There is a persistent meme in our culture that we should feel happy all the time. Particularly in the spiritual world where the latest spin on the Law of Attraction meme can give the impression that if only you felt good all the time and just maintained “higher vibes” you’d attract everything you desire (gotta love when consumerism and pop spirituality converge). This can fuel the belief that feeling the whole range of emotions is somehow bad, unevolved, or unhealthy. The science of mindfulness and emotional regulation is showing that the opposite is true. A recent study showed that believing that certain emotions are “unacceptable” was associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. The key to becoming an optimistic, happy person does NOT, in fact, lie in never experiencing unpleasant emotions, but rather becoming skilled in relating to the full spectrum of emotions that will inevitably arise. Since there seems to be a lot of conflicting ideas about the how to best manage emotions, I sought the most useful, well-researched techniques on how to best relate to “all the feels”.
Before I dive into techniques though, you may be wondering how this relates to your physical health. The connection is through the stress response. For many of us in the Western world, our biggest stressors are no longer external threats such as wild animals, or imminent starvation but rather internal stressors, ie. our emotions and thoughts. When these “internal threats” are poorly managed our stress response is activated chronically. Chronic stress is implicated in nearly every disease and mood disorder, so in many ways learning how to healthily relate to your emotions is one of the most important healthy living skills to cultivate. What determines whether our emotions elicit unnecessary stress is how we relate to our emotional states as they arise. Here are the most practical, science-backed ways to develop a compassionate, healthy relationship with your emotional landscape.
4 Ways To Befriend Your Emotions and Drastically Reduce Your Stress:
Don’t try to THINK your way out of emotions. Instead, change your breathing to create true emotional shifts. Rather than trying to force shifts in your thinking, your breath is the key to regulating your emotional state. In research studies, they’ve shown that there are distinct breathing patterns associated with different emotional states. The fascinating part is that this relationship is bidirectional, meaning state shifts can be created in two ways. When you feel a certain emotion you breathe in a specific, predictable way AND if you breathe in a specific way, you will change your emotional state. Slow, deep breathing is associated with more “positive” emotions like happiness. Shallow, rapid breathing was associated with emotions like fear, sadness and anger. The next time you’re experiencing a distressing emotion, consciously take slow, deep breaths until you feel better.
Self-compassion is your best friend in emotional regulation. A common reaction to a distressing emotion is to beat yourself up for feeling bad, which makes you feel even worse. Kicking yourself while you’re down isn’t helpful and leads to rumination, depression, and re-triggers the initial unpleasant emotion. Use your unpleasant emotions as an opportunity to give yourself love and support, just as you would to a good friend who is suffering. Make a pledge to pile self-compassion on top of any emotion, particularly the “negative ones”. A practical way to evoke self-compassion is mindfulness + kindness. This looks like bringing your awareness to the reality of what you’re feeling and if you recognize it as a moment of suffering use it as a cue to be kind and gentle towards yourself. You can solidify this kindness through a mantra, touching your hand to your heart, or anything else that feels compassionate in the moment.
Stay focused on the body sensations associated with the emotion, not your thoughts about what the emotion means. Emotions are inherently an embodied experience as the feelings are a result of a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals. This actual physiologic emotional reaction does not last long unless re-triggered by the mind replaying the story around the emotion. A simple practice is to drop the story (even if it’s really compelling--you can always come back to it) and non-judgmentally observe your body sensations as you experience the emotion. Feel free to label the sensations you’re feeling in your body and watch as they shift and change. This allows the physiological emotional response to dissipate without re-triggering the emotional reaction with our thoughts and narratives about what it means. Meditation teacher, Tara Brach, offers a mindfulness practice that encompasses this technique here.
Label the emotion you’re experiencing. There have been some studies showing that simply labeling your emotional experience (ex. I’m feeling sad/mad/anxious ect.) reduces the physiological signs of distress associated with the emotion. This may be due to the recruitment of the higher brain centers (prefrontal cortex) required to label the emotion, which helps shift out of the more reactive, lower brain centers. Additionally, acknowledging the presence of an emotion brings mindfulness to your experience. Also, labeling offers some distance between you and the experience of the emotion allowing for more space to notice its transience and mindfully choose your response.
Feeling the entire range of human emotions is normal, and necessary. What determines whether our emotions elicit unnecessary stress is our relationship with our emotions as they arise. Embrace the whole range of human emotions and relate to them skillfully using labeling, self-compassion, breathing and awareness of body sensations. As always, I would love to hear about your experience using these techniques!
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