“Fulfilment does not mean our difficult emotions disappear; it means we change our relationship with them” – Russ Harris, author of the Happiness Trap.
We have previously explored the practise of mindfulness on our blog, covering how to bring ourselves back to the ‘here and now’ by tuning into each of our 5 senses. Now we want to focus more so on when our minds inevitably try to take back control during this process, and how we can deal with unavoidable thoughts and feelings that may be difficult.
It is important to remember that we all experience ‘negative’ emotions, such as fear, anger and sadness, because we are fundamentally human and these reactions have helped us as a species to survive over time. For the same reason, researchers have found that around 80% of our thoughts are considered to contain some sort of negative content.
Because these feelings, and the thoughts accompanying them (or vice versa), are common throughout our lives, trying to constantly avoid them or, alternatively, constantly act on them, will just end up making us exhausted and cause us to psychologically suffer even more.
It may at first seem counter-intuitive to approach your difficult emotions with acceptance, or even curiousity, when all you want is to stop the experience from happening and be ‘happy’ and present. But when you think about it, accepting what you are feeling, and observing it in an open way, is in actuality you attempting to practise mindfulness by tuning into your experience in the here and now.
Accepting your psychological discomfort – for the moment – does not mean you have to enjoy it; you have chosen to wallow in your misery; or you have decided to not take action. It is about letting your thoughts and feelings ‘be’ by seeing them for what they are, and changing how you pay attention to them. By doing this we allow our emotions to run their course and our minds to tell us ‘stories’ without trying to stop or engage with them, until they eventually pass.
So how do we do this? There are quite a few ‘diffusion‘ techniques that help us to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings, some of which we’ll explore briefly below.
Watch or Observe
Once you become aware of an uncomfortable emotion, stop yourself from trying to suppress it by gently noticing where it is presenting itself in your body (chest, throat, stomach? etc.) Then explore it further by noticing anything else about it: is it intensifying, decreasing, evolving into something different?
With uncomfortable thoughts you can do the same, you may notice whether they are presented in images or words, imagine events from the past or future, are a critique or comparison etc.
To help yourself with your oberservation, you can guide your breathing while you practise by counting slowly to 4 when inhaling and counting to 6 upon exhale
Label or Describe
When being the watcher of your thoughts and feelings you might find it helpful to label or describe to yourself what you are experiencing. You could see it as being a sort commentator of your psyche.
Instead of becoming aware of your anxiety and then thinking “I am scared”, rather think that “there is fear” and describe what you notice: “I can feel it in the fast beating of my heart and the shortness of my breath” etc.
The same goes for your thoughts; when one pops up saying something like “I’ll never be good enough”, rethink it as “I’m having the thought that I’ll never be good enough.” The difference may seem small, but it can help you gain the perspective that you are not your thoughts. When you find your mind’s stories to be repetitive, you can label it as a type of thought, such as the ‘not good enough’ story.
Use Imagery or Tone
Using imagery can also help us to observe ourselves. One example of this (there are many to choose from) is looking at our thoughts or feelings as if they are clouds in the sky. You can’t control the clouds, but you can observe them as they float by you in their own time, eventually passing out of sight.
Using ‘tone’ for diffusion more so applies to our thoughts. You can sing your thoughts to the melody of a song or even a nursery rhyme, which can take the sting out of your mind’s storytelling. You can also imitate your thoughts in a funny voice for the same effect.
Thank your mind
Going back to what we mentioned at the start, our brains are good at bringing ‘negative’ thoughts and feelings to our attention because it is trying to help us. You can thank your mind by thinking something like, “thanks mind, I know this is you trying to keep me safe”.
Refocus on Senses
Once you have observed your uncomfortable thoughts and emotions and allowed them to naturally pass, you can then tune back into your sensory experience. Meditation tools such as a finger labyrinth can help with this by acting as your ‘anchor’ to the present moment.
If you’re interested in the psychological benefits of mindfulness practise you can read our recent blog post here.
Want to learn more? Book an appointment with one of our psychologists or visit our clinic and wellbeing store in Bulimba.