Head Vs Heart: Opening the Box

925 520 Natalie May

Head Vs Heart: Opening the Box

This blog post has been co-released by StEmlyns and badEM

“Head Vs Heart: Opening the Box”  was intended to be presented by guest speaker and author, Natalie May at badEMfest20. Unfortunately, do to the current pandemic, badEMfest20 has had to be postponed and this talk would have had to wait until next year, however, Natalie wanted us to share the post. We feel that this topic is extremely relevant in the current climate that we as healthcare workers find ourselves in.

2019 was a bit of a mad year for me. I was appointed to a permanent post in Emergency Medicine in Sydney, I had a baby and I spent three weeks as a psychiatric inpatient in a mental hospital.

Wait. That’s not right

I was appointed to a permanent post in Emergency Medicine in Sydney, I had a baby and I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks as a psychiatric inpatient in a mental hospital.

That’s better.

I hope you’re not too shocked. I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised myself – the first 24h as an inpatient were totally surreal. But I’m not ashamed. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had excellent support from two awesome EM friends, to have access to NSW’s only mother and baby inpatient mental health unit and to have been admitted early, so much so that I was able to turn my surviving into thriving. I promise I’ll share more on my experiences of postnatal anxiety and depression (PNAD), the insights and tools I accessed through CBT and why Emergency Medicine is excellent preparation for parenthood (and why it’s not) in due course.

My family is doing well; I am weaning my antidepressant dose and back at work, and my son is a happy healthy 9 month old.

For now, though, there’s something I learned in the unit that I really think you need to hear. In fact, it absolutely blew my mind to attend this session and I still can’t believe that this isn’t something we are taught in healthcare.

I want to talk about EMOTIONS.

I bet you thought this was going to be a talk about thoracotomy and trepanation, right? Well, don’t go anywhere just yet. I think this is going to be more useful to you on a daily basis and relevant to all of you. That’s right – everybody.

The following is based on a session delivered by an amazing psychologist during my inpatient stay (thank you Sarah!).


Growing up, we hear lots of messages about our emotions. Maybe you were told that “boys don’t cry”. Perhaps you’ve been accused of “moping around” or told that you have “an anger problem”. Maybe you struggle with “Catholic guilt”. Whatever your experience, I think most of us can relate to the idea that society would have us believe that some emotions are good and some emotions are bad.

But consider this: what would the world look like if there was no anger? Too much anger would be chaos and violence, but if there was none there would be no boundaries; anything could be done by anyone to anyone – and that’s chaos too.

What about sadness? If there was no sadness, life would be frivolous. And without guilt, we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything differently.

Psychologists tell us that there are six main emotions – this idea comes from the work of Paul Eckman in the 1970s although much of his work was around decoding facial expressions. Since then, work around understanding emotions has built on the idea of core emotions and there are several versions of this (Robert Plutchik described eight in pairs, and displayed them in a colour wheel) but the underlying principles are the same. Other words we use to describe how we feel can be sorted into one of these six categories, and each of the six main emotions serves a specific purpose.


The purpose of fear is to protect us from danger and ensure our survival.

If there was no fear, we would put ourselves into dangerous situations. Too much fear is debilitating; it prevents us from doing the things we want to do.


Anger exists to tell us that a boundary has been violated.

Without anger, we would not be able to protect ourselves and our interests. We would find others taking advantage of us. Too much anger can hurt those around us, destroying our relationships.


(Eckman called this DISGUST, but I think shame is easier to understand)

We feel shame in order to motivate ourselves to develop or improve certain parts of ourselves.

If we didn’t feel shame, we would continue to do things that harm ourselves and others. Too much shame is also paralysing; it would cause us to withdraw from society, to experience low self-esteem and to isolate ourselves from others.


The purpose of sadness is to show us what matters to us.

Without sadness, life would be superficial. We wouldn’t form meaningful relationships or realise the value of other people and things in our lives. Too much sadness prevents us from functioning, as those with depressive illnesses know.


Love helps us to form attachments and connections.

If we didn’t feel love, we wouldn’t meet our need for community and connection. Too much love can impair our logical thinking, particularly if we become infatuated.


We experience happiness to reward behaviour that benefits us.

Without happiness, we would lack enjoyment in life and particularly in social connections (think about the times you are most happy; they usually involve a moment of taking stock and often involve other people). Too much happiness means we wouldn’t understand our limits and we might prevent other people from being able to live their lives.

