“We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” ―
I think one of the best things I ever did for my emotional health was create a “comfort” playlist. It consists of all these emotionally sad songs that make me feel like I can cry as much as I need to. It is essentially my crying playlist. I also have movies that are for this purpose, but the playlist seems to be more effective and efficient. My old roommate thought it was the most depressing thing I ever created, and never understood why I liked to be sad. She has always been a person who pushes all sad feelings aside so that she can be happy.
I, on the other hand, enjoy sadness. Not in a depressing way, but in a cathartic one. Tanya Harell explains in her article, “16 Examples of Catharsis Psychology,” that the word catharsis “comes from the Greek word "katharsis," which refers to purification or cleansing. When used by modern psychologists, catharsis means discharging negative emotions to relieve intense anxiety, stress, anger, or fear.” That’s exactly what happens when I listen to my crying playlist whenever I am sad. I feel like I can release all the bad emotions and ultimately, as the official title of my playlist suggests, feel comforted.
When you feel broken, sad, traumatized, helpless, depressed, or are in any other kind of emotional pain, there are natural stages we go through to deal with these feelings and our situation. In order to overcome these obstacles feeling stronger than before, I’ve found there is definitely a process that needs to be had. When I’m in an emotionally strong mindset, I can process, move forward, and heal. This is my ability to self-heal, and I’d like to share my process.
My process of healing may not look like yours, and I only hope it can be a guide and not a strict set of stages to follow. Like most everyone, when I experience a hardship, I often immediately respond by shutting down, if only temporarily. In Ellen McGrath’s article, “Recovering from Trauma,” she explains there are four stages of trauma, and the first is called “circuit-breaking.” This is usually the first moments of distress (or even when reliving a traumatic memory). She says, “Intellectually, you lose from 50 to 90 percent of brain capacity, which is why you should never make a decision when you're "in the trauma zone." Emotionally you don't feel anything.” Our brain basically gets so worked up that it shuts down and is unable to cope. If we’re looking at the five stages of grief, this could also be the denial and isolation stage.
Healing means moving forward, so it is incredibly unhealthy to stay in this stage. Numbness and an inability to let yourself feel pain is not strength. It’s the opposite. A person who can self-heal is a person who can get to stage two, which is “the return of feelings.” I personally think this is the most important part of healing. This is where we wrestle with the anger and depression part of the stages of grief. In this stage, I think of my mom’s words, “The only thing feelings can do is get out.” McGrath says that during this stage, people “need to talk talk talk, recount the gory details. That is the means by which they begin to dispel the feelings of distress attached to their memories.”
I am such a good self-healer that I have the ability to get over things quickly, not because I ignore my feelings and believe I’m over it (like most people do), but because I’ve mastered the process. A crucial part for me is to let myself be sad when I am sad. Often times this looks like setting aside time to be really really sad. If I have important obligations that I can’t disrupt, then I make time in my schedule to have a good cry by listening to my playlist or watching a depressing movie. “The more that feelings can be encouraged, the better. The more you feel the more you heal,” says McGrath.
For me, this often takes the form of crying, writing, and talking incessantly about it. When I don’t let myself do either of these things, I stay an emotional wreck until the feelings come out. I know plenty of people who are afraid to dive into pain. They want to keep it at a distance instead. Healing doesn’t happen that way. When I’m sad, I know I have to not only sit in it for a while, but really dive into it. I have to explore the depths of my sadness until I reach the bottom. Think of it like this – all the reasons for your sadness are buried, some deep and others not so deep. You have to keep digging and digging until you uncover all the sad things you have buried. If you don’t dig deep enough, those sad things will stay buried there.
Of course, there are plenty of situations where facing these feelings too soon can also be detrimental. Each person has to face their pain when they are ready. If you aren’t ready to dig deep yet, then don’t do it. But don’t put it off forever either. Dealing with pain and trauma is deeply personal. Everyone has to do it in their own way and at their own pace.
Research has also shown that not everyone needs to cry to deal with their pain, though it is often the most cathartic way. Harell provides a list of ways that people can release their negative emotions. Mine, as mentioned, are crying, talking, and writing. Just as legitimate are creating art, volunteering, humor, and exercise to name a few. You can view Harell’s full list here. However it happens, negative feelings have to find a way to come out in a healthy way.
It’s important to note the difference between sadness and depression. Robin DeePost, Ph.D. says, ““Mood disruption for two weeks or longer,” is one diagnostic criteria for depression… The key is whether or not that sadness is paired with other factors of depression—loss of energy, trouble concentrating or making decisions, difficulty sleeping, disruption in eating patterns, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or thoughts of self-harm.” If you are depressed, the best thing to do is seek professional help. If it’s necessary sadness that will pass, then it’s something that is manageable on your own and with the help of loved ones.
The next step, stage three is “constructive action.” McGrath says, “Taking action restores a sense of control and directly counteracts the sense of powerlessness that is the identifying mark of trauma.” This stage is a sign of healing, because it means you’ve moved past just despairing. The best example I can think of for this stage happened while I was living with my uncle. One time, he had said something really hurtful that sent me spiraling into self-doubt, self-loathing, and all the other self-bad things. I went to take a shower and was miserable. I cried long and hard. Negative thoughts kept repeating in my head, that maybe my uncle was right. Maybe was I lazy, selfish, and then more thoughts of my own popped in like that I was worthless too. This was stage two.
When I had finished crying, I let the shower clean my face. Then I got out, got changed, and marched right back to my uncle. I told him to tell me something nice. He didn’t want to at first. I demanded that he tell me something nice. I said I know all of the negative things he thinks of me, but I wanted to know something positive he thought of me. When he had listed two things half-heartedly, I made him give me a hug (he’s a very unaffectionate person). When he hugged me, I didn’t let go. I told him I loved him and then listed good things about him. After that I let go and felt better. This was stage three.
Constructive action is doing something good for yourself or others to counteract the negative emotions. It is often propelled by the negative emotions.
Finally, stage four is “reintegration,” or acceptance. You can’t get to this stage without going through the other three first, because the whole concept behind it is that you’ve learned something from your grief. McGrath says, “People at this stage may experience a new sense of the preciousness of life, a clarification of goals and renewed commitment to them, and new understanding of the value of ties to others.”
McGrath says, “Depression and trauma are disconnective disorders. They do not improve in isolation. To fix them you have to be connected to others.” You need other people to help you, and as contradictory sounding as this is, you also can’t self-heal without others. Other people can’t fix you, but having someone who cares is a good place to start.
To sum up, be sad, don’t stay there. Make a plan, follow through. Find meaning in your pain. Most importantly, don’t go through it alone.