Using Mindfulness to Deal with Difficult Emotions

There are no “good” or “bad emotions.” However, reactions to those emotions can keep us from growing and developing psychologically. These reactions, including avoiding or suppressing our emotions, can also lead to long-term negative health impacts.

Socially, we are taught that some emotions are “good” emotions, like love or compassion. These feelings often make us feel good inside and often prompt us to react in healthy ways, like giving someone a hug. And we are taught that some are “bad” emotions, like anger or jealousy, and these feelings may physically hurt, linger, or cause us to react in unhealthy ways, such as hitting someone.

We may also be judging ourselves harshly when a “bad” feeling pops up or if we are not able to let the “bad” feelings go. But it’s important to understand that emotions are not inherently good or bad even if the sensations they bring are pleasant or unpleasant.

Emotions are just information about our experience. It’s therefore counterproductive to beat ourselves up when certain emotions arise. Furthermore, we shouldn’t let our emotions define who we are. By defining ourselves and others as “an angry person” or as “an always happy person,” you limit the full breadth and depth of human experience.

We don’t need to be victims of our emotions, and we don’t need to let emotions control our actions. In fact, learning to embrace and work through your difficult emotions can lead to positive health benefits as indicated by this psychological study.

Using mindfulness strategies, we can work with our emotions, learn from them, and allow them to help guide us into better versions of ourselves.

Where Difficult Emotions Come From

Having emotions is part of the human experience. But not all emotions are the same, and how our bodies feel those emotions and react to them is different for every person.

There are no “good” or “bad emotions.” However, reactions to those emotions can keep us from growing and developing psychologically. These reactions, including avoiding or suppressing our emotions, can also create long-term negative health impacts on us.

Perhaps it’s because our culture doesn’t teach healthy ways to process certain emotions but there tends to be certain emotions that some individuals find difficult to work through and beyond. These difficult emotions might include:

  • Loneliness
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Grief
  • Anger or rage
  • Stress
  • Jealousy
  • Worry
  • Disgust

In order to have a better understanding of why these emotions get “stuck” inside of us, it’s helpful to understand how the brain processes and regulates emotions.

The brain contains the limbic system, which is a group of interconnected structures located deep inside the brain.

The limbic system has two basic jobs: to regulate emotion and to encode your memories. This part of the brain also includes the amygdala which is responsible for our fight-flight-freeze response.

Different emotions trigger different areas of the brain to respond. For example, feelings of anger trigger part of the prefrontal cortex. Happiness triggers the precuneus. Love triggers a similar response as fear, except that the adrenal glands are instructed to produce hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin.

There have been many studies that analyze how the brain responds to feelings of fear. When you feel afraid, the amygdala activates and triggers the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause physical changes in you, including increased heart rate, increased blood sugar, and increased perspiration.

The amygdala also plays a role in remembering that fear sensation. Because of this, you learn to associate certain situations with feelings of fear.

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Response

Okay, so emotions start in the brain and typically produce a hormonal response. How do those feelings get “stuck” and fixed into place?

According to one Harvard neuroscientist, when we’re triggered by a threatening external stimulus, “there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” That means that any response beyond 90 seconds is created by certain thought patterns by the individual.

Those thought patterns can re-trigger that chemical response to happen over and over again. Said in a different way: the more you cling to the same thoughts, the more you’re going to repeatedly feel those same emotions.

You can break that cycle and get “unstuck” by breaking those thought patterns. That’s where mindfulness can really have powerful benefits.

How to Identify When Difficult Emotions are Getting the Better of You

Difficult emotions can start to take over your life when they don’t go away and when they repeat over and over again.

Psychologically, humans have a tendency to repeat emotions—especially difficult ones—if we don’t repair the cyclical thought process.

Omar Itani possibly says it best: “Whether positive or negative, we develop thinking and behavioral patterns over the years that become ingrained in our subconscious mind. In times of stress, worry, jealousy, or anger, our psyche automatically repeats what is familiar and what feels safe because we naturally seek what’s known over the unknown.”

Here are some ways you might be able to identify if your emotions are stuck:

  • You judge yourself harshly for feeling difficult emotions.
  • You always need to be busy.
  • You procrastinate, have difficulty feeling motivated or focusing.
  • You avoid conflict.
  • You crave pleasurable distractions.
  • You are often irritable and are easily triggered into feeling those same emotions again.

How to Mindfully Regulate Your Emotions

There’s no quick solution to help you “fix” your emotions, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for you. Or what works one day might not work the next. However, there are some known strategies for leaning in to your emotions, to work with them, and to help resolve them. All of these following strategies are elements of mindfulness.

Resist the urge to push the emotion away.

This might be harder than you think. Our emotions can feel uncomfortable inside of us. Grief, anger, and loneliness are just three examples of common emotions that make us feel uncomfortable, and our typical social response is to push those feelings away and replace them with something that feels better. One strategy that might help you resist the urge to push the emotion away is to practice visualization strategies. One such strategy is to mentally pretend to wrap the difficult feeling in a warm hug and invite it to talk to you.

Practice naming or noting the feeling.

Psychologists are still studying why this naming practice works so well—some believe it’s because it bridges the gap between feelings and thoughts. Others indicate that naming makes the feelings less intense and downgrades their power. Either way, putting words to the emotion seems to have significant benefits.

Read this fascinating study about naming a tarantula as an item of fear—and how naming it made the fear less intense!) For example, if you have a fear of the dentist, try saying it out loud, like “going to the dentist makes me absolutely paralyzed with terror.” Observe how this process of naming changes your experience.

Explore and investigate the emotion.

