“Destructive thoughts and emotions undermine the very causes of peace and happiness. If you think clearly about it, it makes no sense to think you’re seeking happiness, if you do nothing to restrain angry, spiteful, and malicious thoughts and emotions.” Dalai Lama
As human beings, we experience emotions constantly, and sometimes these emotions…particularly the negative emotions (ones we don’t like to experience)…become so powerful that they cause a great deal of stress and hinder our lives in important ways. When this happens, try one…or all three…of the following methods for managing these emotions.
Mindfulness – Take a moment to simply sit with the emotion. Don’t fight it, judge it, or try to get rid of it. Simply recognize the emotion, name it, and inspect it with a sense of curiosity and interest. Engaging with emotions in this way can reduce the strength and power of the emotion and allow us to gain some insight into why we are experiencing that emotion. Emotions are finite, transient, impermanent things. By simply sitting with the emotion in this nonjudgmental way, the emotion will, over time, naturally diminish in strength and eventually disappear altogether.
Examine the Thought/Emotion Connection – According to cognitive psychologists, emotions emerge from our interpretations of our experiences. That is, the meaning we assign to events in our lives, the way that we perceive and understand things that happen to us, determines the type and strength of the emotions we feel. So, take a moment to ask yourself why you feel the way you do. For example, if you feel afraid, do you perceive some sort of threat? If you feel angry, do you believe that someone or something (e.g., an organization) harmed you or did something wrong to you? By recognizing our emotions and then examining the perceptions and meanings of events that are driving those emotions, we can gain a much clearer understanding of why we feel the emotion we do and, therefore, what actions we can take to deal productively with our situation.
Breathing – When experiencing powerful emotions simply engaging in deep breathing and focusing our attention directly on the breath can help us weather the storm of powerful emotions. When breathing deeply, from the diaphragm, and rhythmically, we stimulate our vagus nerve and activate our parasympathetic nervous system…the part of our autonomic nervous system responsible for calm recovery. Also, because we can only truly focus on one thing at a time, focusing our attention fully and completely on the breath has the added bonus of taking our attention off of both the cause of the emotion and the emotion itself.
Any one of these methods for regulating emotion can be helpful by itself, but it’s possible to use more than one, or even all three, of these methods at the same time. For example, you can begin by intentionally breathing deeply and focusing your attention solely on your breath (Breathing). Then, while continuing your deep, rhythmic breathing, you can turn your attention to the emotion itself, naming the emotion, and examining the emotion in a curious and nonjudgmental way (Mindfulness). Finally, still continuing to breathe, you can ask yourself about the ways you are currently thinking about and understanding your current circumstances in order to gain some insight into why the emotion emerged in the first place.
By using one or more of these strategies, you can effectively manage your emotions, more thoroughly understand your emotions, and move yourself into a mental and emotional state that allows you to engage with life effectively and productively.