Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness for University Students

In an earlier post, I discussed mindfulness for school children and explained the ground-breaking work of Goldie Hawn in providing training in mindful awareness and brain science to hundreds of thousands of teachers and children.

In this post, I want to focus on mindfulness for university students and highlight the mindfulness resources that are now increasingly available in universities throughout Australia.

The challenges confronting university students

University students face many challenges that can upset their balance and equanimity and contribute to distress.  Overseas students studying in Australia, for example, may have the challenge of mastering a new language, developing new friends and overcoming the sense of isolation and loneliness.   The process of integration and “finding their place” is compounded by cultural differences associated with norms that impact behavioural expectations generally, as well as in tutorials and lectures.

University students might experience performance stress resulting from assessment requirements such as assignments, projects and exams – often occurring across more than one subject simultaneously.  Sometimes, this performance stress and related anxiety is self-imposed through the desire to achieve a certain minimum GPA to gain entry to an Honours or Master’s course or program.  Other times, the performance stress is generated by the expectations of students’ parents, employer or relatives.  Peers, too, can add to the pressure when they are quick to point out any shortfall in assessment results or make unfavourable comparisons.

University students may experience exclusion from the “in-group” on the grounds of race, gender, sexual preference, dress standards or another discriminating basis.  Students at live-in university colleges may find it hard to fit into the prevailing college culture and norms.  They might even be excluded on the grounds of failing to form an intimate relationship within the college community.  The recent Human Rights Commission report into sexual harassment and sexual assaults in universities in Australia gave a challenging insight into the prevalence of, and devastating impact of, sexual abuse experienced by many university students.

Relationship breakups are a common experience for university students through the pressure of study and assignment commitments, differing expectations and values and the unusual circumstances of university life.  These relationship break-ups can lead to emotional turmoil and distress.  Relationship problems and other stressors can be exacerbated by financial difficulties.

The onset of assessment deadlines can result in panic attacks, nervousness, anxiety and add stressors to relationships that are already stressful.  The level of stress experienced by university students in Australis was highlighted by the report of a recent research project.  The research, conducted jointly by Headspace and the National Union of Students, surveyed 2,600 Australian tertiary education students.  The report disclosed a very alarming level of anxiety among the TAFE and university students surveyed – “35 per cent experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months”.

Mindfulness Resources in Universities

Universities have started to realise the impact of multiple stressors on students’ ability to concentrate and perform academically and to sustain commitment to their courses (drop-out rates have been increasing).

Most universities now, especially through their counselling services, have established a suite of mindfulness resources for their students.  They promote these on the grounds that they will increase concentration, clarity and focus; reduce stress; enhance physical and mental health;  improve quality of life and relationships; and help to develop positive attitudes and happiness.

RMIT, for example, provides a series of six conversations incorporating introductions, audios and exercise worksheets.  The conversations are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which involves a core message – “accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life”.   The RMIT ACT Conversations cover the following topics:

  1. Language creates conflict
  2. Action & experience versus thought and emotion
  3. Acceptance, willingness and inclusion
  4. Mindfulness and being present
  5. Your values and direction
  6. Committed action

In line with many mindfulness trainers and practitoners, RMIT stresses the critical role of the exercises and mindfulness practice.   A local resource that reinforces RMIT’s ACT approach is the very readable, humorously illustrated and practice-oriented workbook, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, produced by Dr. Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett.

James Cook University provides a Relaxation, Meditation and Mindfulness PDF with links to Smiling Mind Mindfulness Meditation, free meditation resources and classes, 6 mindfulness exercises to try, quick relaxation techniques and exercises.

Links to other free mindfulness resources designed for university students include the following:

Additionally, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) through its Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) has the following free resources:

There are numerous resources for university students to grow in mindfulness and improve the quality of their university life, enhance their close relationships and achieve the level of academic performance they are capable of.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of youzuowei1230 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

Mindfulness: Realise Your Potential

This post comes to you from Venice, the city of inspiration, a few days before New Year’s Eve and the beginning of 2018.

The closeness to the end of the year and the beginning of the next, prompted Seth Godin recently to write about the power of the possible in these words:

Next year is almost here.

And doing what you did this year probably isn’t going to be sufficient.

That’s because you have more to contribute than you did this year. You have important work worth sharing.

While Seth was writing in the context of marketing, his words are particularly apt in the context of mindfulness at this time of the year as we approach the beginning of 2018.  Here we want to explore the power of mindfulness and what is possible through mindfulness practice.

As we grow in mindfulness, we enhance our potential.  We break free from the shell of negative thoughts that constrain us and learn the power of the present moment.  We develop greater insight into ourselves, those around us and our environment. With mindfulness, we gain clarity to see our potential and the calmness to make the possible a reality.

