What do you think when you hear the word “emotional”? Do you think of feeling stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed? So often, feeling emotional has negative connotations. This is most likely due to the experience of emotions that feel uncomfortable in the mind and body. We tend to desire so-called “good” or “positive” emotions, such as happiness, joy, love, hope, and pride, and reject “bad” or “negative” emotions such as anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, or shame.
Emotions are there for a very good reason. We need them for our survival. For example, fear protects us from danger (fight, flight, freeze), and anger motivates us to a resolve a problem and stand up for ourselves. Yet most of us try to avoid feeling “negative” emotions. We might distract ourselves with TV, video games, food, sleeping, exercise, shopping, or use substances to excess. We might even avoid other people, places and events because uncomfortable feelings or thoughts might arise.
The occasional use of these avoidance tactics can be helpful. For example, watching an episode of your favourite TV show or eating a piece of cake might uplift you. The problem arises when these tactics are over-relied upon to avoid emotions.
"Research shows that suppressing emotions can actually make them stronger, and increase vulnerability to mood states like depression."
Sometimes we need to avoid our feelings in order to keep functioning. Working towards a tight deadline at work may not be the right time to process and express how you’re feeling. Over time, however, avoidance can hold up the natural passage of emotions as they come and go in our bodies. Research suggests that suppressing emotions can actually make them stronger, and increase vulnerability to mood states like depression.
What if there was a way to lay the welcome mat out for all your emotions, uncomfortable or pleasant? What if you were to give up the labelling of these emotions as good or bad? Take a moment to think about what your life would look like… The word “liberating” comes to my mind. Imagine the freedom of being open and comfortable with the entirety of your emotional experience. What kind of things would you try that you hadn’t before? What would you say to your loved ones? How would you view yourself?
This is not to say that you wouldn’t feel your emotions. In fact, you might feel particular emotions more strongly. But it might mean that you can watch your emotions from a calmer perspective. By giving up the battle with the primary emotion, you might even prevent the development of secondary emotions. These are the emotions that arise as a result of the primary emotion, for example, feeling anxious that you feel sad, or feeling ashamed that you feel angry.
One way to allow yourself to experience emotions is using a mindfulness practice, such as this:
1. Find a quiet place and get comfortable before this practice. Close your eyes.
2. All emotions manifest themselves in some way in the body, so scan your body and see if you can find a strong sensation. Pick one if there is more than one sensation.
3. Next, observe this sensation with curiosity. Take a few minutes and notice its size, the edges, shape, colour, texture, temperature, weight, movement, intensity, and how far inside your body the sensation is.
4. Now, spend a few minutes imagining your breath moving in and around this sensation.
5. Each time you breathe, imagine yourself expanding and making room for this feeling. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to approve of the reason it arose.
6. Every time your mind comments, gently unhook, and come back to the sensation and the breath. The sensation might change, becoming more or less intense, or it might remain the same. The aim is not to change the feeling, but to allow it to be in your body.
Everyday mindfulness of emotions
The more you practice this kind of emotional curiosity, the more you may feel like you can integrate this into your everyday life. Whenever an emotion arises, tune into your body. Listen to the message the emotion is telling you. All emotions have something important to communicate. The beauty of a practice such as this is that it allows us to slow down long enough to respond intentionally, rather than reacting mindlessly.
Ever had a tough day emotionally? When emotions become overwhelming, Shamash Alidina, author of Mindfulness for Dummies, recommends this RAIN formula to help manage your feelings in a mindful way:
R – Recognise the emotion you’re feeling. Name the emotion in your mind if you can.
A – Accept the experience you’re having. Yes, you probably don’t like the feeling, but the reality is the emotion is here at the moment.
I – Investigate. Become curious about your experience. Where do you feel the emotion in your body? What kind of thoughts are going through your mind?
N – Non-identification. See the emotion as a passing event rather than who you actually are, just as different images are reflected in a mirror but are not the mirror. Different emotions arise and pass in you, but are not you, yourself. The most powerful step is non-identification. Have the attitude ‘anger is arising and will soon pass away’ or ‘sadness is coming up in me, and at some point will dissolve’.
Sometimes you just need to do one step, whereas at other times you may want to work through the whole formula. Practise using the formula whenever you can, so when things become challenging for you, you’ll find it easier to use.
Mood Meter app from Yale, designed to build emotional understanding (EQ)
Mindfulness for Dummies, Shamish Alidina
Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: Implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348–362.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., Wilson, K. G., Bissett, R. T., Pistorello, J., Toarmino, D., et al. (2004). Measuring experiential avoidance: A preliminary test of a working model. Psychological Record, 54, 553–578.