I first heard of the beach ball metaphor while watching a video through PESI (one of my continuing education providers). Arielle Schwartz, PhD uses the beach ball metaphor to explain how we can manage our dysregulated emotions. Arielle Schwartz, PhD provides a mind-body healing exercise that can help trauma survivors process their negative emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them.
I hope that you find this metaphor helpful in understanding how we can better regulate our emotions and nourish our nervous systems.
Imagining something that we don’t want to hold or feel. – This is the beach ball. We’re pushing it down and trying to hold it under water. It wants to come back up to the surface. Sometimes, we do this temporarily, called “containment,” as we run to the store or parent the kids, then return. If we’re constantly and chronically trying to hold the ball down, avoidance, at some point, it is exhausting and taxing. This can lead to causing other issues, the ball coming up and causing a splash. Then, we have to gather the ball back up and push it down.
We want to understand the dysregulated feeling or memory. We want to turn towards it. Understand the sensation and emotion in small parts, at a slower, appropriate pace, so that the ball comes to the surface without making a big splash. We have a little more control and can push it back down.
We do this therapeutically. “Pendulation” (meaning, turning towards the distress) in small, tolerable parts, taking off some pressure. Next, we pendulate from the distress and turn towards the resource. A resource can be the therapeutic relationship, or the breath, or a cue of safety (like a flower or plant in the room, or something out the window), so we oscillate between the stress and ease. We take a break, and then, check-in. The pattern is distress, then resource, distress, resource, distress, resource.
This combats the “negativity bias,” (meaning we are wired for survival and to scan our environment for threats). We need to consciously counteract this by looking for the good and nourishing our nervous system. Nourishing can look like a relationship with someone who feels safe, or our pet, who we feel connected to.
Just being a listener is powerful. Depending on the person who needs listened to and the situation, listening can be the only thing needed to help somebody. We’re bombarded with messages about listening and responding in a particular way. That we must follow A, B, and C or we aren’t being effective or that we might cause harm to the speaker. While we should aim to listen skillfully and to do no harm, we still can’t forget [or minimize] that just listening is impactful. We don’t always need to know what to say, that should relieve some pressure, all you have to do is listen and be present.
If you have a friend or family member who is experiencing issues and concerns, consider just listening to them first, rather than listening and offering up advice. While listening, practice being an active (non-distracted) listener, paying attention to nonverbal messages, listening to understand, making some eye contact, and being empathetic.
Keep in mind, that the speaker might not need an in-depth conversation. They may just need someone to listen and be there for them. The act of sharing out loud helps lift weight off of shoulders and problem solve. The brain processes differently while speaking out loud, as opposed to keeping your thoughts to yourself.
Ivy, mentor and mental health advocate, wrote about the power of listening. She says, “I have always emphasized that it is important even if you don’t agree with or understand how someone is feeling, to simply just listen to them and what they are going through. Simply asking someone if they are okay and letting them know you are there for them, is something so simple, yet so extremely powerful. Too often we feel like we won’t have the right words to say to people who reach out to us in need, so we keep our distance as a safer alternative. But you can make such a huge difference by just listening to someone’s story.”
Ivy continues, “When we listen to others, we let them know without even saying the words that their feelings are valid, that they themselves are valid and that we care about them. When we listen to other people’s story and allow them to be vulnerable and honest with us, the unexpected benefit is that we too can feel empowered to tell our own story and feel confident that someone will also listen to us when we are struggling.”
Listen to someone’s story and let them know that you’re there for them.
When you want to help, but feel like you can’t
Have you ever felt overwhelmed or stressed out by feeling like you need to help that someone who is coming to you about their problems? Maybe you have your own things that you’re going through and don’t have enough space to hold what they’re going through, as well. Perhaps, you’re feeling burnt out and need to practice self-care. You shouldn’t try to help another person when your glass is empty. Nothing comes out of an empty cup when you try to pour from it. [Even if your glass is full, practice daily self-care.] Whatever your situation, if you still want to be there for them, then just being a listener takes some pressure off of you. You can be present for the other person, but not hold as much responsibility in giving advice.
When to suggest that someone considers talking to a professional counselor
Know when to suggest that someone needs to go seek a mental health professional’s services. Topics like abuse, neglect, addiction, suicidal ideation, and suicide are red flags. Report abuse and neglect when you suspect something serious is going on, so that it can be looked into. Know the signs of suicide in order to prevent it and know what to do. Non-Judgmentally, ask open-ended questions to see what’s going on. Gently suggest that they speak with a mental health professional. Mention two or three benefits of speaking with a professional.
For information on lifeline contacts and resources, visit here.
Other times when a person should talk with a professional is when what they’re going through has impacted their life in such a way that they have difficulty functioning and maintaining a normal routine. Their job, family, social life, sleep, eating, major areas like that have been impacted. Especially, if this has been going on for a few weeks or longer, but really anyone, at anytime should go talk with a professional. It’s easier to fix something before it gets out of hand. This distress scale can help keep tabs on the impact that what you’re going through has on you.
Final words on just listening
Mindy Pierce, MA, LPC of Grow Counseling adds this to help us think further as listeners.
“Here are a few questions to help us think further about the powerful importance of listening and how well we listen:
• Who is the best listener you know?
• What makes that person a good listener?
• How do you feel when you are with that person?
• What can you learn from that person that would make you a better listener?
• What do you hesitate to talk to your partner about? Why?
• What happens to those withheld thoughts and feelings?
• What are the consequences of that withholding for you? For the relationship?
• What conversations would you like to go differently?
• If people think you aren’t listening to them, what will they assume it means? What will this lead to?
The next time something is really bothering you, notice if something holds you back from sharing that with someone. What fears or expectations do you have about what would happen if you shared? And if you do share, what happens?”
The rest of Mindy’s thoughtful article can be found here.
Being present and listening can be helpful to someone. Your friend or family member might just need someone to talk to, so they can empty part of what they’re carrying, a way to problem solve, or process what they’re going through. As a listener, a response isn’t always required. Be there for someone by listening to their story and letting them know that you care. Don’t underestimate the power of just listening, it’s helpful.