As Google has found over a decade with their own staff, mindfulness training releases creativity and the capacity for innovation.  There is something about having clarity and calmness in tandem that opens our eyes and minds to what is possible.

What are you going to do with this new found potential?

It is interesting that at one of the largest technology conferences ever held, the organisers set aside a full day to explore “Mindfulness practices that activate your full potential“.  The YouTube video of this last day, provides the contribution of some of the world’s leading mindfulness experts such as Tara Branch, Chade-Meng Tan, Jack Kornfield and Goldie Hawn.

In her presentation on the last day of the conference, Goldie Hawn spoke of how mindfulness had released her joy and potential from the constraints of panic, fear, anger and other negative attitudes and thoughts.

She studied herself and her own brain and the research on neuroscience and came to the conclusion that she had so much experience and knowledge to share.

Goldie recalled that following the trauma of 9/11, she was panicked and paralysed and unable to function.  On remembering, after a week of inertia, how mindfulness had helped her previously, she resolved that she had to do something with the innate potential mindfulness had given her.  She asked herself:

How old are you now?

How long have you been an actress?

How long have you been working as an actress?

How many years do you want to sit in front of a makeup chair?

Because there’s work to be done.  And I want to help. I know too much now!

Goldie went on to establish The Hawn Foundation that brings mindfulness training to thousands of children in schools through a program called MindUP.  What motivated Goldie was the level of depression, fear and suicide in children

So we need to ask ourselves, “How long do you want to sit in front of the makeup chair, living a life of unrealised potential?”

Goldie encourages us to realise our potential through mindfulness:

And if there is any challenge, it is to remember that the one person you need to challenge – to become better in life for you, and for your loved ones and for  your children and your job – is to go to the University of You and become the best human being you can possibly become.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of congerdesign on Pixabay

Mindfulness – Control, Health and Happiness

One of the benefits of mindfulness is that it develops our sense of control. To use an analogy, we begin to realise that we are the one pushing the buttons – our buttons are not being pushed by others, events or the environment.

As we grow in mindfulness, we begin to experience control over our emotions and our responses. We are less at the mercy of our triggers, panic attacks and other sources of stress.  We develop a growing sense of control over ourselves and our environment.

Mindful breathing, for example, is just one practice that enables us to gain control – control over our breathing which is essential to life.

In her 2017 book, The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Tali Sharot argues that:

The brain has evolved to control our bodies so that our bodies can manipulate our environments…Our biology is set up so that we are driven to be causal agents; we are internally rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction when we are in control, and internally punished with anxiety when we are not. (p.102)

Tali Sharot demonstrates through research findings that we have a very high need for control.  She maintains, for example, that aerophobia – the fear of flying – is essentially about the loss of control, we are in the “hands” of the pilot and the plane.  She suggests that suicide is an extreme response to the sense of being out of control, unable to control anything in one’s internal or external environment.

Tali Sharot draws on further research to argue that “people who feel in control are happier and healthier” (p. 95).  As you practice mindfulness, you increase your sense of control over your internal and external environments and enhance your health and happiness.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more you experience the sense of being in control and realise the positive benefits of mindful practice.

 

Image Source: Courtesy of Lazare on Pixabay

Manage Your Morning Panic Attacks

If you experience a panic attack when you wake in the morning, it is extremely difficult to manage your reaction.

Deep breathing may be virtually impossible because you are so agitated.  Trying to reframe the situation – think differently about the cause of the anxiety and resultant panic – is impossible because you do not know what set off the panic attack.  The anxiety that set off the panic attack is the result of something you experienced in your sub-conscious while you were asleep.

Normally when we are awake, we can isolate a thought or event that generated fear and anxiety in us.  When you awake with a panic attack, you are incapable of isolating the cause.

Mel Robbins suggests an approach which could help you manage a morning panic attack.  The steps she suggests are:

  1. get out of bed (the physical act of moving will help your body experience a “moving away” from the cause of the anxiety).
  2. Think of something – an event/location/person – that generates pleasure and enjoyment for you (e.g. you might visualize a relaxing beach scene)
  3. Stay with this vision as you count backwards from five – then say to yourself that you are excited to be at the beach (you are giving your mind a reason for the positive arousal that you feel – a way of replacing the fear reaction that caused the panic attack).

Mel Robbins explains the steps in detail in the following four minute video:

As you develop your mindful practice in other times and arenas of your life, you will grow in mindfulness and spend less time being anxious about the future because you will be more grounded in the present. Daily mindfulness practice will gradually erode the root cause of your anxiety and panic attacks.

Image Source: Courtesy of geralt on Pixabay