“Feelings are much like waves, we can’t stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf.” – Jonatan Mårtensson
When emotions seem overwhelming or painful, it is a natural response to want to avoid these emotions as much as possible. After all, who would “want” to feel angry, sad, or anxious? The paradox is that the more you try to avoid or deny painful emotions, the more painful they become. Fortunately, there are effective strategies for learning how to mindfully and effectively handle these emotions.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) focuses on mindfulness and emotion regulation as part of its therapeutic approach. Mindfulness acts as the foundation from which all other therapeutic action is taken. When you learn how to become mindful, your experience with your emotions changes dramatically. Mindfulness is a tool that allows you to observe your emotional experience without getting so “caught up” in it. It provides you with space necessary to see your emotions from a new vantage point.
Sometimes it is useful to desensitize yourself to a painful emotion. This does not mean denying the validity of that emotional experience. What it does mean is that you may benefit from removing the fear of that emotion. When you learn to become less fearful of emotions, you are better equipped to handle difficult emotions in the future.
Mindfulness Exercise: Become Less Fearful of Emotions
Marra (2004) provides 12 steps to becoming less fearful of emotions. As you read through these strategies, reflect upon a recent painful emotional experience that you would like to become less fearful of and more confident in handling in the future.
(1) Feel the emotion.
(2) Imagine the emotion itself in the form of undulating waves of an ocean. The emotional waves come toward you, but the tide recedes. It comes toward you again in a massive wave… and it recedes again.
(3) Picture yourself on a warm beach, with the sun shining on your face and the sand underneath your feet. A cool breeze blows past your face, cooling it from the warmth of the sun.
(4) Imagine that the emotion itself is the wave of the ocean. The cool breeze makes the emotion just a bit lighter and less intense.
(5) Imagine yourself back on the beach. You are enjoying how the dark blue sky makes the water look so blue and how the water turns a clear crystal white as it hits the shore.
(6) Imagine the emotion is intense, but only when you see how large it appears from a distance. As you get closer, the waves become less and less intense as they reach the shore. As you picture your body being warmed by the sun’s rays and cooled by the ocean breeze, envision the emotion as smaller and less intense.
(7) Go back and forth between the images of the ocean (which provide feelings of comfort and steadiness) to the emotion itself (which makes you feel tense and afraid).
(8) As you go back and forth between assurance (ocean) and fear (emotion), mindfully notice the rhythmic back-and-forth movement of your breathing. Notice the air leave your lungs as you exhale and notice the clean fresh air enter your lungs as you inhale.
(9) Imagine the similarity between the rhythm of your in-and-out breathing and the rhythm of the waves of the ocean.
(10) Pay attention to the emotion itself. Focus on how you can choose to increase or decrease its intensity. Notice how the emotion comes and goes in rhythmic waves.
(11) Pay attention to how you can choose to influence your emotion as you pay attention to it. Now turn your attention to both your breathing and the visualization of the ocean and beach.
(12) Go back and forth between the imagery and the emotion, again and again. Continue this process until you feel a noticeable difference between being mindful of the emotion and then mindful of a different, more comforting, experience.
How did this guided visualization exercise help you look at your recent painful emotion in a different way? Were you able to use the skill of mindfulness to effectively regulate the intensity of your emotional experience? For many people, learning to become more mindfully attuned to their emotions takes significant time and practice. While mindfulness is a “simple” concept, mindfulness in practice is not easy. Recognize that skills with the potential to change your life in meaningful ways often take practice.
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Marra, T. (2004). Depressed & anxious: The dialectical behavior therapy workbook for overcoming depression and anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Featured image: Leap of Faith by ClickFlashPhotos / CC BY 2.0