• Stress management tip: Practice mindfulness with negative emotions

    March 15, 2017 | curtrosengren
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    Learning to navigate challenging emotions without letting them pull you under is a huge part of getting more effective at navigating stress.

    The more stressed you feel, the more easily negative emotions can hijack your experience. You’re unlikely to get rid of those negative emotions entirely but, by looking at them through the lens of mindfulness, you can take them out of the driver’s seat.

    Mindfulness isn’t some magical, mystical idea. It couldn’t be more straightforward. A good simple definition of mindfulness is “non-judgmental present moment awareness.” In short, it’s a focused awareness of what’s happening in the here-and-now, without the overlay of whether it’s good or bad, something you want or something you don’t want, etc.


    When you have been hijacked by strong negative emotions, it’s easy for them to define your “reality.” I put reality in quotes because all that’s really happening is that those emotions are defining your perception.

    When you’re caught in the vortex of strong negative emotion, it feels like that’s reality. No other perspective, no other experience is valid at that moment in time. You get sucked into that vortex and buffeted about mercilessly.

    The experience feels so solid. It feels real. But what’s actually happening is that you’re being consumed by a momentary wave of emotion, energy, and thought, like being knocked over by a rogue wave at the beach.

    Extricating yourself from the vortex

    Practicing mindfulness of negative emotions helps you extricate yourself from being a hapless puppet on a string, controlled by those surges. It helps you step back and see the emotional swell for what it really is – an experience that comes and eventually goes.

    If that vortex is, for example, a raging torrent of fury, it can be hard to extricate ourselves from it. That’s especially true when we first start working with emotions and mindfulness. So it can be helpful to start “training your brain” with something that doesn’t have such a strong charge.

    Start with irritation

    I often talk about using life as a learning lab for inner peace. Irritation presents a perfect opportunity. It’s ubiquitous in most of our lives and has a negative impact on us, but doesn’t tend to be so strong that we’ll inevitably get swept away. 

    For the purposes of dipping your toe in the water and starting to practice, imagine a situation that brings up some irritation. Strong enough that you could get lost in it, but not so strong that it takes over completely.

    When you’re mindless in a situation like this, that irritation can start to fill every nook and cranny of your experience. One could say you become that irritation, and there’s no room to take a step back and look at it objectively.

    In that situation, the irritation creates the lens you’re looking through, guides your actions and interactions, and contributes to an altogether miserable experience.

    Add some mindfulness to the mix

    Now hit rewind and add a dollop of mindfulness to the mix. The irritation comes up, and you quickly notice the shift. “Oh,” you might think, “there’s that irritation.” You’re not trying to make the irritation go away. You’re just noticing it.

    From there, you might shift your attention to the experience of that irritation in your body. Negative emotions aren’t just a head-based experience. They show up as tension in your body.

    Setting aside whatever thoughts you might be having about the source of that irritation, you ask, “Where am I feeling this?”

    It might be a tension in your abdomen, or a tightness in your shoulders. You may notice that your breathing is shallow, or that your brow is furrowed. Become a connoisseur of the physical experience of irritation.

    This does a couple things. First, it busts you out of the toxic loop where irritation leads to negative thinking about the situation, which leads to more irritation, which might lead to irritated interactions about the situation, which might make everything even worse.

    Focusing on how that irritation is showing up in your body brings you directly into the present moment, without the story that feeds the irritation and adds to the unpleasantness of the situation.

    Noticing physical sensation is a great mindfulness tool, because sensation can only happen right here, right now. By definition it brings us into the present moment.

    Relax the tension

    The other thing that focusing on the bodily experience of irritation does is opens a door to relaxing the tension. Personally, I often hold a lot of my negative emotion in my abdomen. My muscles tense up and I feel a general sense of constriction.

    When I notice that, I can breathe into that tension and relax. I’m not trying to stop feeling irritated, or angry, or whatever the emotion is. I’m simply relaxing the area of my body that is constricted and letting go of the tension.

    Getting started

    Mindfulness isn’t rocket science, but it’s not something we as a culture ever teach or reinforce, so most of us have to approach it as complete newbies.

    Mindful magazine has an excellent page on getting started with mindfulness on their site.

    Here’s a short overview on mindfulness, with Anderson Cooper interviewing Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man largely responsible for introducing mindfulness to the mainstream in the west.

    If you’d like to go deeper, here’s a talk Kabat-Zinn gave in Oslo.

    If you find mindfulness in the face of negative emotions challenging, you might want to start practicing it in a more neutral context. The more you get a feel for mindfulness in non-charged situations, the better equipped you are to apply it when those negative emotions get triggered.

    Here are a couple simple exercises you can use to start playing with mindfulness.

    How to practice the art of being present

    The body scan practice

    And here is a page with several guided mindfulness meditations.

    One final word of advice. Don’t try to “get good” at it. Instead, approach it with curiosity. See what happens when you explore it. Trying to master mindfulness actually takes you right out of the present moment, because the implied message is, “I’m not good enough with this yet – I can master this in the future.”

    Book suggestions

    Mindfulness for Beginners

    The Mindful Way to Self-Compassion

    The Mindful Path through Depression

    Awake in the Wild

    Wherever You Go, There You Are

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