Transcript of Audio: Step 3--Mindfulness and Unpleasant Emotions
A very common reaction to unpleasant emotions is to avoid them. We have developed many ways to do this. Some people use behaviors to avoid emotions such as excessive drinking or drug use, over-eating, or gambling/spending compulsions. Some people use mental distraction such as focusing on something else or doing something distracting such as reading or working. Some people just ignore the emotions, pretend they don't exist, or deal with them in an intellectualized/logical manner that distances them from the emotion. Some people deflect them on to others such as blaming or raging against someone. Some people focus on physical pain or illness rather than the emotional pain. Some people try to avoid situations that cause uncomfortable emotions.
But overall, what all this has in common is that people frequently go to extreme lengths to avoid unpleasant emotions. And yet, emotions, when we don't try to avoid them only last a short period of time—a few seconds to a few minutes. However, our methods of avoiding emotions are more likely to keep those emotions present for us.
At this point, many people listening to this are likely to argue with me: “What do you mean emotions only last a few minutes? Then how can I feel miserable for days?” To understand this further we need to make the distinction between emotions and moods.
The average person typically uses the terms feelings, emotions, and moods interchangeably referring to the same thing. However, to understand the nature of emotions we need to be more precise in our definitions. To use mindfulness to develop the ability to tolerate emotions it is necessary to understand the difference between emotions and moods. The term many people use, “feelings,” is a generic term usually indicating any emotional experience. For our purposes, we will use the term “emotions” which refers to the immediate experience that you have in response to something. Emotions are brief reactions. Even if something really exciting happens like you win a million dollars and you jump around and scream when you find out, within a few minutes that emotion dissipates. You may still remember the feeling but you don't feel the same intensity of the emotion.
You might say that the excitement of such an event appears to last a lot longer than a few minutes. And that may be true in the sense that you keep recreating the excitement by thinking about it. You are creating more of an excited “mood” which is a longer-term emotional state. However, a mood state needs continuous fueling. What I mean by this is that you need to maintain a focus on the emotion by thinking or talking about it. Even then it tends to lessen in degree. For instance, have you ever told others about exciting news and by the third or fourth person you no longer experienced the same intensity of emotion, you no longer feel the excitement that you shared with the first person?. So the mood state can last longer but it requires a more continuous focus and even then it weakens over time.
The same thing is true of negative emotions. I'll be talking about the more intense negative emotions such as grief in a later audio. Right now I'm referring to the everyday negative encounters we have that create an emotional reaction. Let's say something happens, such as you have conflict with a co-worker. Your initial reaction lasts for only a few moments. However, dwelling on the event, thinking about it, talking to others about it keeps it more present. As a result, you create a mood state. Depending upon how you are focused, it could be an angry mood state, a frightened mood state, or a sad mood state.
For instance, if you think “Who does she think she is to treat me like that?” and you rage about her to other co-workers you are creating an angry/irritable mood state. If you think “She's good friends with the boss. What if she talks to him and he takes her side? I could lose my job!” you are creating an anxious mood state. But what both of these reactions have in common is that you need to stay focused on this event for the mood state to occur.
What all this means is that your immediate emotional reaction to an event lasts for only a few seconds to a few moments. Then the emotion will dissipate or disappear unless you keep it present by thinking about it or talking about it. And the way you think about it or talk about it will influence the type of mood state you experience.
Which is where cognitive therapy intervenes with negative mood states. Cognitive restructuring addresses the thoughts you are having. It helps you identify when the thoughts you are dwelling upon are irrational and how to think about the situation differently. For instance, if you are thinking “What if she tells the boss? I might lose my job” you could recognize that you are catastrophizing and that the likelihood of that occurring may not be very high. In that way, you may be able to change the anxious mood state.
However, mindfulness approaches this in another way which is our focus in this audio. In a later audio I will discuss how mindfulness and cognitive restructuring can work together. As you have already learned, mindfulness is the focus on your present experience. When you have distracting, irrelevant, or even irrational thoughts, mindfulness is a process of refocusing back to your present experience.
If you have been practicing the first two steps of mindfulness, you probably understand where I am going with this. You may recognize that using mindfulness to refocus from the thoughts back to the sensations of the emotions will allow you to increase your tolerance of the emotions because you learn they only last a short time and that you don't have to avoid them. One of the concerns that my clients often report with emotions is: “What if this doesn't go away? What if I always feel this way?” By learning that the emotions do dissipate, they lessen this fear and gain greater tolerance of the emotions.
Obviously, though, with intense emotional events, it is more difficult to refocus back to your present emotional experience. It is easier to become distracted by the catastrophic thoughts, worries, and demands which will tend to create a mood state which can be quite unpleasant. But if you are able to focus on the sensations of the emotions without the judging, demanding, critical thoughts, you will find that the emotion will tend to decrease fairly rapidly.
One way this can be observed is with the emotion of excitement. Try doing something that you find very exciting and see how long you can maintain that emotion it you don't talk about it and when thoughts about the event come to mind, you refocus your attention away from the thoughts and back to the experience of the emotion. Without the continual refueling the emotion by thinking or talking about the event, it is difficult to keep the intensity of the emotion present for long periods of time.
The ability to only experience emotions for a limited amount of time explains the behavior of people we often describe as “sensation seekers.” These are people who seek out excitement and various experiences for the physical and emotional roller-coaster of sensations. They like to experience the sensations of the adrenalin rush that other people might describe as anxiety. However, since these sensations only last for a short period of time they are often busy seeking new thrills.
