Three Steps for Facing Difficult Emotions
by Shauna Shapiro
All of us can feel the impact of these uncertain and challenging times on our hearts and in our nervous systems. While there are parts of the situation that we cannot control, that does not mean we are powerless. When we’re up against change, uncertainty and stress, resilience is the key to navigate life and emerge with more happiness and satisfaction. We can cultivate resilience through the practices of mindfulness and compassion. Here are three key steps to finding greater clarity, calm and well-being.
Naming our emotions. The first step is to bring mindfulness to whatever we are feeling and simply name it. Research shows that acknowledging and naming our emotions allows the body to physiologically calm down. It is helpful to remember that our emotions are here for a reason, metaphorically serving as a smoke alarm to let us know about an impending fire. Ignoring or repressing our emotions can lead to bigger problems, but mindfulness teaches us a different way to manage difficult emotions—acknowledge them and name what we feel—“name it to tame it”. When we name an emotion, it puts the brakes on our reactivity, down-regulates the nervous system and allows us to see clearly.
Welcoming our emotions. The second step is to learn to welcome difficult emotions. Emotions have a limited time span, typically lasting for only 30 to 90 seconds. They arise, do their dance and pass away, like waves in the ocean. When we remember that this painful feeling will not last forever, it becomes more manageable. Through practice, we can learn to welcome all our emotions with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. This involves becoming interested in the emotion and the felt experience in the body. For example, we may feel sadness as a tightening in the throat or fear as a contraction in the belly. All emotions have their signature in the body.
Compassion for ourselves and others. The final step to managing difficult emotions is to cultivate compassion. Self-compassion involves treating ourselves as we would a dear friend that is suffering. The willingness to face the pain in ourselves and in life takes great courage. As we practice self-compassion, we learn not only to grow from our own struggles and sorrows, but to connect with the sufferings and sorrows of others. We realize that we are not alone in our fear and overwhelm, and become aware of the many others right now that are also afraid. As we recognize our common humanity, our isolation begins to lessen and we understand that we are all in this together.
Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert in mindfulness and compassion whose most recent book is Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness & Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire the Brain for Calm Clarity and Joy. For more information, visit DrShaunaShapiro.com.