Establishing Emotional Stability

Emotional stability is an important element of being a parent. Single parents feel added pressure to be in a strong healthy place for their kids, but circumstances often make that even more difficult. Overall, in the U.S., more people are struggling with anxiety and depression, both kids and adults. Dr. John Delony is a bestselling author and mental health expert with two PhDs. and over two decades of experiencing and counseling and his own show, The Dr. John Delony show.

Dr. Delony shares his perspective on why emotional instability is so widespread in our culture.
“We live in a highly traumatized culture without the innate coping mechanisms that we're supposed to have.” He shares that many of us have experienced a lot of death and sadness as did people in centuries past. The difference now is that we no longer have homes full of grandparents and cousins or close communities of neighbors and other people. “Increasingly over the last 50 years, we've created a world for ourselves that our bodies aren't designed to inhabit.”

The result is that any trauma or loss we feel isn’t experienced in connection with others. Instead, we have the TV, an iPad, or phone. “Our bodies are being shaken and rattled and there's no one else, no other person in our world, to stop to do the little things like touch, like checking in, or making eye contact. It's holding somebody's hand.” Instead of having regular care from a community of people around us, our mental health suffers. “And then”, Dr. Delony says, “we medicalize. We give a kid a series of labels, or we give an adult a series of labels. Here’s what you have. Here's the tag, here's the label. And here's the prescription.” We have developed this emotional reactivity and “it's hard to put that genie back in the bottle.”

Single parents are dealing with a lot of emotional trauma, like failed marriages, shame, and guilt, maybe death of a spouse, maybe an unplanned pregnancy.

But then you add the day-to-day pressures of trying to hold it all together on your own, trying to seem strong, and it can get in the way of feeling whole, because you still have to show up for your kids and for life and for work. It’s difficult to establish emotional stability when we feel emotionally bankrupt and broken.

Is it possible to have an optimistic viewpoint when things seem to be falling apart?
Many of us have felt the strain of instability and uncertainty the last couple of years. Dr. Delony says, “Amos Tversky's, the famous psychologist says that being pessimistic is dumb. It's stupid because if what you're worried about comes true, you've actually experienced it twice. Once when you're dramatizing it and once when it actually happens. Often our worry about something I ruminate about creates a snowball rolling downhill that actually confirms what we're worried about.” When we ruminate or focus on negative possibilities, without realizing it we unintentionally create circumstances that allow the outcome we are focused on to become reality. We may be afraid someone is not really fully invested in us, so we pull away and suddenly there is distance between us, exactly what we were worried about.

So, first, says Dr. Delony, “Don’t ruminate. It’s a complete waste of time and solves nothing.”
Second, “Learn to be optimistic.” Dr. Delony shares, “The number one psychological finding of last hundred years is Martin Seligman's work on optimism, and, ultimately, that optimism is a learned behavior.” We used to think that people were just born that way. But that isn’t the case. Optimism is a skill you can develop.

In our culture now, sarcasm and pessimism come across as wisdom and optimism can be seen as wishful thinking or naivete. We’ve come to a place when a coworker is asked how things are going and they say, “My kids are healthy and the air conditioner works and things are good”, we think they’re crazy instead of recognizing we have a choice in how we experience our lives.

What we know now is that pessimism is a learned behavior and so is optimism. “Optimism is a choice”, he continues, “but it's something that you practice”. Character and learning don’t happen overnight. It’s a series of practices. Dr. Delony shares that in our culture, we have lost the value of practicing. “You either did it, or you lost.” He says, “I'm trying to add back into our cultural vocabulary, the word “practice”, I'm going to practice.”

Learning to be optimistic is a series of practices that include changing our thoughts and our actions.  Those things work together. You have to do them both. Dr. Delony says, “Some days I don't feel like being nice to my wife and kids and my feelings don't get to vote on those days. I'm going to empty the trash. I'm going to do the dishes too. And then other days I really feel all mushy gushy and in love.” The key is to practice over time what it looks like to be optimistic, to think the best of others and of circumstances and to not worry or ruminate.

