The ride through the tunnel

I’ve been thinking about the concept of vulnerability, a topic difficult to navigate unless you’ve studied Brene Brown. She blessed the Ted stage 6 years ago and opened up about their life. She spoke about the power of vulnerability, it’s relation to shame, and how we can work to be authentic in our lives. She also wrote Daring Greatly,  a book I revisit once a year. Learning about vulnerability from Brene was the first time I thought about the topic through an educational lens. This education almost immediately supported my life.  

I was recommended a podcast she started recently. One of the gazillion podcasts out right now. I mean if you don’t have a podcast then what are you doing? By the way, feel free to find ours here

In one of her recent episodes, she spoke about the concept of an “emotional tunnel”. The idea is that every emotion goes through a tunnel. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Each negative emotion and feeling brings you into a tunnel. While you’re in the tunnel, it is quite dark, and you may not be sure how long it will last. This idea resonated with me given a few of my own recent experiences. 

Sleepless in San Francisco 
I’ve grown up having difficulties falling asleep. This worsened near the end of college and into my first year of work. I remember one week where I couldn’t fall asleep for three whole days. Three days with maybe an hour of sleep. It was my first week on a new team. A great headspace to be in to make first impressions. I would go to work, try to function, and come home exhausted. I tried all the nighttime routines I could to help me fall asleep. Melatonin, meditation, working out, and warm tea. You name it, I tried it.

Each day that slipped passed I felt my mental health slipping away. It felt as though I was losing control over my thoughts and emotions. It’s because I was. Days without sleep clearly impacts the executive functioning region of your brain. I was deep in this emotional tunnel, I had no idea how long it will last, and honestly thought it may never end. 

Brene’s ideas articulated subconsciousness thoughts I’ve had myself; which has allowed me to work through my own difficult emotions in the past. The following questions help me think through these responses and remind me that I’ll get through the tunnel, despite how many days I’ve been awake.

How do you know it’s a tunnel?
In fearful and anxious situations you feel like that emotion will never leave. Because you think it will stay, it stays. This was the loop I was stuck in during those days without sleep. I would not sleep, wake up the next day and be anxious about not falling asleep. I would then be so anxious about not sleeping that I would not sleep that night. This repeated itself for days.

There are a few things wrong with this. The first is that the feeling will pass. Obviously. Why is it obvious? Because you’ve been through something like this before. You’re forgetting that time earlier in on the drive when you went through another tunnel. That other time a few months ago when you couldn’t fall asleep. You were really anxious that time too. You thought that you’d never get through it, but you did. Let’s remember that when we’re entering into a tunnel in the future. You’ve worried about it not passing before and it did. And the next time you get through a tunnel, note that for future trips. It will give you more confidence you’ll be able to work through it.

How long will the tunnel last?
You now know its a tunnel and you won’t feel the negative emotion forever. But how long will it last? Think through the concept of distress tolerance:

“Distress tolerance refers to an individual’s perceived capacity to withstand negative emotional and/or other aversive states (e.g. physical discomfort).” – Source.

Researchers found that folks that were more likely to be content in ambiguous situations had higher levels of life satisfaction. Therefore relax and enjoy the ride  Realize it may be a while, or it could go quick. Being okay with that ambiguity is important. You’ll have to fall asleep eventually. 

How bad is this tunnel really?
It’s helpful to think through what is the worst that could happen with what you’re going through. How bad will this tunnel be? Envision this in detail. Would it be the end of your life? What would be the permanent impact, if any, on a scale of 1 to 10? Are these feelings really permanent? How likely do you think it is that they would actually happen? What steps could you take to repair the damage or get things back on the upswing, even if temporarily? Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control? You’ll realize by doing this exercise that a.) you can work back from the worst possible situations and b.) the probability of that situation happening is low.

In my insomniac episode, this is where I was finally able to overcome this anxiety and fall asleep. I started to think through what the worst possibility would be. Well, I would probably pass out of exhaustion at some point, right? Maybe I’ll have physical or mental damage given I wasn’t able to fully rest. Meh, I feel like other human beings have gone through worse situations in the past. I think I’ll be okay.

Think through this framework next time you’re overwhelmed by an emotional response. They will come, that is guaranteed. But you can work through them. You’ve done it before.

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