in art can help you to reach new ideas about yourself and the world around you. Possibilities can expand once we break out of the behavior patterns that act as a protective barrier against our feelings.”
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