When you do start to ruminate or be pessimistic, your body starts pulsing with cortisol and adrenaline, ready to either run or to fight. Instead of coping with those feelings in unhealthy ways, Dr. Delony, says we have to stop them right there. When he notices things going downhill, he says, “I'll go, Nope. I'm not going to follow this rabbit trail. I'm not.” So that means for the next half hour he is not going to pick up YouTube or his phone. Instead, he hangs out with his kids. He remembers, “I'm alive.”  

Sometimes we say that people who look at life positively aren't realistic but looking at things negatively isn’t necessarily realistic either. The difference is optimism can lead us to greater emotional stability whereas pessimism can lead us to anxiety. What’s frightening about that, Dr. Delony adds, is that “You can get addicted to the cortisone, the adrenaline, for lack of better terms, the fight or flight camp. You can get addicted to anxiety which is full of all kinds of biochemical processes.”

Sometimes, we want an easy answer thinking, “If my circumstances were better, than I would be more stable”. But ultimately, Delony shares, it's a choice. There are practical things we can do to establish calm when anxiety feels overwhelming.

When we are anxious, we can choose to blame other people, or we can find coping strategies that will help. Dr. Delony shares one of his is a small journal. He uses it to put his thoughts and feelings on paper to get them out of his body and be able to look at them at arm’s length. He asks himself, “Is this true?” Putting those experiences into words helps him move them from the limbic fight or flight system in the brain into the frontal lobe thinking part of our brain. When we do that, we aren’t trapped in a trauma response. Writing stuff down helps us process events so we don’t stay stuck in an anxious response.

We can also learn to recognize how we start to feel before we are triggered. We can become more in tune with our bodies and what starts to happen when we are stressed. When we notice, we are starting to feel anxious, sad, or overwhelmed, we can start to own it, then grieve it as needed, and sit in it for a minute. This helps us switch from reaction to response. Once our bodies know we are back in the driver’s seat, we can turn that trauma response off. It’s not easy but with practice we can find ourselves less reactive and more responsive.

Sometimes though even our best response isn’t enough. There will still be things in our lives we can’t control. Dr. Delony shares two things we can do to help us tolerate hard or scary things that happen. First, we need to own our reality. We need to take ownership of that is happening in our lives. Second, we need to realize that we will encounter things that feel like a sucker punch, and we need to learn better ways to take a punch.

He shares the analogy of boxers who know how to reduce the impact of a punch. They know if you take the full impact of a punch with just your face, you get knocked down but if you let your whole body absorb it and by moving with it, some of the force goes through your feet. It hurts but it won’t make you unconscious. We can’t control the punches, but we can control how we respond to them.

So, if you’re in a stressful situation, recognize what you need to do to mediate the impact. Let’s say there’s an important conversation you need to have but you’re not in the mood to talk. Don’t take the call. Text back and suggest a different time to  talk. Or let’s say you see a letter from an attorney that you know may be upsetting. Decide if today is the right day to open it or if you might need to call a friend over to open it with you.

Having people in your life that can walk with you as you encounter difficult things is essential. There will be stuff we can’t control happening all around us. We can’t control that, but we can own the reality of what is taking place and we can decide how we will respond.  
This is all part of finding and maintaining emotional stability under stress.

How else can we find our inner strength and autonomy?
Dr. Delony shares that sometimes the greatest inner strength you can have is a routine that you follow, like going for a walk, putting your phone away when your kids come home from school. We don’t walk into the gym on the first day and say, “Where's my strength?” “That's not how strength works”, he continues. “You just keep showing up to the gym and then you look back and four months or five months or a year, and you're stronger than you were. Your wrist is kind of sore and your elbow hurts, but you're stronger than you were.

Trainers will tell you, “Whatever you do, just do it consistently.” It doesn’t matter what it is. Just do something every day and you will slowly get in better shape. Too often, we beat ourselves up, get discouraged, and give up. This is why when it comes to emotional stability, we must get comfortable with the word practice. We need to lean into practicing not being reactive when things are falling apart around us.