In my experience, these folks don't seem to have a good capacity to recreate emotional sensations. In other words, thinking about jumping out of an airplane doesn't create an emotional reaction for them. Their ability to experience something in fantasy or vicariously isn't strong. They can only experience in the moment. As a result, they seek out the emotional “high.” You might think that if they are experiencing everything in the moment, they must be mindful people. However, even in that case they aren't being fully mindful because they have trouble being mindful of boredom, of not experiencing emotional intensity. As I have indicated in the previous audios, for most people there are natural events that tend to create mindfulness. However, the purpose of the practice of mindfulness is to bring mindful awareness into the activities and aspects of our day that don't naturally draw mindfulness. By doing so, we lessen the need to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Different people with different personality types will find certain emotions tolerable or intolerable. So the sensation seekers may find boredom intolerable but seek intensity whereas those with a tendency towards an anxious mood state might find any physical or emotional intensity intolerable.
As I've mentioned previously, understanding mindfulness can be somewhat confusing and using mindfulness for creating emotional tolerance is one of the areas that may be difficult to comprehend. In particular, does this concept of developing tolerance for emotions by experiencing them in the present mean that you should never re-create or dwell on emotions? Of course not. The ability to be mindful is that it becomes your choice to focus on thoughts or experience depending upon what your goal is.
The problem with re-creating or avoiding emotions is when it interferes with our goals in life. When you have to go through all sorts of contortions as many people do so as to avoid emotions you don't feel capable of tolerating, you have limited choice. The emotions or the avoidance of emotions are controlling you, your choices, and behavior. For instance, if you have to avoid certain situations because they might cause anxiety, you are being controlled by fear of anxiety. If you have to drink or eat because you don't want to feel lonely or sad, you are being controlled by the avoidance of those emotions.
The practice of mindfulness gives you choice. Sometimes you might want to dwell on certain emotions such as remembering a pleasant event. That is within your capacity as a human being and can be a tool to use to create a more positive mood. Other times you might want to focus on a negative event or emotion because it can aid you in solving a problem. Or, you might want to release a negative emotion by focusing on it such as writing about the anger you feel due to being mistreated by someone. Such a focus may help you come to some resolution and to heal from the mistreatment.
Therefore, think of mindfulness as giving you choice. Through mindfulness, you don't have to escape or avoid emotions but because you are able to tolerate them mindfully you can use your emotions to help you achieve your goals. Emotions are meant as an aid. They are meant to provide you with information that can help you solve problems or heal from pain and loss. Mindfully tolerating emotions allows you to use the emotions for the purpose they are meant to serve.
Some people might think “Why isn't it okay to just experience the pleasant emotions and avoid the unpleasant ones? As long as I am feeling good, how can that be a problem?” There are a couple of issues with this approach. The first, is that it is difficult to shut out only negative emotions. The reason for this is that to determine which emotions are okay to feel you must sort through all the emotions in order to recognize and identify them. As a result of the sorting process, you experience all the emotions which defeats the purpose of trying to avoid the negative emotions. Therefore, the subconscious brain concludes that the only reasonable way to avoid negative emotions is to avoid all emotions which tends to mute the experience of the positive emotions as well.
The other problem with trying to experience only positive emotions is that you then cannot benefit from the purpose of the emotions. As I described earlier, the emotions are information to help you. They tell you when there is a problem you need to manage. By listening to the emotions as well as your emotional reaction to possible solutions you are able to develop a plan for solving a problem. Avoidance usually only allows problems to grow larger. Research shows us that happier people are problem-solvers. They are not avoiders.
So, how can you develop a greater tolerance of emotions? Once you have developed greater mindfulness skills from the first two practice steps, you can begin to use those skills to more directly create mindfulness of emotions. This process is very similar to the exercises you have already been practicing. The difference is that instead of focusing on the immediate concrete experience that you have such as the exercises of eating a piece of fruit or doing dishes, you focus on the sensations of an emotional experience.
In this mindfulness practice, you allow yourself to “be” with the various physical sensations of the emotion. Just as you did in the prior practice, when distracting or irrelevant thoughts come to mind, you refocus your attention back to the emotional experience. One important difference with this practice is that there is a tendency to focus your thoughts on the event that created the emotional reaction. However, as I described previously, when you do this you are fueling, or re-creating, the emotion. Instead, with this practice you want to experience the sensations of the emotion without recreating it. So, with these exercises which involve experiencing just the emotion in its purest form, you want to refocus your attention whenever you have thoughts about the event itself as well as when you have any other distracting thoughts. When thoughts about the event that caused the emotion come into your mind, just refocus yourself back to the emotion itself.
To aid you in practicing this process, I have created a number of audios focused on different emotions. Again, these audios are not for the purpose of trying to create the emotion by listening to the audio. Instead, they just describe some things to be aware of when you do experience these emotions in the course of your day. The audios are meant to be a training guide, not the mindful experience itself.
This practice may be a little more difficult to carry out than the previous ones because you may not be able to deliberately create the mindfulness exercise as you could with the exercises for Steps 1 and 2 such as practicing mindfulness while doing dishes. With this practice of emotional mindfulness you need to prepare yourself to practice being mindful when these different emotions might appear naturally. The practice shouldn't involve trying to create emotions by thinking about them because that is the aspect we are trying to experience differently. However, you may be able to create opportunities for some of the emotions. For instance, you might know there are certain circumstances that typically lead to you feeling lonely. If that is the case, you can deliberately create that circumstance so that you can practice mindfully experiencing loneliness.
Continue with your previous mindfulness practice while trying to add in the mindful practice of experiencing emotions. Keep in mind that this step of learning to tolerate your emotional experience is just part of the practice of mindfulness. In a future audio I will discuss using cognitive restructuring along with mindfulness to help manage difficult situations.
Copyright © 2014
by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
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