The following article is reproduced with the very kind permission of widower, Corey Standford, who is also an Executive Coach & Wellness Author. The article first appeared on his website Stanford Coaching on October 16th, 2014.
Understanding Widow Fog by Corey Stanford
Part II: Emotional Regulation and Clarity
In Part I: The Problem , I described Widow Fog and its underlying cause. This article builds on Part I by exploring the topics of attention, emotional regulation, and rational thinking in relation to Widow Fog.
A primary manifestation of Widow Fog is the inability to think things through effectively. You can’t direct your attention to and sustain your attention on one issue long enough to reach clarity. Some experience this as absentmindedness and others experience it as swirling chaos. In actuality your Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) is trying to hold way too much information at once, which renders it unable to process properly. It’s like trying to run a thousand applications on your device concurrently, only to have all of them pending instead of executing operations.
This pending of processes explains how you can fail to form memories of significant events or even entire days. It explains why you’re unable to recall things you’ve always known or to understand and memorize simple driving directions—much less decide if you’re going to drive anywhere.
The bombardment of emotional and other information on your PFC is like deafening noise. You are well aware that minimizing distracting noise improves focus, so the question becomes: “How do I minimize the noise in my mind so I can direct my attention?” Some people rationally determine the solution is to feel less and think more. It turns out this makes things even worse. Let me explain.
You spent the earliest years of your life as an absolute master of one thing: expressing your emotions. While you didn’t understand them well, you didn’t hesitate to express them until perhaps you were trained to do things differently. Throwing tantrums—or objects at others—was no longer going to do. You had to learn new ways of dealing with emotions as you aged in order to function as expected in society. Most people adopted a strategy for managing emotions that exacerbates Widow Fog.
The most common strategy for handling emotions as they arise is to suppress them. Literature abounds on the subject of emotional suppression, so I’ll limit my discussion to address the issue at hand. Suppressing emotions has a terrible effect on your ability to solve problems, and it actually makes you feel worse emotionally and physically.
Much of the noise in your PFC that interferes with your ability to direct your attention is the result of emotional suppression. Your limbic system sends messages of perceived threats and rewards to your PFC for evaluation. When emotions are being suppressed, your PFC can’t fill its role of making sense of these signals.
Threat signals are much stronger than reward signals for good reason. If you were enjoying a slice of your favorite pie in the shade of a tree and a snake dropped on your arm, you would take evasive action before returning to your dessert. Threat signals always trump reward signals; they are so intense that you have no choice but to give them your attention.
When you suppress emotions and your PFC can’t make sense of these signals, you experience frequent and intense threat signals. The vast majority of the time these threat responses are false alerts, but they capture your attention, undermining your ability to intentionally direct your attention. You might be startled by the bark of your neighbor’s dog only to begin thinking about how you felt that time your neighbor didn’t wave back. Even false threat signals direct your attention to negative thinking, and you find your attention captured as your train of thought goes off the track.
Developing the ability to process your emotions effectively as they arise will not only help you in the moment, but it will strengthen your capacity for interpreting threat and reward signals properly. As you grow in your ability to use your PFC more effectively by using better emotional regulation strategies, your rebound after false threat signals will be much quicker, resulting in recovery of your ability to direct your attention.
Recall that I said that people often try to reduce the noise in their mind by feeling less and thinking more. While the attempt to feel less results often in emotional suppression, the attempt to think more results often in confusion. Let me explain.
The rational mind is overrated. Rational thinking works well for problems very similar to problems you’ve solved before, but applying old reasoning to considerably different problems doesn’t yield good results. Rational reasoning is necessary and important, but overthinking complex problems gets you stuck in ambiguity. In fact, research demonstrates that the majority of the time people can’t even explain how they solved complex problems because they solved them through insight, not rational processes.
Pushing your PFC into overdrive by dwelling on a complex problem blocks the insight from coming. When you don’t gain insight, you don’t achieve clarity, and when you don’t achieve clarity, the unresolved issue continues to create noise that wastes your PFC energy. Your ability to direct your attention away from the complex problem will increase as you deal more effectively with your emotions.
Being widowed leaves you with less than half the resources to take on more than double the responsibility compared to before. This creates supremely complex problems for which you weren’t prepared. You need new insight, and insight often comes in the form of “aha” moments.
Deep insights distil upon quiet minds. Have you ever noticed your best ideas come to you in the shower, while you’re jogging, or doing anything other than trying to solve the problem? It’s in the moments when your mind is the quietest, happiest and most distant from the problem that the key insights come. So go for a jog and take a shower (in that order).