Some years ago I was staying in a lovely farmhouse B&B in South Devon when the early morning calm was broken by an extraordinary commotion. Looking out of my window, I saw a group of angry people gathering around a tree and shouting at it. Some were even shaking their fists. "It's a stress management session for London executives", my landlady explained, "apparently it helps get anger out of their systems".
Any such action requires an anger recall. In effect, each person has to re-live their anger - in the absence of an upsetting incident or any person who had caused such an upset. Letting out one's anger without harming anybody may sound good. But you have already harmed yourself by recalling it and putting your internal organs on stress alert. And what happens to the poor tree? In the absence of a tree scapegoat, will you develop a new habit of throwing anger at some random person?
What are the other choices for dealing with out of control emotions? Suppressing emotion is not a good idea. It's like sweeping dust under the carpet. The problem may be out of sight but it lives on in the mind. As long as it remains in there, it will rot and intoxicate the mind. Emotional memory lasts a long time. Thus it is likely to be triggered and return to haunt you again and again. Brushing it aside won't work either. Rejecting it means you don't want it; you dislike it. There is an emotional involvement in the process. You thereby give it significance, allowing it to live on in your memory.
Our modern lifestyle is frenetic. When our emotions are disturbed, we need them fixed and we need it fast. We have no patience with our emotions. We need to off-load. Time to dial a friend, tweet our grief or share our worries on social media! After all, a problem shared is a problem halved. This brings just temporary relief. Recurring thoughts and emotions can creep up in our spare moments or in our dreams. They can also be triggered by similar sense stimuli - of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. When things get worse, we turn to professionals to sort them out.
But wait a minute! Does a professional know as much about you as you do? Does he or she know your innermost depths of emotion? Will you hold back on what you say due to reluctance to reveal your deepest, possibly darkest secrets?
Can we not rely on ourselves to deal with our troubled emotions? Are we cautious about self reliance because we lack knowledge of how to do it - or the patience to persevere with it?
In the face of major stress, resilience can go a long way. You can build it up through social support, from friends, family and organisations. Or you can develop positive thinking and reappraise the situation. Research has shown that reappraisal helps to deactivate the amygdala, the emotional and fear centre in the brain - hence reappraisal helps to de-stress. If you are not accustomed to practising reappraisal, you may need to work at it. It helps if you are mindful.
When you practise mindfulness, you are looking at your emotions, feelings and thoughts without adding judgement. You pay attention, look and listen to your thoughts and feelings patiently - like a good friend or a professional therapist would do. You observe when the thoughts and feelings start; see how long they go on for and when they fall away all by themselves. Get to know them by watching them. When you make a habit of looking at your thoughts, feelings and emotions from beginning to end you will eventually realise that they are just thoughts, feelings and emotions. They come and go. They have no substance that you can hold on to. The mind is thus able to let go of them naturally.
To make your stress and upsetting emotions go away without leaving behind a negative memory, be your own therapist! Be mindful and patient - and don't go round abusing trees!