Practicing mindfulness for emotion regulation

Christina ReynoldsMindfulness and ACT for Beginners Group, Mindfulness Meditation

Experiencing a variety of emotions each day is a normal occurrence. Still, we often struggle with our emotions. We feel overwhelmed by them. We want to push them away, or we judge ourselves for having them. Practicing mindfulness can help us to become more aware of our emotions and manage them better.

In some ways emotions are the spice of life and what adds zest to our existence. Imagine just being content all the time. At first that might seem like a nice thought, but it probably would get boring after a while. In a lot of ways we even deliberately put ourselves in situations to experience certain emotions. We plan a holiday to create excitement. We watch a horror movie or thriller to experience anxiety, or a drama to experience sadness. And if I deliberately would want to feel angry I would watch some reality TV.

However, while we can be ok to experience emotions we deliberately create in ourselves we can often struggle to deal with unwanted emotions. Anxiety when we want to feel confident, sadness when we are supposed to be happy or anger when we need to be content. In order to enjoy the spice that emotions bring to life we have to be aware of them as they can sneak up on us if we don’t pay attention and we have to be willing to have them so that we can manage them appropriately. Practicing mindfulness can help us to do this and live more in peace with our emotions.

 Emotions consist of different components. These components are: emotion driven thoughts, physical sensations, emotion driven behavior and affect. Practicing mindfulness can be helpful to become more aware of these different components of emotions as they arise. Mindfulness practice can also teach us to learn to just observe the physical changes in our body and the thoughts that arise and often intensify the emotion. When we can just observe these changes we have more ability to choose how we want to respond to the emotion rather than reacting in a way we might later regret. Sometimes this might be to express the emotion in some way, sometimes it might be to just sit with it and let it pass.

Here is one of my personal examples to demonstrate the different components of emotions and how mindfulness can help to deal with them. One of the things I really don’t like in life is hanging up the washing. After I engaged in my own mindfulness practice for some time I noticed that I get very angry every time I have to hang up the washing. I would notice tightness in my chest (physical sensation) and clenched fists (emotion driven behavior). I also noticed emotion driven thoughts. I would for example remember that my husband forgot again to take the bin out and I would predict that he would be coming home late again and I would have to eat dinner by myself thus being angry with him for something that had not even happened yet. During these 10 minutes of hanging out the washing my relationship satisfaction would take a real nosedive.

Before I could mindfully notice these changes in my mind and body while hanging up the washing I would be surprised at how angry I was once I was done hanging up our wet clothes. After I was more practiced in mindfulness though, I was aware of the impact this task has on me and I was able to simply observe the physical changes in my body and the angry voice in my head without having to engage in it and spur it on. I am now able to step back, take a deep breath and simply accept that hanging up the laundry is one of these unavoidable pains in life. I can’t get away from it nor from the emotions it brings up in me. However, I can take deliberate deep breath and use this task as a way to practice acceptance and emotion regulation.

By simply noticing the physical sensations emotions bring up in me I can accept them and take a few deep breaths to make space for them rather than increase their intensity by trying to push them away. Also by simply noticing my thoughts and letting them go rather than engaging in a conversation with them, I do not put fuel in the fire of my emotions. I can simply ride out the waves. And I can focus on being kind to myself rather than being judgmental of myself.

Of course this does not work all the time. Certain emotions are always harder to manage than others. Being aware of how I react emotionally to certain situations however, can help me to be better prepared and each emotionally charged situation is an opportunity to improve my emotion regulation skills.



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