Get curious about your own experience! But, it’s important to do this in a non-judgmental way. Some questions you can ask yourself to explore the emotion are: What triggered it? What does this discomfort feel like? Where can I feel it? Is this a pattern that arises often? What is the story I am telling myself about this emotion? What am I believing about myself or the situation that is perpetuating this emotion?

Recognize that the feeling won’t last forever.

No feeling sticks around forever. Did you know that the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the body and brain is only 90 seconds long? How many times have you wished that you could grasp and keep the excitement and joy that many children experience during the holidays?

One great benefit of impermanence is that the feelings that cause you distress will eventually relent. Acknowledge that feelings won’t stick around forever. When you do this, it is the first step in inviting the feeling to move on, become less intense, and allow you the ability to feel other emotions.

When it’s ready, invite the feeling to go.

One technique for this is to picture your emotion or thought pattern like it was a soap bubble. Cradling it gently in the palm of your hand, blow and invite it to blow away in the wind. All varieties of nature imagery work here: a drop of water flowing down a stream. A leaf falling from a tree in autumn. A fledgling launching from its nest.

Sometimes, a feeling isn’t quite ready to go, and sometimes a feeling will come and go repeatedly. That’s okay! Just be patient with it, just like you would with a beloved sibling. It is also helpful to try to focus on positive elements. If you are struggling with grief, it might help to tap into a happy memory as a balm for the grief feeling.

Additionally, focusing on how grateful you are to have people around you to support you during difficult times can also help refocus your brain. These strategies may help encourage the unproductive emotion from playing on a loop inside of you. When it’s ready, the feeling will go.

It’s important to note that the goal here is not to eradicate the difficult emotion. It’s also not to prevent difficult emotions from arising in the future. Rather, this practice aims to reduce the power of the emotion on you. It’s to regain a sense of balance, which could just mean lessening the intensity of the emotion and to allow other feelings to manifest.

After all, a rich human experience is one where a wide variety of emotions—both “good” and “bad”—can be experienced and felt fully.

Mindfulness Techniques for Meeting Difficult Emotions

All of the suggestions listed above are aspects of mindfulness practices. Meeting mindfulness with awareness and compassion is a highly effective way to transform emotions and open up your life to a greater range of experiences. Here are some additional suggestions that you might want to incorporate into your mindfulness practice:

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving Kindness Meditation, also called Compassion Meditation, is an effective way to show kindness to others but also love and compassion to yourself! This meditation technique has been studied and shown that it may be one element that contributes towards greater well-being and lower stress.

In general, this meditation technique focuses on bringing gentle, loving energy to yourself (and others).

Try the following activities to get started.

  1. Get seated in a comfortable sitting or laying down position. Comfort is key!
  2. To help get in a calm state, you can practice deep breathing or a body scan.
  3. Ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now?” Just observe what the answer is without needing to change it.
  4. Repeat three or four positive phrases to yourself. For example: May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy, peaceful, and strong. May I be completely at ease.
  5. Take a moment to reflect on how you feel. Again, just observe how you feel with curiosity without needing to change it.
  6. Repeat the process.

If you want a video to guide you through Loving Kindness Meditation, we have a wonderful video resource for you.

Visualization Techniques

Visualization is the process by which you imagine yourself experiencing something or provide a suggestion to your psyche. It’s like daydreaming, but you can “steer” the imagery more deliberately.

Visualization techniques can help you combat thoughts that are on “repeat” cycles, can help you express more complex emotions, encourage so-called “positive” emotions, and can also help you dive deeper to explore issues that are underlying an emotional state.

These techniques work by changing brain functioning, such as increased connectivity in the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe in both brain hemispheres.

Some examples of visualization techniques include:

  • Try a hugging visualization technique, as previously described in Item #1 in “How can you regulate your emotions?” You can also use a handshaking visualization technique instead of a hugging visualization if that is more comfortable for you. (Note: This strategy isn’t recommended if your emotions arise from a place of past trauma.)
  • Visualize a path or a walkway. This represents a journey you want to take with your emotion. Invite the emotion to join you on the walk. Where does the walk go, or how does it end?
  • Imagine that you are a flower, with each petal representing a different emotion. Can you name each emotion, then pluck and blow a petal away into the wind?
  • Visualize that your emotion is your teacher in a classroom and that you are a student. What lessons does your emotion have to teach you?
  • Imagine that your emotion is a friend that you invite to have a cup of tea with you so you can find out what is going on with them.

Awaken Can Help You Get Started

If you are new to the practice of mindfulness, you may find that your mind begins to wander. Allow these thoughts to come and bring them to your attention before guiding your focus back to the present. Mindfulness is just like a muscle that needs regular exercise to build its strength.

You may also find it helps to practice mindfulness at certain times of the day, to write down your daily mindfulness habits, or to invite a friend to help hold you accountable.

Awaken Pittsburgh offers mindfulness training for all skill levels, including beginners just like you.

Check out our free online mindfulness training resources

Join our online mindfulness community where you can find support and begin your mindfulness journey alongside like-minded people.

Mindful Connections™

Through our proprietary curriculum, Mindful Connections™, we offer essential, evidence-based mindfulness training designed to meet many needs—from individuals looking to deepen their practice, to educators, to public safety teams and others working in high-stress professions.

Led by experts in their fields and grounded in the latest findings in neuroscience and dialectical behavioral therapy, Mindful Connections™ programs are a proven path to powerful and lasting transformation.

Our introductory series is geared towards beginners, introducing a spectrum of practices that can benefit all levels. In addition, we offer programs specific to intermediate and advanced practitioners

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