How to deal with unpleasant emotions, mindfully.


In this country, I think it’s safe to say that the go to method for dealing with unpleasant emotions: stress, anxiety, heart-break and so on, is to get drunk. We drink to let go, relax and forget. It doesn’t deal with the emotion, it just temporarily suppresses it.  It’s basically a way of avoiding feeling what you’re feeling.

The mindfulness approach, in contrast, is to ‘sit with’ you emotion, and allow it to express itself to its fullest extent. The idea is to focus your attention on the feeling and curiously investigate where you can feel it (e.g. stomach, chest, jaw) and what it feels like (e.g. heaviness, tightening, stabbing pain).
What happens if you don’t so this is that the emotion will probably become buried in your body as tension – a tight jaw, knots in you back, an impatience in your mood, and or it will come back again even bigger than before.

An emotion is your body trying to tell you something, and if you don’t listen, it usually shouts louder. This can result, as I have both experienced and witnessed in others, as rage or a panic attack that seems to come from nowhere, or all manner of manifestations that you’d probably rather avoid.

So one thing you practise in mindfulness is listening to the body more. This can be in the form of a body scan such as this one, in which you try to feel each part of your body in turn and notice what sensations are there.

Once you’re feeling a sensation, the practise is then to allow it to be there. Not to tense up, not to distract yourself away from it, not to carry on working and hope it will go away. Imagine the stress, anxiety or anger is knocking at your door, and instead of putting the bolt across you welcome them in as an old friend. This approach is beautifully described in the poem The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi.

And what to do with tension that seems to be stuck in you body? Well, we’d do well to learn from polar bears, who, after a stressful experience shake their bodies to dissipate the emotion, as you can see in this video. I finding stretching, singing and dancing are good ways to release tension. Also clenching and releasing the tense area can really help.

So although it goes against our cultural ‘wisdom’, next time you’re feeling an unpleasant feeling, try it for yourself. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, investigate what it feels like and see if you can allow that sensation to be there. Try not to analyse why you’re feeling like that and especially don’t start blaming yourself or others.

Try being a bit playful with it. Sometimes I sing to myself (to the tune of The Sound of Silence) “Hello tension my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…” It usually brings a smile to my face!

My somewhat counter-intuitive conclusion is that the way to be happy, is to allow yourself to feel sad. It might feel scary, but it’s not as bad as what happens when you bottle it up.