How to Practice When Experiencing Uncomfortable Emotions
Taking care of ourselves when we are experiencing challenging times or just flat out challenging emotions is a practice unto itself. In society, we often hear words and phrases such as ‘let it go’, ‘get over it’, 'you'll be right' and I feel society hasn’t been well equipped to responding to the human experience of grief in whatever form. We’ve simply never been taught.
It is only now, in my forty-something years of life, and after such a tumultuous year of grief am I truly having the gift of practicing accepting these emotions that arise. So how do we do it? How do we face our hard times with the least amount of aversion and courage? I will share with you a few things I have been practicing that have helped me in the darkest moments.
Often when we experience uncomfortable emotions, the will first part of the process beginning will be a trigger. Something will set it off, a thought will create and flow on to a sensation in our bodies that our brain will identify as ALERT ALERT DANGER DANGER and our brain tells us we are in danger, things are uncomfortable and the reptilian ‘Flight or Fight’ response is triggered in us. And so it starts. This whole process I have described above can happen within seconds and most of the time we are unaware it has just happened. In this situation, as we are SO human, we usually take the trigger (what may have happened outside of us) as being the ‘problem’. I.e THAT person, or THAT thing that is the cause of our grief. But if we could take the same situation and put another human being in there, the response will be different, and the trigger may not have even happened in that exact same situation.
'Trigger' is a keyword here, for if we stop, WE are the one that is having this experience, WE are the ones experiencing this uncomfortableness. If we look deeper again, usually we are triggered because there is something we may be unwilling to accept. You would have heard the saying ‘If things change inside you, things change around you’. In this trigger moment, usually, it is alerting us to a deep fear or belief about is or another person what we do not want to accept, or believe, so unconsciously we begin to push against it.
Let me tell you a little story. Mid last year I was experiencing quite crippling anxiety. When I woke in the morning (usually in the dark still), this creeping feeling would come in and wrap itself around my heart and chest like poison ivy. It was hard to breathe. It was uncomfortable and challenging. But I was aware of it. I realised I had an extraordinary opportunity to practice. I had an opportunity to wrap myself up and love me. I had the opportunity to watch my thoughts and see how they transpired in my body. I had the opportunity to simply stop.
And here in these moments, I practiced these tools that got me through:
Just simply stop. Stop. Pause and begin to breathe and note where you are and what is going on. This is the very first thing to do. (Kinda like when someone tells you to get a handle on yourself! Recognise what is going on, the thoughts, the sensations in your body, where they are, and just simply notice. Turn your attention to yourself, and if you find your attention wandering, always come back to yourself. I truly believe that when we experience something uncomfortable, we are being called to the moment. Just like when we experience death and it feels like everything has stopped. This moment needs our attention.
In greater detail, what is going on? How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel it? How is your breath? What are the thoughts that are coming in? Get to know the physical appearance of the triggers, the anxiety, the fear, or grief. Are there repeating thoughts that accompany these triggers? In this stage, just by observing we can learn so much. For example, I recognised that there were a handful of thoughts I was experiencing that weren’t actually true. I recognised these thoughts as a conditioning of society and society expectations. I realised that these thoughts aren’t actually mine! So allow it all to be, just as it is, so you can learn.
3. WRAP YOURSELF UP
The hardest thing to do in these moments is to actually accept yourself. It is ugly, uncomfortable, challenging, and hard! But it is also an opportunity to love yourself extremely deeply. When I say wrap yourself up, we are disengaging the fight or flight response. We are stopping, we are learning, we are noticing, pausing, and loving. I imagined wrapping myself up in love and welcoming the load of this [insert the uncomfortable emotion/experience]. This is where a mantra can be extremely helpful. Even lighting a candle to signify light and going within to warm and take care of yourself internally.
4. DIVE DEEPER
When did this begin within you? What were the beliefs or fears surrounding this trigger? Can you observe habits? Reactions? Investigate what is happening. You may begin to see links forming. For example, you may have a thought, it triggers a deep fear you have, and boom, a sensation is born in your body that is uncomfortable. So I encourage you to explore and enquire gently within yourself what is happening. Sometimes this is like opening a can of worms, but change does not happen without realisation and it is in these moments we can learn so much about ourselves.
It takes time to get to know the more challenging emotions that arise within ourselves, so I encourage you to be kind to yourself through this process. Wrapping yourself up and loving yourself through the challenging times instead of pushing them away can be extremely transforming. (Step 3!).
There are also many more things you can do/practice to help in times of extreme discomfort. I’d love to hear from you on how you hold yourself in these times.