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Staying Present to the Unpleasant-Processing Emotions in a Healthy Way
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a key predictor of mental health. Our EQ refers to our ability to be aware of, regulate, and express our emotions and to understand, and respond skillfully, to the emotions of others.
Emotion suppression consists of “inhibiting the outward signs of your inner feelings.” Professionals in high-stress jobs (doctors, police, military) are often taught that emotional suppression is an effective strategy for emotional regulation, in spite of plentiful research suggesting otherwise. In fact, many officers in the Police Force often report pride with their ability to completely “turn off” their feelings either at work or at home. At the same time, these professions report some of the highest incidences of both suicide, PTSD and substance abuse. It is interesting to note that these specific populations, whose jobs involve acute exposure to difficult emotions, and who have been generally taught to deal with emotions by suppressing them, demonstrate such high degrees of clinical distress.
Studies have shown that suppressing emotions actually endangers your health and well-being, both physically and psychologically. Emotional suppression (having a stiff upper lip or “sucking it up”) might decrease outward expressions of emotion but not the inner emotional experience. In other words, suppression doesn’t make the emotion go away, it just stays inside you causing more pain.
When it comes to regulating difficult emotions, there are two ways most people respond: they act out or they suppress. If you act out with a strong emotion like anger, you will most likely create undesirable consequences in your relationships, your work and even your play. The ripple effects of acting out usually provoke more anger around you, which leads to more difficulty.
Let go of the Struggle
Be the OBSERVER of your thoughts (access your WISE mind)
Once we find that we can observe our thoughts and mind from a distance this gives us an edge. This empowers us as we get to CHOOSE how we want our WISE mind to respond to challenges and difficulties.
It may be helpful to firstly remember that not every thought is a fact. Thoughts are mental events that pass through our mind, just like clouds in the sky. All of our thoughts, feelings and sensations are just like the ever-changing weather that passes through the sky, without affecting the nature of the sky itself. The weather of our minds and bodies comes and goes and is also impermanent. Remembering “this too shall pass” can help us to remain balanced and centered, without getting swept up in every passing storm.
Many people try different ways to get rid of their negative thoughts, including distractions, diversions, or ‘drowning their sorrows’ only to later mentally beat themselves up for being stuck in negativity. If you are struggling with negative thinking it is possible to turn things around and cultivate inner peace.
Research shows that struggling with, arguing with, trying to drown out or push away unhelpful thoughts only amplifies them and makes things worse.
How to Regulate Emotions
Many people aren’t aware that there’s an effective way to regulate our emotions: Feel the feeling in real time.
On one level, emotions are like energy waves, varying in shape and intensity, just like ocean waves. Their nature is to arise and pass away pretty quickly, like all natural phenomena. If you attempt to interrupt this process, through acting out or suppressing, several things can happen. Tragically (and ironically), efforts to “talk yourself out of your emotions” often results in “increased rumination and perservation.” In other words, you will keep thinking about and holding onto those emotions you’re trying to avoid. Suppression gets held in the body and creates a host of downstream effects including muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, depression, stress-related illness, all the way to substance abuse, PTSD and suicide.
Using mindfulness to accurately label negative thought patterns can help you cope more effectively and ensure that the emotion is not being fuelled by the “story-line” related to the emotion.
Emotions and feelings are signals that let us know our response to something that is arising. In this program it is wise to cultivate the ability and the resilience to tolerate the feelings that arise and how to regulate them, as well as paying attention to what thoughts are on the mind. We can use mindfulness to ride the waves of strong feelings or emotional distress. We can learn to ride these waves and it can be quite liberating learning to ‘be with’ and accept what is in the present moment (even if it is unpleasant).
With time, this simple practice of learning to make space for the difficult (without rejection, judgement or resistance) can help increase our personal resilience and help us move more effectively and more quickly through the turbulence from difficult events.
Name it to Tame it
This WISE Wheel of Emotion may help you to understand what emotions may lie underneath the primary emotion you may be feeling (the inner circle). See if you can explore the secondary emotions (outer circles) each moment you notice a difficulty.
WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS
INFORMAL PRACTICE- Unpleasant Awareness/ Letting Go
Last week the task was to notice what occurs in your body and mind as a result of gratitude and pleasant experiences, such as starting the day calm. Each day this week, see if you can bring awareness to an unpleasant circumstance, difficulty or challenge. So often when we experience something unpleasant, we immediately move into “doing-mode” a kind of problem-solving which can escalate our distress. We can never have a life free from pain and difficulty. Being mindful in the moment, letting go of the thoughts/narrative associated with the difficulty and labelling our negative emotions reduces our emotional reactivity towards them. Exploring in this way and finding the value under the emotion gives us the opportunity to step out of our habitual reactions, pain and discomfort and choose how to best look after ourselves in that moment.
FORMAL PRACTICE- Staying Present to the Unpleasant
Between now and next week, practice Staying Present to the Unpleasant. This recording helps you to accept and develop the resilience to feel the emotion in real time.
Remember, our feelings are called feelings because they are meant to be felt. Next time you feel a strong emotion see if you can tune into the sensations in the body that are evoked by that feeling, rather than getting lost in narrative or thought about the trigger. Remember, your feelings are always justified no matter what they are.
Week 3: Staying Present to the Unpleasant (8 min)