Before we can look into ways to regulate difficult emotions, we need to know what it is we are trying to regulate. Numbing is a common way of coping for trauma patients.
When I first entered the mental health system I was unable to sense my emotions. My face was a mask that never moved. I was sure that I didn’t feel anything.
But my body said something different. The chemical reactions of emotions happened to me, even when I was unable to feel the feeling.
Figuring out my emotions felt like detective work. But I needed to find the emotion so that I could regulate myself properly. Without this there was no way to stop the dissociation.
Here are the detectives questions to figure out the feeling:
- intensity of the feeling? (on a scale of 0-100)
- trigger? (who, when, where, what?)
- interpretation of the trigger? (first thought?)
- body sensation/ physical change? (what do I sense in my body?)
- body language (facial expression, gestures, posture?)
- Impulse for action (what do I want to do/say?)
- action (what did I do/say?)
- consequences of the emotion (well-being, other feelings, behavior, thoughts, memory, body…)
[yes, these are taken from DBT, works perfectly well for PTSD and dissociation, even without having BPD]
It is ok not to be able to tell the intensity of the feeling at first. These questions are created to be asked over and over again. With time you will find it easier to measure them.
Knowing a trigger for your un-identified feelings can help. You can ask yourself what others would feel in this situation. That way you can narrow down the possibilities, using logic.
Thoughts and emotions are closely connected. One influences the other. Your thoughts might give you really good clues on what the emotions might be. If you think „that guy looks creepy“ you might feel scared.
Maybe you have come across charts that show emotions as different colors in different body parts. (We don’t own any rights, just google images for „emotions in the body“) Emotions, even when you don’t sense them, change the way your body feels. You might be able to locate some of the feeling in your head, chest, belly etc. you might blush or sweat or pull your shoulders up to your ears. Your own body sensation and the observation of your body language can give you wonderful clues to find the emotion.
Asking yourself about the impulse for action you felt, is another valuable key. Run or hide? Hit someone? Cuddle with a blanket? This will still help you when you have not only numbed your emotions but also your body sensation.
Your actions might or might not align with your impulses. It might lead to interesting questions if not. Maybe there is something you want to change in the future.
Consequences show you how an emotions might have changed the whole direction you are going. Understanding where you are heading now might also give you a clue.
With practice it might be enough to just look at the body sensation or impulse for action. When you first start to explore, doing the whole list of questions gives you more pieces to the puzzle, the picture gets clearer.
If you have DID and your detective work is inconclusive and confusing, try to do it with each one of you separately. Sometimes parts can feel very differently about the same situation and one set of questions will not be enough for you. Your thoughts and impulses might give you better information than your body sensation.
To re-connect with your feelings it is necessary to ask yourself these questions over and over again, ideally in different situations over the day, so you can develop a sense of how different emotions feel like. You could set an alarm and always check in with yourself at specific times.
Asking these questions is especially important after there was a situation with unidentified feelings that got out of control.
Attention: only do your detective work when you are safely within your window of tolerance again! Looking into a feeling while you are still in hyper/hypoarousal will make it worse! Regulate your arousal levels first.
Here is a list of different emotions you might feel. Improve your vocabulary:
This list doesn’t include you feeling stupid, ugly, ok or successful. That is because these are not feelings, but thoughts and evaluations. If you can replace the „I feel“ with an „I think“ you are probably dealing with a thought, not a feeling. Changing your evaluation of a situation can easily change your feelings about it.
The list also doesn’t include you feeling misunderstood or rejected, disrespected or overlooked. That is because these are also not feelings. They are assumptions about how other people relate to you. Behind your thought that someone is rejecting you, you might feel sadness or shame. Thoughts about others are especially tricky because they can trigger very strong emotions while we are just guessing what is going on inside of someone else. We might misinterpret the whole situation.
You cannot regulate your thoughts. You can only change them and think something else. Trying to regulate thoughts using tools to regulate emotions doesn’t work. You are using the wrong tools. Practice identifying what is a thought and what is an emotion. It will save you a lot of trouble.