When Emotions Run the Show
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, our emotions take over completely; and it can be difficult to find our way out of it. Don’t worry - it’s normal. We all experience difficulties in our lives. Once we can understand that they are not permanent, that they are simply an experience we are having, we can learn to manage them more effectively.
When life gets busy, as it inevitably does, we tend to leave all of our tools - coping, breathing, reflection, etc - in the toolbox. Living life mindfully takes intention, which can at times be that extra bit of work that we just don’t want to add to our plate. But this is the time when we absolutely MUST add it to our hectic lives, or we risk our mental health suffering.
Knowing your warning signs is a good start. Are you the type to hold things in until you explode? Or are you the type to be short tempered consistently when you’re in a state of difficult emotion? Does it pop up at work? Or at home?
Recently, I got a new car that I have been waiting to be ready for almost 3 years. We were on a road trip to Phoenix and BAM! A rock hit my windshield and left some pretty good damage. I yelled some expletives, quite loudly, and stunned both my son and my husband into silence. It was pretty funny looking back, but in the moment I was FUMING. Surprisingly, my not-always-mindful husband was the one to calm me down and put things into perspective. Instead of getting upset with myself for losing it, I forgave myself for not seeing what I was capable of in the moment.
I tend to be the type that holds stuff in until I find myself having a seriously extreme reaction to something quite insignificant. That’s when I know. “Ok, Melissa. Time to figure it out. Slow down, what’s the real problem here?” (Then I have to reflect on what on earth happened to all of my tools?! For goodness sake, I teach this for a living!) A lot of the time, I just “don’t have time” to deal with something difficult and I put it away until I have time to “unpack” it. But that time never really comes, or it all just comes out in a cry-fest over a broken windshield.
Studies show that it’s quite common for us to avoid looking at anything difficult. The problem with that approach is that the difficult emotions don’t go away. They just get tamped down and can make us more sensitive or reactive to future difficulties (insert rock on highway here).
If we consider that there are really only two emotions, love and fear, it is clear that our reaction to difficulties falls under fear. The subset of emotions under fear that typically take over are anger or sadness. When anger surfaces, keep in mind that it hurts you worse than the other person, with many physiological responses that harm your health. When angry, try lowering the temperature through deep breathing. Breathing in calm and breathing out anger. Repeatedly sharing how angry you are actually increases the brain’s chemical reaction to anger, prompting additional releases of cortisol and adrenaline. So if you’re really angry, share it with a trusted person to get it out, but then turn to mindfulness practices that will calm you down. While anger is a difficult emotion to be sure, we have a choice as to whether or not to hang on to it. Anger’s purpose is to prompt us to act, so take action that serves your well-being.
Research suggests that sadness evolved as a response to failure and loss. Since sadness is a difficult emotion, we of course try to avoid it, but again, it doesn’t go away on its own. It sits inside, waiting for the opportunity to express itself and usually not in the most productive way when ignored too long. Sadness actually improves memory, which in turn can help us to succeed in the future, and regret sharpens motivation.
So perhaps instead of ignoring sadness, consider gently allowing sad feelings to surface as you think about your situation or event. Ask yourself what you need in this moment. Be as compassionate with yourself as you would if you were supporting a friend who felt sad.
Unlike anger, talking repeatedly about sadness can be healing, so share your feelings with someone you trust. Sadness may take a long time to process and unlike most difficulties, distracting yourself to gain relief can be effective. Just choose non-harmful distractions, like a funny movie, a good book, a concert or sporting event, spending time with children or animals. These distractions can cheer you up and help prevent you from sliding into depression as you work your way through releasing the sadness.
If you find sadness overwhelming, reach out for support. Sometimes we are dealing with issues that are simply too much for us to handle on our own, so whether a trusted friend or a professional therapist, you don’t have to suffer alone.
As we each individually experience difficult situations and feelings, it’s helpful to accept that this is a normal human response to challenges. A key component of mindfulness is acceptance. That is not to say that we want the difficulty or that we agree with the situation, but only that we accept that it is occurring. Once it has occurred, we can choose how to respond to it. The most effective response is to turn toward the difficulty, not only to overcome it, but to gain the resilience, knowledge and insights the difficulty offers.
Here is a great meditation to help you with difficult emotions.