How to Handle Difficult Emotions Part 5: Mindfulness of Emotions
Ending the Struggle
We often start to learn mindfulness skills by focusing our attention on our breath, our bodies, the environment or activities. Being mindful of emotions helps us to stand back from the emotion, understand it, not to fear it or struggle against it, and it can have the added benefit of reducing the distress (although the aim is to learn to accept the experience, rather than lessen the distress).
Set aside a few minutes when you can be quiet and won't be disturbed.
Start by bringing your attention to your breath. Notice your breathing as you slowly breathe in and out, perhaps imagining you have a balloon in your belly, noticing the sensation in your belly as the balloon inflates on the in-breath, and deflates on the out-breath.
Notice the feelings and what it feels like.
Name the emotion:
What is it?
What word best describes what you are feeling?
Angry, sad, anxious, irritated, scared, frustrated....
Accept the emotion. It's a normal body reaction. It can be helpful to understand how it came about - what it was, the set of circumstances that contributed to you feeling this way. Don't condone or judge the emotion. Simply let it move through you without resisting it, struggling against it, or encourage it.
Investigate the emotion:
How intensely do you feel it?
How are you breathing?
What are you feeling in your body? Where do you feel it?
What's your posture like when you feel this emotion?
Where do you notice muscle tension?
What's your facial expression? What does your face feel like?
Is anything changing? (Nature, position, intensity)
What thoughts or judgements do you notice? Just notice those thoughts. Allow them to come into your mind, and allow them to pass. Any time you find that you're engaging with the thoughts - judging them or yourself for having them, believing them, struggling against them, just notice, and bring your attention back to your breathing, and to the physical sensations of the emotion.
If any other emotions come up, if anything changes, simply notice and repeat the steps above. Just notice that the feelings change over time.
As you become more practiced, you can use this mindfulness technique when you feel more intense emotion.
A Wider Perspective
With mindfulness, even the most disturbing sensations, feelings, thoughts, and experiences, can be viewed from a wider perspective as passing events in the mind, rather than as "us", or as necessarily true. By simply being present in this way, you support your own deep healing (Brantley 2003).
When we are more practiced in using mindfulness, we can use it even in times of intense distress, by becoming mindful of the actual experience as an objective observer, using mindful breathing and concentrating attention on breathing with the body's experience, listening to the distressing thoughts mindfully, recognizing them as merely thoughts, breathing with them, allowing them to happen without believing them or arguing with them.
If thoughts are too strong or loud, then we can move attention to our breath, the body, or to sounds in the environment. We can use kindness and compassion for ourselves and for the elements of the body and mind's experience. "May I be filled with peace and ease. May I be safe" (Brantley 2003).
Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the example of waves to help explain mindfulness. Think of your mind as the surface of a lake or an ocean. There are always waves on the water, sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes almost imperceptible. The water's waves are churned up by winds, which come and go and vary in direction and intensity, just as do the winds of stress and change in our lives, which stir up waves in our mind.
It's possible to find shelter from much of the wind that agitates the mind. Whatever we might do to prevent them, the winds of life and of the mind will blow, do what we may.
"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf" (Kabat-Zinn, 2004).
* Check back next week for part 6!
Artwork by Michael Parkes