Caring for your aging parents is a process jam packed with feelings. Intense feelings.
Let’s be real. Sometimes siblings p*#s us off. Sometimes we just feel really sad about the changes in our parents. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed when we think about the future. The list could go on and on.
How are you at managing your feelings? It is a skill. The experts call it ‘emotional regulation’.
Knowing how to manage all these feelings is in everyone’s interests. It is key to self-esteem. You can confidently know that you can handle any and all feelings that come up. It is also key to having meaningful connections with your parents, siblings and other family members, and even the cashier and other strangers you meet in the course of a day.
Six emotional regulation strategies
1. Identify your feelings and sensations and label them.
Feelings are typically accompanied by body sensations. For example, you may notice a queasy feeling in your stomach, shakiness in your arms or legs, or dryness in your mouth. These are body sensations that typically accompany anxious feelings. Notice and name these sensations in the same way you would notice and name your emotions.
Once you notice or become aware of an emotion, label or name the feeling. Labelling or naming our feelings and sensations reduces their intensity. Labelling also helps prevent over-identification and attachment to feelings. The truth is that all feelings are temporary. They arise, stay for a while, and then they disappear.
Feelings have been described as waves in the ocean, cresting and receding. Feelings have also been described as train cars. You can either watch the train cars go by or you can jump on and let it take you somewhere (which is the over-identification and attachment to the feeling). By labelling your feelings and sensations, you are a witness to your emotions, instead of letting them rule you.
2. Accept your emotions and tell yourself that you can handle both the feelings and sensations.
Tell yourself, “I am feeling _____ and I can handle this feeling and the accompanying sensation(s).”
You may want to remember a time when you felt this particular feeling in the past and handled it well. Remind yourself that you handled it before and you can handle it now. By doing this, you are preparing yourself to effectively handle your feelings and physical sensations. For example, you may say to yourself, “I am feeling this dry mouth and shakiness in my arms and legs. I can handle these sensations.” You can remind yourself of your ability to cope with the sensations. “Can I handle a dry mouth? Of course I can.”
3. Take responsibility for your feelings and reactions.
Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, “I am feeling frustrated about…” rather than “you frustrate me when….” Making “I” statements is essential to effective communication. Your feelings and reactions are more of a reflection of your internal world (memories, values, experiences, projections and thoughts) than they are of the external world and the people around you.
4. Explore the thought(s) that preceded the feeling.
There is a thought before there is a feeling. This is such a lightning fast process that we can miss the thought that preceded the feeling. Explore the thoughts. Examine the thoughts. What were you saying to yourself before you started feeling this way? This will help you understand which thoughts trigger certain feelings and physical sensations in the body. It will also help you understand your particular triggers. Just like feelings, thoughts are not necessarily the truth. And just like feelings, thoughts are temporary.
5. Consider taking a daily inventory of your feelings.
If you write down what you feel and when, you may be able to identify patterns of feelings. From this awareness, you can then consider what you plan to do about it (if anything).
For example, you notice that you have been feeling angry and resentful at your partner and your kids for a number of days in a row. Your inventory shows you that these feelings of anger and resentment start in the evening when you are tired and desperately wanting to go to sleep but you have “one more thing” to do.
Now that you see the pattern, you can explore further what you would like to do about it. You can first accept responsibility for how you are feeling. That is, your partner and kids aren’t making you angry. You are, however, having feelings of anger and resentment. Noticing this pattern may motivate you to make changes in your household. You may decide to increase your kids’ responsibilities around the house, lower your standards of both yourself and others, or reach out for additional help. The point of this exercise is for you to notice the pattern. In this case, you will likely notice that you have been so caught up in anger and resentment that you have been “dumping” or projecting it onto others.
6. When emotions are overwhelming, try to temporarily change your state of mind.
This can be done by choosing to go, for example, into a different room, going for a short walk, working in the garden or playing a computer game for a few minutes. This allows for a change in the scenery and in your thought processes.
This is not the same as avoiding or ignoring feelings—you’re simply taking a break so you are better able to process the overwhelming and intense feelings you’re experiencing.
Please approach these practices with self-compassion. Expect setbacks. Take note of the challenges you experience. For example, maybe you got stuck in anger or resentment and you lashed out. Learn what you can from these challenges and resume the practice. It is that simple and it is that difficult! There is no doubt that you can learn to flow easily with the emotional side of caring for aging parents.
How do you handle intense feelings when they come up? Do you have other strategies?