How can you respond to difficult emotions more effectively? Unfortunately pain and painful emotions are part of being human. It’s not possible to eliminate painful emotions, but it is possible to reduce the suffering they cause and learn to respond to them in a way that can increase the quality of your life.
Our emotions are biochemical messengers. Our brains take in cues from the environment and produce emotions to help us respond to the situations we encounter. They can influence us to run from danger (fear) or fight for something we want (anger). Emotions evolved to help us to survive and to get our needs met.
But sometimes they don’t help us. We can get caught in cycles of negative emotions and responses and are thrown off-balance. If that happens, here are 3 steps to help you find your balance again – recognizing the emotion, surfing the emotion, and choosing our actions.
A. Recognize the Emotion.
What makes up an emotion? All of our emotions have four components. Learning to recognize these components can help us better understand what is going on and be better able to cope with our emotions. Being able to label and notice what we are feeling in the moment can help us move through the experience more easily.
- Thoughts: The content of what we are thinking.
- Feelings: The label or name we give the emotion.
- Sensations: What the emotion feels like in our body.
- Urges: The impulse behind the emotion, what the emotion wants us to do.
For example, if I had a bad breakup I might start thinking “I’m all alone. No one loves me.” The feeling I can label as “sad.” The sensations in my body might be heaviness in the heart. The impulse might be to withdraw from people and stay at home.
Or if we I am cut off in traffic and have to slam on my brakes, I might find myself thinking “What a jerk!” I could label the emotion as anger. I might notice an elevated heart rate and a feeling of heat in my body. The impulse might be to lay onto my horn and tailgate the other car.
B. Learn to Surf the Emotion.
You can think of emotions like waves on the ocean. Emotions will come and go all by themselves. Our thoughts can influence our emotions, but do not control them. Ruminating about something will keep the emotion around longer. The length of time an emotion sticks around is usually related to the importance of the events it is related to in your life
Once we recognize that emotions come and go all by themselves, it’s possible to learn to ride the wave of a difficult emotion using mindful acceptance. We don’t need to run away from difficult emotions, suppress them, or unthinkingly do what they tell us to do. Trying to suppress them, ruminate about them, or acting them out will only help them stick around longer.
To surf a difficult emotion using mindful acceptance, remember the wave analogy and walk yourself through the parts of the emotion one by one, accepting each part that you are feeling. The attitude to adopt is “I may not like this, but I’m willing to accept it as my reality of the moment.” See if you can make some space between yourself and your thoughts, feelings and sensations. Try to see them as waves, or as clouds passing through the sky, or as pedestrians you’re walking by on the sidewalk. You may not like or want these experiences, but remember that they come and go. This is only what is showing up right now.
- Notice the sensations in the body. “I notice the sensation of _________ in my body. I accept that I’m having this sensation.”
- Notice the feeling itself, and name the emotion. “I notice that I’m feeling _____right now.”
- Notice how strong the emotion is right now on a scale of 1 – 10.
- Notice, like a wave, whether the emotion is rising, cresting, or falling right now
- Recognize thoughts as thoughts, and accept them as thoughts. “I notice myself having the thought that _________________.” Then let that thought go.
- Notice the action impulse. See if you can notice it just as an impulse, not something you have to do.
- Repeat 2 or 3 times.
Choose your actions
While painful emotions can drive us to behave in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others, it isn’t necessary to do what they tell us to do. Hiding at home for too long when we are depressed, or acting out on rage while driving can harm ourselves and others. And the more we act out on a distressing emotion, the longer it will stick around.
If you slow it down and become more mindful, it becomes possible to recognize the moment of choice in an emotional experience. The emotion brings with it an impulse to take some kind of action, We can learn to notice that impulse as an impulse, and then choose our actions rather than letting our emotions dictate what we do. We can learn to act rather than react.
One way to do this is known as “opposite action.” If a distressing emotion is coming up, we can choose to do the opposite of what the emotion tells us to do. For example, with social anxiety, the fear might tell me to keep to myself and go home early from a party. Opposite action would involve instead going up and introducing myself to someone even though I’m feeling anxious. With anger, the anger might tell me to get back at the other person. Opposite action would tell me to take a step back, take a breath, and consider my actions.
Another approach comes from focusing on values. In any situation, you can identify who or what is important to you (your values) and start taking actions that move you in that direction. For example, if I’m having an argument with my partner, my anger might tell me to yell and point out what’s wrong with him. If I focus on my values (closeness and intimacy) I can notice that impulse to fight. But I can find the moment of choice and might instead take a “time out” and come back and discuss the situation after we’ve both calmed down.
Summing It All Up
When facing difficult emotions:
- Learn to mindfully notice the different parts of the emotions, and accept each of part as your experience of the moment.
- Learn to surf your emotions. Practice mindful acceptance, and allow the emotions to come and go all on their own without trying to suppress them or having to act out them out.
- Find that moment of choice where you can either do what the emotion drives you to do or take action that might improve the quality of your life. This means finding a way to move towards what’s important to you rather than away from what you don’t want to feel.
It takes practice. Start with less intense situations and emotions at first. Like going to the gym, you don’t start with 200 pound weights, but you can work yourself up to them. Small practices repeated over time can make big differences in our lives.