Why this – and why now?

We are living and working in unprecedented times.

As an Emergency Physician I have often thought that my emotions get in the way of my ability to do my job. I might even have described myself as “dead inside”, used so-called “black humour” in stressful situations or even walked from breaking bad news straight into a consultation where I play with a toddler. I’ve thought of myself as a “head” person far more than a “heart” person and I wonder how many of you can relate to this.

While the idea of emotions being a nuisance at work might be true in some ways, my approach of just pretending to myself I didn’t feel anything was not the most functional. It’s also an unfair way to treat myself, because I’m not a robot and I do feel things. There are tough resuscitations, failed resuscitations, horrible deaths and little moments of collateral beauty that stay with me. In truth, I have been afraid to open the box I’ve kept my emotions in because I was scared that they would never stop pouring out. I am fallible, imperfect and human, and so are you.

Logically, emotions do make sense; they are crucial to our survival as they drive us towards togetherness, towards a functioning social group – and that, I think we are about to find out – is the essence of our humanity. I’m bringing this concept to you now because I think we are going to find our emotional responses unavoidable in the coming days, weeks, months and years as we work and live through this crisis.

We often judge ourselves for “feeling”, especially when we have listened to society and attributed “good” or “bad” tags to particular emotions. As a psychiatric inpatient I learned about the concept of self-validating my emotions. Validation means not judging myself and not judging the emotion, simply accepting that I feel what I feel in a particular situation. Adding judgement often fuels further unhappiness. In this case, we might feel anger or fear as a secondary emotion in response to our primary emotion (for example, sadness).

Self Validation

The key is acceptance; this can prevent us from falling into the trap of allowing secondary emotional responses. Freeing up our emotional and cognitive processing power by accepting what we feel allows us to do more to change our situation (if we need to).

Self-validation has three stages. If this is totally new to you, you might not be immediately able to proceed to the third stage – and that is completely fine. I would, however, advise you to practice now. Self-validation is a skill, and like all skills the more you practice, the smoother and more natural it will become. That may be valuable in the ensuing weeks.

Step 1: acknowledge

This is perhaps the hardest and most important step; name the emotion that you feel and let go of any associations with feeling it.

I have talked a few people through this process in recent weeks and often when you ask someone “how do you feel?” they immediately begin talking about their judgement of the situation, eg “I can’t believe that he was so rude to me!” or “It’s so irritating that they did that!”

Try to let go of the judgement and discern how you feel. Put a name to that feeling and say it out loud.

I feel angry.

I feel sad.

If you are able to align your emotional state with one of the six main emotions, that’s great – if not, try to work out which main emotion the word you are using to describe the way you feel falls into.

Step 2: allow

Allow yourself to feel that emotion. It is the way you feel – and that is ok. Tell yourself that. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel; as we have already discussed, there are no “good” or “bad” emotions.

I feel sad. It is ok that I feel sad.

I feel angry. It is ok that I feel angry.

This might be as far as you can go initially. That is totally fine.

When you are comfortable naming and allowing your emotions, try to move to step 3.

Step 3: understand

Once you can identify which of the six main emotions you are feeling, you can refer back to the purpose of that emotion to try to understand where it comes from. Sometimes we do feel a mixture of things at once, so try to take them on one at a time.

I feel sad. It is ok that I feel sad. It is understandable that I feel sad; sadness exists to show me what matters to me. It matters to me that I am good at my job and things here didn’t go the way I wanted them to. My family matters to me and I saw the pain of losing them reflected in the pain of my patient’s family.

I feel angry. It is ok that I feel angry. It is understandable that I feel angry; anger exists to tell me that a boundary has been violated. In this situation, that boundary is the respect I expect to be shown in my workplace by my colleagues.

Understanding your emotional response goes beyond judgement and attempts to make sense of the way that we feel. This is difficult, but gets easier with practice. I would suggest taking a moment to self-validate your emotions at minimum once a day; as you are leaving work would seem to be a good time to check in with yourself, but as things get harder you might want or need to do this several times a day.

And that’s it. Acknowledge, allow, understand  – three steps to help you to take care of yourself; to prevent things being bottled up inside and to check in with your emotional state in a non-judgemental way.

I hope this helps you to stay well. I suspect that you, like me, will be more whole, more productive, and more peaceful if you accept both head and heart – and trust yourself to open that box.