Connect to Self and Others

Connect to Self and Others

How mindfulness works with strong emotions. By Rachel Long

Jan 7, 2020 | Blog, Yoga | 0 comments

A big feeling caught me by surprise recently. Within moments of reading an email, my rational mind shut down, my body temperature increased, I could feel an ache in my chest, my belly tightened and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to scream or cry.

It took me a while to digest my feeling that day, I talked to people, breathed deeply, walked by the ocean. In the throes of that strong emotion, there was a part of me that wished this emotional response wasn’t happening, and that instead I felt calm, peaceful and rational.

This moving away from painful emotions like anger, fear, sadness or grief is a common human response. Partly due to the minds intrinsic nature to automatically and quite unconsciously, filter all experience into that which we like, or that which we don’t like; the pleasant or the unpleasant.

While avoidance of painful emotions may be a good short-term strategy, it doesn’t work as a long-term life strategy, and leads to all sorts of other problems.

While avoidance of painful emotions may be a good short-term strategy, it doesn’t work as a long-term life strategy, and leads to all sorts of other problems.

Mindfulness offers a number of approaches to working with strong emotions.

Here is one you might like to experiment with next time a big feeling comes your way.

  1. Allow yourself to feel the feeling.

Sometimes when a painful feeling arises we can automatically attempt to suppress it, push it away or conquer it somehow. In mindfulness the invitation is to feel the anger, shame, fear, anxiety or guilt without trying to change it. Feeling the feeling involves acceptance and allowing.

  1. Name the feeling.

When we’re overwhelmed with emotion, our pre-frontal cortex (the thinking, rational part of our brain) has pretty much been hijacked by the emotional, limbic brain. Psychiatrist, Dr Dan Siegal, coined the term “name it to tame it” as a way to help children manage emotions, however it works beautifully for adults too. By naming the emotion, we activate some integration of the thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) with the feeling brain (the limbic system) again. The important part here is to just name the emotion, such as “I notice pain, shame, anger, irritation, sadness” etc, without going into story.

  1. Find the corresponding body sensation.

Where in your body can you most feel the emotion? With awareness investigate the body sensations, do they have a weight, a temperature, are the body sensations moving? Do they have a shape or a colour? What happens to the body sensations when you hold them in awareness?

  1. Open up to the feeling.

Just like you investigated and got close to the body sensations, see if you can move toward the painful emotion, or if you can’t move toward the feeling, can you be open and hold it awareness?

  1. Remember that emotions are “energy in motion”.

Emotions are like waves coming and going. Know that you are not your anger, pain or fear, you are more than that and that this emotion will pass.

  1. Looking deeply

Once the emotion has subsided and you feel calm again, you can apply mindful curiosity to your experience and investigate the cause of your discomfort. Do you have values, beliefs or perceptions that were compromised or challenged? To you need to change something in your life? It’s important that this step is only done once the energy of the emotion has completely dissolved.

In the MBSR course we investigate how we can apply mindfulness skills to emotions. There are lots of different strategies you can experiment with in the course. In all the strategies explored, you’ll find that key, is this idea of allowing and accepting, and bringing awareness to the body sensation of the emotion. As soon as we apply mindfulness skill to our emotions, we have interrupted our patterned and habitual emotional reactivity, and this is where the gift is. In that moment of interrupting habitual emotional patterns, we can choose to look after ourself and make a choice as to how we’ll consciously respond, instead of being stuck in habitual reactivity.

Rachels next amazing Mindfulness course commences February 16.

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