Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune in to emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. It’s easy to be overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems. And you can make it worse by trying to forget the cause. For example, a service member afflicted with PTSD desperately wants to avoid experiencing certain traumatic events. Ironically, the actual effort to forget can cause him to relive difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or memories. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more.
How do I do mindfulness?
Practicing mindfulness means focusing on whatever you are experiencing in the present moment. Although it can be a structured meditation activity, you can purposefully engage in mindfulness anytime, anywhere because mindfulness is about being present. A common meditative approach is to focus on a physical experience such as your breathing, noticing where your attention wanders, and gently guiding it back to your breath; it allows you to experience sadness, anger, fear, and other unpleasant emotions, letting them pass without clinging to the idea of making them go away.
Face whatever you’re feeling
If you have ever “white-knuckled” your way through an amusement park ride or ridden in a car with a driver you didn’t trust, you may remember thinking, “When will this be over? Please let it be over…” Focusing on how long something lasts can make it feel like an eternity. By facing whatever you feel rather than trying to escape it, you will feel less threatened by your emotions, and you’ll be less likely to engage in problematic forms of escape (such as drinking, drugs, or simply spacing out).
Mindfulness and brain changes
When you experience difficult emotions, you might cope by engaging the language center of your brain, using words internally to wrestle with your experience. But when have had trouble dealing with why you feel the way you do, you could end up in a circular internal debate (such as “I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do, but I shouldn’t…”). This is usually pointless and can actually cause more distress. Instead of dealing with your emotions just through words, try a mindful approach that taps into the physical elements of your emotions, and notice how you feel in your body. Regular practice of mindfulness can activate the part of the brain that tunes in to physical sensations when you experience hard emotions. And people who regularly activate this part of the brain tend to be steadier emotionally.
Unfortunately, you can’t escape unwanted emotions. And more problems will probably pop up if you do try to escape. But if you’re willing to confront your hard emotions, then mindfulness practice can help you have a different experience. Become more mindful, and your mind and body will be better equipped to handle tough emotions and engage them more productively.
Written by Tim Herzog and first published July 21, 2015 by the Human Performance Resource Center.