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This past weekend I spent a day at a meditation retreat focused on the topic of how to handle negative emotions. It was good timing—in the last few weeks any sense of equanimity I’ve been able to maintain through a lot of effort and practice has been thrown off by a series of small stressors, that in sum, provided challenging to deal with.
Thankfully, the retreat reminded me of a few core practices that are very helpful for dealing with negative emotions. You can’t get rid of all bad feelings (that wouldn’t be possible, or desirable), but you can learn to handle tough feelings without getting caught up in their stories. Let me review some of the strategies with you.
1. Examine the emotion
Often our negative emotions gain a lot of momentum because they’re sitting just out of conscious awareness, where our logical minds can not refute them. Therefore, when you actually pay attention to the emotion, directing your mindful awareness to it, it loses a lot of its power.
Pay attention to the experience of a negative emotion with all the care and rigor of a scientist in a laboratory. Examine the physical sensations that it creates in your body—”tingling chest,” “numb hands,” “tight stomach.” Notice if its strength shifts as you watch it. Label it under your breath—”anger,” “fear,” “anxiety,” “getting stronger,” “getting weaker.”
In one study done at UCLA, the sheer act of labeling negative emotions led to decreased activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with the fear response), as well as decreased self-reported emotional intensity.
2. De-identify from it
“Don’t believe everything you think” —Bumper sticker
Often we take our thoughts and emotions really, really seriously. We assume that if we feel something, it must be true. We believe if we feel bad, it indicates a problem that we need to struggle to fix.
But, both negative and positive emotions are experiences that ebb and flow as an inevitable part of life. When you start to notice your own patterns, you realize that it doesn’t make sense to get too caught up in the highs or the lows.
After meditating for a while, I started to notice patterns in myself that would repeat over and over. I’d do a good job at something, like write an article I was really proud of, and then pat myself on the back for being so awesome. Then I’d make a mistake, like forget to pay my visa bill, and chastise myself for being such an idiot. After a while, the whole thing seemed kind of silly. So now when I feel bad, I can at least relax knowing that it’s a fleeting emotion that will change soon enough.
So don’t take your negative emotions so personally or so seriously. However you feel, it’s not unique to you. Think of negative emotions as experiences that pass through you rather than character traits that define you.
3. Let it go
There’s nothing wrong with negative emotions, and you’re going to feel them from time to time, but sometimes enough is enough.
This isn’t about ignoring how you feel, or pretending that a negative emotion doesn’t exist. Rather, it’s about making a conscious decision not to get on the train and ride it to another station.
Have you ever had the experience of getting upset about something, and then ruminating about it for hours, or even days? I know I have. What if you could choose to let go of frustrating experiences a little earlier, like say, after one hour? Or twenty minutes? Or five minutes?
First, you need to practice noticing when you get on the train. Make a habit of paying attention when you get caught up in your “Top 10″ annoyances (maybe it’s when someone cuts you off in traffic, or someone’s running late, or you get criticized, etc.). Notice what thought pattern it brings (probably something along the lines of how wrong the other person is and how right you are).
When this thought pattern comes up again, notice and label it—”Elana gets mad at stupid LA driver who cuts her off.” Ask yourself, Do I really want to get on this train again? Don’t I have something better to do?
4. Replace it
When it’s time to get off the train, but you’re having trouble letting go of a negative emotion, you can bring up a positive emotion to replace it. In eastern philosophy, there are specific practices designed to help you replace negative feelings with positive ones.
- Practice gratitude. Write a list of all the things you’re grateful for. Or, make it a habit—write a gratitude list ever morning, or think of three things you’re grateful for before each meal, etc.
- Practice sympathetic joy, or the joy you experience for someone else’s happiness. Think of someone you care about who recently had something good happen to them. Repeat in your head, I’m happy you’re happy.
- Practice lovingkindness. Here’s a phrase I like to repeat to myself when I’m meditating:
May I safe and protected
May I be healthy and strong
May I be happy
May I live with ease
You can also direct these phrases toward another person.
Or, you could take advantage of a nice tool in our western culture and check out a little website called You Tube. Try watching this video of a penguin falling, or this one of “Bat Dad,” or this of the dramatic squirrel, or this one of otters holding hands, or this one of a woman after she gets her wisdom teeth out. Feeling better yet? I thought so.
Photo by Josh Janssen