One of my oldest and dearest friends in the world has cancer. I’ve watched as the treatment has gone from bad to worse, and I keep waiting for a good time to feel all my feelings, but it never comes. I cannot imagine a world without her in it. Frankly, I don’t want to. But I can’t seem to react even though I recognize the news as devastating.
My mom calls me to ask that I take her to the emergency room. Her blood pressure is far too high, and her doctors won’t let her leave unless it’s with a family member or in an ambulance. I’m frustrated trying to find a doctor’s office I’ve never been to. I don’t panic though. I can’t. It’s not the time for that. I take my mother to the nearest emergency room, making jokes the whole way. She laughs, and it’s a relief. I can ease her suffering. I can’t even begin to approach mine. I never cry. The fear is there, the shadow of coming grief, but tears won’t fall.
Single parenting can be overwhelming. I’m learning to navigate aspects of neurodiversity that are foreign to me. Some days, it’s too much, and I can feel everything inside me shut down and go on hiatus. I keep waiting for a good time to sit and cry and feel all my feelings, but it never comes. I love being a mom, but I don’t know how to find time to cry about all the parts of motherhood that hurt. My grief is enormous, but it’s a separate continent I cannot reach.
I tell my therapist that I cannot seem to feel my feelings in real time. I’ve been realizing lately that I never have. Even in high school, I would mention “I’ll cry about that later” as if emotions were something I could pencil in on a schedule and deal with at a more opportune time. The truth is that later would never come. I would just ruthlessly shove those emotions down, down, down. But it’s not like they just went away because I refused to deal with them.
The Relationship Between Trauma and Delayed Emotional Response
I’ve only recently realized the relationship between my hard-wired reaction to stress and my past trauma. Research shows that trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), can create delayed emotional responses in some people. Apparently, I’m one of them. Instead of reacting to my feelings in real time, I freeze. I am capable of taking care of everyone else around me, but I am incapable of feeling my feelings or taking care of my emotional health.
Research on grief shows that some people experience delayed emotions when it comes to dealing with loss. These people can experience prolonged or chronic grief as a result. One potential theory is that “where the intensity of affects was too great or the coping ability too weak, defensive and rejecting mechanisms came into play.” Some people even manifest their grief somatically through physical symptoms.
While we typically associate grief with death, grief can be felt with any loss. Psychiatrist Dr. Bryan Bruno offered the following delayed grief symptoms in an article in Psychology Today:
recurring memories of the loss
frequent dreams and nightmares about the person you lost
strong feelings of sadness
feelings of longing
anger, which is often easily triggered
low energy levels
aches and pains
changes in appetite
feelings of apathy
When we cannot feel our emotions immediately, we end up delaying them and making them worse. They don’t get better just because we ignore them. In fact, they often get worse and become a preoccupation. This emotional avoidance is also related to dissociation, emotional blunting, and emotional detachment. We aren’t healing from the grief; we’re only compounding it.
How to Recover from Delayed Emotional Response
The challenge that presents is how to feel our feelings at the time they occur rather than delaying them. That delay has been a coping mechanism — one we’re being tasked to stop using. It’s healthier to experience feelings as they happen, but when we’ve spent our lives numbing them, it can feel strange experiencing them so close to the activating event.
Psychotherapy is considered the optimal treatment for delayed emotional responses due to trauma. Specifically, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can be used to help process, resolve, and integrate the traumatic experience. In my experience with EMDR, I was taught how to recognize where my body and mind are linked. In each session, I identified what I was feeling and, more importantly, where in my body I was experiencing it. This helped me recognize and feel my feelings rather than delay them.
Recovering from trauma is a process — often a long and challenging one. As we learn to trust ourselves and to feel safe, we can begin feeling our emotions with more immediacy rather than delaying them for a “better time.” In fact, we begin to recognize that experiencing our emotions in the moment that they present to us can help decrease chronic and prolonged experiences of them. We no longer feel stuck in the feeling because we have felt, processed, and released it.
My first instinct is still to swerve away from difficult feelings to “feel them later” — a later I’ve realized never comes. It takes work for me to stay present in my body when big emotions come sweeping in, but I know it’s the healthiest thing I can do for both my physical and mental well-being. It’s uncomfortable, and if I’m honest, it’s still hard for me to cry. But if I give myself permission to do it, I begin to feel better. I remind myself of that when the resistance rises at the first sign of tears.
It’s taking time to build stronger emotional resilience. It’s taking time to learn to trust my emotions and to feel safe enough to let them out even if it’s not what I would consider an ideal time. My natural reaction might be to freeze, numb, and ignore my strongest feelings, but I’ve spent too long stuck in chronic grief to want to do this any longer. It’s important to me to connect with my feelings as they happen. There’s no better time, and a delay will not soften the blow. I cannot fully heal and recover from my trauma without putting that last piece of the puzzle into place.
I’m the person who has sat through funerals without tears because it didn’t feel like the right time to cry when other people were falling apart. If I can’t see a funeral as a good time to cry, the problem clearly isn’t about timing. It’s me. So, I stop telling myself to find a good time to feel my feelings. I tell myself that a good time to feel my feelings is now. Maybe this time I’ll listen.
Originally published on Publishous