Emotional Whiplash

Emotional Whiplash

February 22, 2024 0 By Laura

Have you ever felt like your life is like a roller coaster ride? 

Sometimes, you are high on a mountaintop, experiencing exhilaration rush through your body and energizing you to the point where you’re positive you can do literally anything. You’re convinced that life cannot possibly get any better and that everything is right in the world. 

But at other times, you’re sitting in the lowest of lows, with your face on the proverbial (or maybe literal) cold floor, confident that you will never feel joy again. You feel like all the life and light and happiness has been sucked out of you, and you couldn’t possibly feel any worse. 

Life takes us all on these roller coaster rides, from coursing through the fun and exciting moments to dropping us into the depths of despair, sometimes at a moment’s notice. 

While the metaphor of the roller coaster has been around for some time, I prefer to address these quickly changing experiences with a more accurate description: emotional whiplash. 

Just like a head gets thrust forward and snapped back aggressively in a car accident, so too do our emotions get tossed back and forth, whipped around uncontrollably by the experiences of life. 

These experiences of going from one extreme to the other (and possibly back again, on repeat) throughout one day or even within minutes can be emotionally depleting.

Emotional whiplash is everywhere, but if you’re a parent, you likely deal with it multiple times in a single day, nearly every day. Particularly if your kids are little and can go from 0 to 60 with their big feelings, those whiplash moments can knock you off your rocker at a moment’s notice. 

It’s seeing your kids playing together and enjoying each other, getting along like they are the best of friends. You feel gratitude and joy bubbling up inside your soul, and you feel like sunshine is about to burst out of your ears at any moment. 

And then, within mere seconds, someone takes somebody else’s toy, and it’s suddenly wrestle mania in the middle of the living room. Kids are screaming at each other; one is trying to pull the other’s hair while the taker of the toy is committed to inflicting immense amounts of pain with their flailing feet. 

You start to intervene and help the kids deal with the conflict, but then you become the target of their frustrations. Suddenly, you’re involved in the argument, everyone is angry, and you’re positively certain that your kids are the worst-behaved humans on the planet, and you as a mom are not far behind. 

Just like that, faster than you can snap your fingers, you went from blissful joy to infuriating rage. You went from feeling like nothing in the world could possibly go wrong to, “Dear Lord, Can one singular thing please just go right?!” 

And if your kids are anything like mine, within moments, they’ll be happily playing together again, with no grudge beheld or memory existing of their intense battle just minutes before. So then you slip back into peace and contentedness, reminding yourself that not all moments or seasons last forever, and you better buckle up for the next emotional tornado that’s likely hiding on the other side of your next family meal. 

How to Handle Emotional Whiplash 

I am a big fixer–I like solutions, action steps, and tangible results. But it’s not always feasible to come up with solutions and improvements when the world is coming at you full force and you can barely keep your head above water in the chaotic moments. 

So, how do we deal with emotional whiplash in the throes of it? How do we address the issues at hand while not letting the constant emotional roller coaster overwhelm us and swallow us whole? 

I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of regulating emotions and the nervous system–it’s everywhere lately. But from what I’ve read and experienced myself, this is really the key to handling emotional whiplash well. 

It’s almost putting ourselves outside of the experiences to some extent, trying to see it from a subjective perspective as an onlooker rather than an active participant. It’s not allowing ourselves to get swept up in the emotional overload, which is, of course, far easier said than done. 

Keep Perspective

Part of navigating emotional whiplash is about trying to bring the calm into the midst of the chaos and keeping a big-picture perspective, knowing that the intense feelings and difficult moments won’t last forever. 

However, trying to keep this perspective goes for both the good and the bad sides of the emotional whiplash. 

I’m not saying we need to resist feeling the great feelings of peace and happiness when they arise–we absolutely should lean into them and embrace them with every fiber of our being. But we also have to maintain our perspective. We have to remember that those feelings won’t last forever, and that’s okay. Those feelings aren’t intended to last forever. Recognize the goodness for what it is, but don’t keep a death grip on it. Life is meant to ebb and flow between different emotional states and feelings, and we have to accept that.

The same can be said for the lows that come from emotional whiplash. Recognize it for what it is and take action (if needed) to resolve whatever issue is causing the low, but remember that it won’t last forever. I know that toddler tantrums, sicknesses, and hard seasons can sometimes feel like they will never end, but you and I both know (when we’re thinking logically) that they will. Keep that perspective, reminding yourself that this too shall pass. 

Avoiding the Trap of Expectation

Another part of navigating emotional whiplash is managing expectations. This is something I struggle with big time. I want to believe the best, and I have big hopes going into each day, and I always want things to be pleasant, simple, and happy. So when I expect certain situations or experiences to be enjoyable and they turn out to be less than that, I am often left disappointed and more easily caught up in the throes of emotional whiplash. 

It’s not a bad thing to set some expectations and have hope, but when we expect every single situation to turn out well, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. That may sound really negative, but it’s just a fact of life that not everything is going to be hunky dory all the time. I’ve struggled to accept this in the past, and it’s a work in progress, but the more we can understand the realistic possibilities of a situation, the more we can let ourselves relax and enjoy what’s happening rather than maintain a death grip on making things perfect. 

We simply have to find a balance between believing the best and being realistic. I absolutely don’t have the secret formula to doing that (and if you do, let me know), but I’m trying to keep a big-picture perspective on all my experiences and recognize that good and bad (and all their variations) can co-exist. 

Moving Forward through Emotional Whiplash

We all know that hard things are bound to happen in life, and we have all weathered storms. We have to accept that life isn’t eternal bliss and constant peace and calm. It’s not fun to acknowledge that truth, but it does give us the freedom to walk through life without being constantly terrified of the next bad thing lurking around the corner. 

We have to go through it though. It’s unavoidable and trying to juke it just won’t work. We know that emotional whiplash is bound to happen to some extent, but we can minimize the intensity when we maintain perspective and manage our expectations. We can also recover better and more quickly when we bring ourselves back to that big-picture idea as soon as possible after the initial overwhelm.

If you’re dealing with the constant onslaught of emotional whiplash, I promise you that you’re not alone. Remembering the things mentioned above are how I work through those big-feeling moments, and I have some other tips and tricks coming your way soon to deal with overwhelm. Stay connected with me and with your village and know that you are not the only one dealing with the things you’re going through.