When negative emotions arise in us, we usually do one of two things – we either try to move away from these emotions or we have a tendency to cling and attach to them.
Our mind creates various stories which tell us to resist what we are experiencing. We start to wish things were different, we tell ourselves that we can’t cope, that we are a failure or that these emotions are too painful to handle. The resistance we have to our experience only feeds into our suffering so that it escalates into even more discomfort and pain.
When we are going through a transition we are often overwhelmed with difficult emotions. We may have just ended a relationship, lost a loved one, finished a long-term job or recently moved to a new country. There is a great sense of uncertainty surrounding what is going to come next and a sense of fear and anxiety can be quite common.
There may be an attempt to move away from our experience and this movement away may involve avoiding or distracting ourselves. Avoidance of our emotions and our present experience can take the form of: over-working, over-committing ourselves, eating too much, or abusing drugs and alcohol.
When we avoid the present moment we are simply suppressing our emotions. When we “push down" our emotions they don’t go away but they stay in our system, and the affects of anxiety, anger, sadness or fear can remain stored in our bodies for a long period of time.
How do you distract yourself from difficult emotions or experiences?
Some types of distraction are more obvious that others.
In the past I have had a tendency to “over-work” as a way of moving away from my emotions – particularly during difficult times in my life. This habit of overworking or overcommitting is not easily recognized as a problem or even considered harmful. Usually when we talk about destructive behaviors we talk about addiction to drugs, alcohol, food and sex. The effects of these addictions are more apparent and recognized as an issue in society, whereas working is perceived as something productive and related to one's achievement and success.
Ask yourself, are you engaging in harmful behaviour or destructive ways of being? Are you finding the right balance between your physical, emotional and spiritual health? If not, what can you change to make sure you are nourishing all parts of yourself and maintaining a balanced life?
When we avoid our emotions or try and distract ourselves, eventually our emotions will find others way to be seen and are shown to us through alternative routes. The emotions might emerge as physical pain, tension or an underlying and persistent sense of irritation. This irritation may build up over time, leading to unexpected outbursts and result in us acting in ways that we wouldn’t normally act – such as lashing out at the ones we love.
Staying in Touch with your Experience
How do we get in touch and hold space for our emotional experience, without also getting caught in the narrative of it?
If you are experiencing a large amount of anxiety, sadness or anger I encourage you to get in touch with both your body and mind and recognise what is occurring.
First, the body. When you experience your negative emotions where do they rest in your body? Is there a tightness in your chest or your throat area? Does your body feel heavy or perhaps you even feel disconnected from your body. Scan your body from head to toe and observe what is there.
Next, the mind. What thoughts are present as you observe the experience? Are there thoughts that your experience is wrong? Does it feel too much? Are you trying to push it away? Do you wish things were different? Observe these thoughts, see where your mind takes you and what story is being formed.
Stay connected to your experience and breath into it. This is where the act of self-compassion and acceptance comes in. As you observe the sensations and the thoughts that are present, while simultaneously breathing into them, notice what happens. Usually there is a softening of your experience and a sense of release. Accept that this is the experience you are having right in this moment - but it is not going to be this way forever.
Things may be difficult right now, but as is the nature of life – everything is transient and always changing. Bring this into your awareness but at the same time hold the space for what is here right now. Things don’t need to be OK, your pain doesn’t need to dissolve overnight and your suffering is real. See it, feel it, and eventually you’ll heal from it.