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Dealing with guilt and other hard feelings

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

A therapist’s advice on what to do when our inner critics take over

Our guest expert for Coping 101: Ask a Therapist was Thunder Bay psychotherapist Michelle McKitrick, who shared her wisdom, compassion and advice with us live for one extraordinary hour in February 2022.

Here we share an edited excerpt from our discussion on how to deal with the major mental and emotional battles that can come with parenting through separation and divorce.

unhitch: How can we cope with some of the big feelings that come up, like with the distress and guilt that comes out of moving out of our homes, from feeling selfish about your choices, from feeling like we’re abandoning our kids and disrupting everyone’s lives. There is so much wrapped up in all that; how can we deal with it all?

MM: To answer this, I would divide this into two parts: let’s talk about distress first, then we’ll tackle guilt.

Distress and flight, fight and freeze

So when we talk about distress, it’s diffuse physiological arousal or DPA. What ends up happening is that when your body, your brain, your lived experience notices a subtle look, a subtle voice change, or when something shifts in a conversation or your relationship, your brain picks it up immediately.

The centre brain then fires off a message, it sends cortisol, the distress hormone, through your body that says “We’re in trouble here, five alarm fire!”. And then DPA happens: increased heart rate, pupil dilation, respiration, increased blood pressure, sweaty palms, upset stomach etc. The body is now on high alert. And when that happens, we go into flight, fight, freeze. We all know this feeling.

The important thing is to remember that when you get into a distressed situation, your frontal lobe goes offline for a while. It’s like the command centres in the brain, the parts that know what to do and how to respond, they kind of go offline. And that creates a lot of emotional distress and emotional processing about what you are experiencing.

So the first thing you need to do, and that is super important, is to be able to recognize that you feel different. For example, “My body is on fire, I’m really hot, I’m really anxious, I’m super overwhelmed, I’m in a fog.” Those are good indicators to say, “I’m in trouble here and this is really distressing”.

We don’t make our best decisions with anyone in our lives when we are distressed. We don’t say the things we mean or how we want them to be heard. We need to bring the DPA down, the arousal down, so we can bring the frontal lobe back online, decrease the stress, and give us a moment to breathe and have access to our faculties again. Then we can be more conscious about what we say and what we mean.

Breathwork: the fastest way to reset

There are tonnes of strategies out there to bring DPA down. The quickest way to get there is breathwork. By far, the fastest way to reset is breathwork.

Everybody talks about mindfulness, breathwork, yoga. And yes, just do it! Just practice it, because it works. If you practice it on a day-to-day basis, bringing your distress down and feeling calm becomes easier.

I use two faithfully in my practice. One is 4-7-8, taking a big breath in for a count of four, inhaling for a count of seven, and slowly exhaling for a count of eight. And the other is Box Breath (inhale for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four) and trace that box in your mind as you breathe.

And until you get on top of your own distress, managing all the other things that come with uncoupling, like finances and dealing with the kids and worrying about what you will do on your own, they will put you in the overdrive of distress. You are not going to be able to manage those things well until you deal with your distress.

And these are good strategies, depending on how old your kids are, to encourage them to use too if you sense that they are distressed, if they are having those big feelings. And to get a sense of where they are, just get down on their level, talk to them eye-to-eye, hear what their feelings are without providing any education at all. It’s about just listening to their feelings and letting them experience the process of sorting out all the different things they feel and giving them time and space to do that.