We will all face sucker punches, conflict, and unwanted letters in the mail. Single parents are often faced with situations that are beyond their control. They also face circumstances they may have contributed to, so they feel shame about their part in things, like how their relationship ended or their own choices that were hurtful or damaging. As a result, they often experience emotionally charged situations especially related to their kids.

So, what can we do to be in a more stable state of mind when the emotions feel so big?
Dr. Delony shares two things can help you find your logical center again.
1) Do something to move your body. Go outside, talk a short walk, do some yard work, go to the gym.
2) Learn how to disassociate. Recognize the times when you need to show up emotionally for the people and things in your life that matter most but also recognize times when you just going to smile politely, do what is required of you and then move on.

It may be when you go to hand off your kids to their other parent. Be present for your kids before. Show up emotionally, hug them, say goodbye, and then smile and hand them off. You can break down in the car and cry the whole way home if you need to. And that’s okay, says Delony.  “It sounds so counterintuitive because from a psychological standpoint, I feel like the message is to be present, be fully there” but you need to be able to detach too. There are times when it's healthy, especially in transitional and difficult seasons, where you need to stop compounding trauma. You may find yourself up against a wall in a position you cannot get out of and “that's the moment when you grind it and ride”, says Dr. Delony. You remind yourself not to do or “say something stupid”. You tell yourself, “I'm going to survive that. I'm going to be as dignified as I can and I'm going to get up. I'm going to go to the next thing.” There are times we need to learn to detach emotionally in healthy ways as part of the skills we need in tough seasons. If we find ourselves unstable and reactive, and unable to do that, we need to make time to go talk to somebody and get support and work on ways to increase emotional intelligence to get through that season.

We need support from other people during difficult times. Delony says, “There is no long-term healing, no long-term behavior change without other people, period. The greatest myth that we've put on ourselves in this culture is you can do this by yourself. You must have meaningful connection with others, or you will “die young…or die miserably and in pain, either from addiction or suicide or organization's failure. And you're going to take down the people who love you too.” Without connection, we will seek out any kind of cheap chemical substitute like alcohol and sex, he continues.

We need connection and we need balance in how we respond when we are facing hard circumstances and painful feelings. “Ultimately, over the last decade, I think the world has divvied itself up in two responses. Either your feelings are everything – so whatever you're feeling, whatever you're going through, whatever your truth is, you go with that” or forget your feelings and just numb out, suck it up, get over yourself and crush it. Elevating your feelings, says Dr. Delony, will only keep you stuck. “You will always be that person whose marriage fell apart. You'll always be that abuse survivor. You always be a cancer survivor. You always going to be the worst thing that ever happened to you or the worst thing you ever did. You will always be a cheater. You'll always be that single parent who couldn't keep their marriage together. And when we live in that world, then somebody has to come save us, whether it's a government, whether it's some sort of rockstar influencer.

That’s path one. The other path we've been given is to forget our feelings.” If you have feelings, it’s because you're weak and you need to grind it, suck it up, get over yourself and crush it and drag it and kill it.” That’s the second one. “How good your abs are and how much your car costs and how good your next partner is, right?” Both are nonsense says Delony.

But there’s a third option. His most recent book shares another way which is to acknowledge what happened or your body will keep that trauma response stored up for the rest of your life, and then you have asked the hard question of what am I going to do today? You have to own your stories, says Dr. Delony, “the ones that you were born into, the ones that happen to you, the ones that you were a part of and the ones you tell yourself.” Next, you have to learn to start living from a new way of thinking, you have to start living out a new story now, one where you learn to respond and not react, one where you seek connection and not isolation, one where you know you aren’t meant to do this life alone.

Life is going to hit us with a plethora of things. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. We need to own our stories, learn to respond instead of reacting, let ourselves feel our feelings and grieve, but then find healthy ways to move forward but not on our own. We aren’t meant to conquer everything on our own. We need connection with other people. This is how we can find greater emotional stability.

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