Dealing with Difficult Emotions

by Jordan Ciambrone | July 14, 2020, 09:45 AM

Mindful Attention and Difficult Emotions


The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

April 2020, you’re staring at your device. A COVID-19 news briefing flashes across the screen. How do you react? What physical sensations accompany the news update, if any? While this unbidden reaction may not be a pleasant experience, it is normal. Your body is trying to tell you something.

In that moment, you do possess a choice. You can ignore the reaction, or you can explore the reaction. There are arguments for both choices. Let's talk through, first, why exploring physical and emotional reactions are beneficial. 

How you interpret feelings and sensations influence emotions and mood states. Mood states shape behavior, both reactive and intentional.  As Rumi writes, it is possible to meet difficult emotions, the “unexpected visitors,” at the door with a sense of gratitude for what they bring to light. Regulating difficult emotions just takes a bit of time and deliberate practice. 

Deliberate Practice

Begin by collecting mindful attention, a tool that helps you unravel the aforementioned response, and work with it. Bring your total awareness to the present moment, then gently transition your attention to the internal landscape of sensations, thoughts and emotions. Mindful attention is characterized by non-judgmental curiosity. Make no effort to change your present experience, simply acknowledge what you are feeling. 

When difficult emotions arise, and you choose to stay with the experience, remember the acronym RAIN, a practice developed by Tara Brach, psychologist and meditation teacher. It stands for Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Nourish. 

  • Recognize Research points to “labeling” as an effective way to create space for emotional regulation. “Name it to tame it,” is helpful phrase to remember amidst an emotional hijack.
  • Accept which emotions are present without trying to fix, run away, or stuff down what you are feeling. 
  • Investigate physical sensations, thoughts and emotions with a sense of curiosity. According to Judson Brewer M.D, investigating what an emotion feels like versus why it is present, is an effective strategy for breaking the anxiety - worry habit loop. Stay curious.
  • Nourish. Kindness and self- compassion are a critical piece of the puzzle after sitting in the fire of challenging emotions. 

Tools to nourish your precious attention and choose self-care

  • Pare down the amount of information you are consuming and stay selective with news sources. Set limits on social media or other numbing content.
  • Bring acute awareness to pre-slumber rituals. Remember 3 things you’re grateful for.
  • Mark your calendar frequent doses of inspiration. Short, simple and sweet doses are effective: Reading an inspiring passage, breathe in nature, intentionally connecting with loved ones.
  • Extend copious amounts of grace and self compassion during “unproductive moments.”
  • Plan Ahead. Set routines, boundaries and work spaces that prioritize moving, eating, resting and connecting well. Visit archived blogs for guidance!
  • Balance DOing and BEing. Set time aside to check in with your emotional status. 

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Some habitual patterns of thinking and behaving are skillful, some are not. If the very thought of sitting with your own vulnerabilities makes you cringe, or you're not ready to investigate those potentially murky waters, we've got another tool for you. It costs nothing and lives right under your nose, your breath!

We all know the power of a nice deep breath. Try it now: Inhale deep, hold for a moment, then ahhh exhale. If you would like to take this practice a bit further, try box breathing, a simple too to help balance your nervous system. Follow along <HERE>.

There does exist the real option of choosing a distraction, and ignoring difficult emotions. While that may be the best way to nourish yourself in the moment, the stick point is that eventually, they will return, and typically at an inopportune time. Would you be willing to take one step closer to mindfully exploring difficult emotions? 

Yes, the dive can be scary, but it can also be incredibly freeing! And maybe, just maybe the next time news flashes across your device screen, the reaction may be surprisingly welcomed! 

Until next time,

Jordan and Bethany

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