Have you heard the saying, "you can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf?"
This quote by Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) creator Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to the highs and lows and ups and downs of thoughts and emotions of our everyday life experiences.
We Are Emotional Creatures
As human beings, we are emotional creatures, meaning we have emotions about every single thing all day long. But learning to surf the waves of our emotions can prove to be challenging for multiple reasons.
For one thing, our nervous system is designed to protect us and when it detects a threat, it sets off an alarm inside of us so that we pay attention and do what we need to do to get to safety. While it's important to heed that warning, much of the time it is a perceived threat of danger we are responding to, like fear of being criticized or worrying about something that may happen in the future. On top of that, most of us don't learn the skill set of learning to handle difficult emotions, so how could we possibly know what to do to work through and release them?
"Power Through and Carry On"
After all, our culture is based on "rugged individualism" and we've been told to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps and carry on." We are experts at "powering through," keeping busy and intellectualizing our emotions, but that doesn't really work.
As a result, we don't learn to care for our emotional selves. Yet, emotional distress left unprocessed is an origination point of physical manifestation of illness and disease.
Unprocessed Emotion Shows Up as Symptoms
In fact, research shows that negative emotions actually get stuck in the body, unlike positive emotions. Unprocessed emotion can show up as symptoms such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, self-sabotage, relationship problems and physical stress on the body.
But how can we work with emotions so they don't rule and overcome us? Because when emotions aren't directly expressed and acknowledged, they will be indirectly expressed.
Emotions will always win, it's an absolute certainty. We can pretend they don't, but they absolutely always do. And we can't wish them away, they have to be dealt with.
While there are various effective healing modalities that help the body release emotions, as well as trauma responses, (some of which include Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems and Emotional Freedom Technique and require the expertise and guidance of a licensed mental health professional) there is a very simple daily practice we can do ourselves that can be immensely helpful.
Our thoughts and emotions are inextricably linked, in other words we can't have a thought without having a feeling and vice versa. To implement the very effective strategy suggested below, it is necessary to separate the two. (You can read on how to reframe your thoughts to relieve stress here.)
Be with Your Emotions, Try This Simple Daily Exercise
So, let's focus on being with your emotions.
Here's what we can do to allow ourselves the authentic experience of cultivating awareness and validating our emotions.
- Set aside some protected time towards the end of your day to get quiet without distractions.
- Focus on the difficult emotions that you're aware of in the moment or that you experienced earlier that day. You can write them down throughout the day to keep track if you'd like.
- Name each emotion. Then, one at a time, locate where you feel it in your body.
Take note, this is not an intellectual process, but you will probably attempt to "think" your way through this exercise. For example, "I'm angry because that person did that." When that happens, gently bring your focus back to the body. They call emotions feelings because we feel them in the body. Intellect is useless here.
- Now, simply feel what that's like. Describe how the emotion is manifesting in the body, such as "a heaviness in my chest or these knots in my stomach."
- You can take some deep breaths and put your hands over the affected area. Say to yourself, "this is sadness in my heart" or "this is how fear feels in my stomach."
The simplest part of this exercise, but the most difficult, is to just be with the sensation the emotion is producing. We're so conditioned to want to "do something." Here you're not "doing," you're just "being."
When you do this, there is typically a release and you will feel a shift and alleviation of tension or pain.
Sit for as long as what feels right for you, there's no set time. Use your intuition here. This is about getting a bit more comfortable with being uncomfortable, so it's likely you'll feel some resistance. That's completely natural.
Once you feel ready, you can move to the next emotion and follow the same process.
Practice and it Will Get Easier
Although difficult emotions are part of life and none of us want to deal with them, it can get easier if you practice consistently. But you do have to feel them.
Go Into the Emotion, Even Though it Feels Counterintuitive
It's like when you learn to drive and they teach you how to get out of a skid. They tell you to drive into the skid, not away from it, which, of course feels counterintuitive. But it's how you get out of the skid. Same with emotions. It feels like you'll make it worse by feeling it, but that's typically not the case.
So one thing's for sure: the waves will keep coming, but if you learn to surf them by building this essential skill set, it can feel less intimidating and most importantly, bring you some relief.
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