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How I Cope With ‘Emotional Combustion’ From Suppressing My Feelings

When I was younger, I watched a documentary about “spontaneous human combustion” on TV. This terrified me, combusting with no warning. What if you had plans the next day? Little did I know, when I grew up to be an adult, I would self-combust — not psychically but emotionally, with my mind leaking everywhere.

Let’s put it this way: I have never been able to process feelings very well. As I child I kept most things in, such as when my stepdad left the family; I pushed the anger down, hung out with friends like it didn’t matter, bottled up my feelings about how the family was torn apart and carried on. You could say it was the good old-fashioned “keep calm and carry on” when internally, I was screaming and my feelings were bubbling. Until one day, I combusted, much to my mother’s surprise. An outburst from me a year after the initial split, I was screaming and shouting and locking myself in my room, yelling at everyone, because my mind couldn’t quite process it all and I wasn’t understanding where these feelings were coming from because in my mind I was fine — everything was fine.

Most would say I handle things well, I don’t let things get to me and I just carry on. Is that an ignorant way of looking at mental health? On the outside, I look fine, so I must be fine? Because most of the time growing up, during my teens and 20s, I felt like I was walking in a daze. I don’t think self-combustion is just psychical; when I hit my late 20s, I became irritated and restless, like something needed to be released. Something inside of me was bubbling and I couldn’t think what. No one was checking on me as I seemed fine on the outside, so I was becoming more and more frustrated and no one could see how I was really feeling. Inside, I would be boiling with anger or tears would be overflowing out of my eyes, not realizing why.

Example: one day, I was sat in a restaurant with a friend. I was looking at a menu and I just started crying. When she asked why, I said I didn’t know why; I just cried and cried, but laughing at the same time. It was never mentioned again, but I think that’s when my mind started to malfunction and I didn’t realize or think to seek help. Episodes like this would happen more frequently, but I started to be able to push it down again, so you could say I was suppressing the sadness. To those who have watched “Inside Out,” you’ll realize is never a good thing. I would let so-called friends walk all over me, boyfriends cheat on me and workplaces use me until I was psychically ill. There was zero self-care, but it was OK; things would be OK in the end. I just had to be happy.

Was it right to feel anger if others are angry too? In my mind it was wrong to feel anger if someone else was; why were my feelings better than theirs? Why should I talk when they had it worse? That was the worst way of thinking imaginable. Your feelings are valid; your way of thinking is valid.

Then, in my late 20s, the almighty self-combustion of repressed feelings hit me; every piece of anger, regret and sadness came out, hitting anyone who had upset me in the past. It caused riffs but I couldn’t hold anything in. My worst childhood nightmare was happening. I was actually self-combusting in the worst way; it wasn’t fire but emotions and feelings. I thought my mind had actually broken on me and I didn’t know what to do.

After the self-combustion had finished and I was left to pick up the pieces of the disaster, I realized I was holding onto so much sadness and replacing it with happiness that I was living in a rose-tinted world. I needed to at least feel some anger; after all, I had kept it in for such a long time, it’s no wonder my world was turned upside down. I had set off an emotional bomb, and I was left to pick up the pieces. 

Two years on, I still do hold in my feelings. I am getting better, though; instead of holding them in my mind, ready for me to combust again, I have found ways to help me deal with feelings and emotions without becoming scared of what I am feeling.

1. Acceptance.

Anxiety is going to happen; the longest duration of an anxiety attack is 15 minutes. It will be OK. Just feel the feelings and ride it out.

2. Writing.

Write about what you are feeling, even if you don’t have the words. When you start writing, the words will come naturally. I have journals and journals of notes that don’t make sense. But at the time of writing what I was feeling, it felt like a release. People think I collect notebooks but I don’t. I use every single one of them, and every single one is full.

3. Music.

Play music as loud as you can and dance to it. I found dancing when angry or anxious helps me shake off the anger, and processing thoughts melodically really helps. Music guides me, a little bit like someone holding your hand to help you find your words.

4. Talk.

Talk to someone about how you are feeling. For a long, long time I didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling, which caused me to explode. However, even if it’s someone you haven’t seen for a while, drop them a text and tell them what’s on your mind. It does not matter who you talk to; just talk. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.

5. Art.

I found when I need to release feelings, painting or drawing helps. The strokes of the paintbrush against the paint and canvas are so smooth, it’s a self-soothing activity. I used to knit, but that used to frustrate me and cause me to tense up until I would have to shake my arms and limbs due to the pent-up frustration. So when you choose your art, make sure it’s not a frustrating one.

6. Sport.

I am not sporty. I am not competitive, nor am I fit and athletic. But, finding something that helps you clear your mind and pumps the endorphins will help you so much. During a bad time this year, I turned to my bike. It’s something I used to do during my childhood and teens — cycling without a route or a care in the world. It helps me clear my mind and think straight. You could take up walking, jogging, tennis, football… anything to work off and work out your emotions in your mind.

But whatever you do, make sure you don’t repressed your feelings or you could “combust.” I used to ask myself: “Was it right to feel anger if others are angry too?” In my mind, it was wrong to feel anger if someone else was angry because why were my feelings better than theirs? Why should I talk when others have it worse? That was the worst way of thinking imaginable; your feelings are valid and your way of thinking is valid. Never think it’s wrong to feel anger; anger is an emotion and everyone needs to feel it and express it… in healthy ways, of course.

Photo by Anders Nord on Unsplash