The A in HALT: Emotions and wellbeing

Anger/Anxiety are emotional states, awareness of which is of great importance when it comes to feeling and functioning at our best. Our in-house Counselling Psychologist and self-care guru, Dr Annie Campbell has provided us with some great insights and advice on the subject of emotions and wellbeing…

When anxiety is keeping us awake at night, or anger is distracting us, the problem is not that the emotion was triggered, but that many of us were not taught to acknowledge, accept and understand such emotions. Our brain continues to send the same signal until we notice and respond to what is perceived as a very important message.

If it’s ignored, the signal keeps being sent, like a fire alarm ringing continually… getting louder and louder! However, if we can take a few seconds to observe our reaction this gives us the opportunity to react more skilfully, leading to a better chance that the signal can be toned down.

Whilst emotions can be intense, intrusive and at times confusing, they all serve a purpose - primarily related to our survival, however the associated stress hormones can temporarily ‘hi-jack’ our brain. We tend to label our strong survival emotions (fight/flight or freeze), as ‘negative’ because they often appear at times of stress, when demands on our attention are high and focus is required and this can feel overwhelming.

Although the physiology of anxiety and anger is universal, the feelings each of us experience vary hugely. Getting to know ourselves better and how to notice our own individual response to these powerful emotions enables us to deal with them more effectively. We can’t switch them off as they are triggered out of conscious awareness; something which has been crucial for our survival as a species as it has enabled us to react immediately to ‘danger’. However, the part of our brain responsible for controlling emotions, the amygdala, is a primitive piece of kit and it responds to many perceived ‘threats’ throughout the day, the result of which can seem anything but helpful! With chronic stress this response gets stuck ‘on’ instead of switching on and off, as nature intended. We can learn to pull this unconscious process into consciousness by checking in with ourselves from time to time. Notice your own markers of anxiety or anger – e.g. tightness in your chest/short of breath/butterflies in stomach/nausea/inability to concentrate etc. Taking a break or even a brief pause gives an opportunity to check in and recognise these signs.

Once we have some awareness of anxiety or anger being present, we have a choice about how we respond. Judgemental thoughts actually pour more stress hormones into our system and further hi-jack our ability to focus. If, however, we attend with interest we have the opportunity to learn and move forward. Notice your inner dialogue (it’s going on inside everyone!) – do you tend to respond with blame or with a desire to understand? “I shouldn’t have done that, I’m so stupid” or “I wonder what might have led to me doing that and what might help avoid it in the future?”.

Demands, especially past-based that are impossible to meet, are de-motivating and increase feelings of frustration/anger whereas a desire to learn and move forward is constructive and calms down the stress response. You can then take a few slightly slower more rhythmic breaths to send a message to your primitive, though well-meaning, amygdala that the ‘danger’ has passed, and it’s safe to focus on the task in hand.

Taking a break, recognising your emotional needs and following these steps helps you to decide if you are responding to a past event, to a feared possibility in the future, or if you actually need to do something right now.

Annie is our Compassion Advocate at VetLed. Annie is a Chartered Psychologist and in addition to providing counselling and one to one coaching, she runs workshops in areas such as assertiveness. communication skills and understanding emotions.