Mindfulness: How to manage unpleasant emotions and be more present

| Amanda Bloom, LCMHC

Mind Chatter and Mindlessness

Have you ever been driving and not be able to remember part of the drive or completely spaced out on how you arrived at your destination because you were so lost in your own thoughts? Our mind can get caught up with ruminating about perceived failures and regrets of our past or worrying about what the future has in store. Our mind is often distracted, wandering several steps ahead of us throughout the day.  For example, first thing in the morning when you wake up, you think about the challenges that you will encounter during the work day ahead. But when you finally get to work, you are planning what you are going to eat for dinner that night. We can get so caught up in our own mind chatter that we are not paying attention to what is actually happening at that moment.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with multitasking. It is not uncommon that we are simultaneously watching television, scrolling through our phones, writing emails, sending text messages and trying to carry on a conversation all at the same time. Do we ever try to slow down and stop to focus on one task at a time? To be fully present in the moment with what we are doing? Do we stop to take notice where our mind is, what it is focusing on and what emotions it brings up for us?

Avoidance From Unpleasant Experiences

We also live in a culture that places emphasis on getting rid of any negative and unpleasant experience, including our own painful emotions, negative thoughts and daily stresses. We come from a mindset where we believe that we should be able to control, fix and eliminate any negative or unpleasant thought, feeling and sensation. We find so many ways to check out, escape, avoid and numb our negative experiences- whether it is through binge drinking, drug use, food, sex, shopping, even by mindlessly scrolling through our phones or binge watching television shows. We do whatever we can to avoid and numb.  We carry this idealistic version of what it means to be happy and healthy. However, the reality is that being human means we are going to have unpleasant, distressing thoughts, and feelings. Here is the irony, the more we try not to experience negative thoughts and emotions, the stronger and more powerful they become. When we try not to think about something, we are in fact, continuing to ruminate about it. This ensures the continued perseverating on negative thoughts and feelings, leading us to feel more frustrated and out of control of our own mind.

What do we do with unpleasant thoughts and emotions?

If we know that by trying to avoid our pain and distress only contributes to more pain, the answer is that we need to accept it. I use the word “accept” carefully and cautiously, as it brings up some feelings of hesitation. People believe that they are somehow giving in or giving up. Acceptance simply means acknowledgment. It does not mean that we have to like it or agree with it. So, we want to take a mindful approach, by paying attention to and acknowledging our thoughts, feelings, reactions and sensations, rather than trying to avoid, minimize, or ignore them. This is not to suggest that we should learn to enjoy these painful or negative experiences. Rather, the aim of mindfulness is to recognize and accept these experiences as transitory and inevitable aspects of human life. From a mindfulness perspective, not accepting these unwanted experiences is the source of much of our self-induced suffering.

What is mindfulness? 

Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of interest in the concept of mindfulness. You may have heard it somewhere as it is gaining momentum as a popular buzz word. However, most people are not exactly sure what mindfulness is, how it works and why it can be helpful. A simple explanation of mindfulness as defined by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is that it involves “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Basically, it is learning to place our awareness in the current moment, in a compassionate way. We can bring our awareness to external things outside of ourselves such as noticing the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures we experience from our environment. We can also notice things that are occurring within us including our thoughts, feelings, reactions, urges and physical sensations. The focus of mindfulness is to improve our awareness and acceptance of our present moment experience, including all of our unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges.  

The intention is to be an objective observer or ‘witness’ to our thoughts and emotions as they come and go. The aim is to challenge our relationship to our thoughts. In other words, just because we have a thought, does not mean it is true. We are not our thoughts. Mindfulness is not only about holding space for painful emotions  but it also means not over-identifying with or exaggerating our feelings. Don’t try to push away, rush, or get rid of the emotions but also do not try to hold onto or amplify them either. Remember, mindfulness is a skill that takes practice and time to develop and strengthen. It is a process that we repeat over and over again!  

Why use Mindfulness?

By utilizing mindfulness we can learn to act with intention even when dealing with stressful circumstances. It allows us to act in a manner that is appropriate to the situation and to choose actions that are in alignment with our values, rather than acting with a short-term goal to reduce pain and discomfort. Mindfulness has significant effects on both our physical and psychological health. Research has shown that it has been helpful in treating conditions such as chronic pain, tension headaches, hypertension and immune functioning. Mindfulness can be effective in treating anxiety, depression, panic attacks, eating disorders, insomnia, attention deficits and substance use to name a few. 

Here are some quick tips on ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life:

  1. Remember, your mind is always with you, you just need to choose to become aware of it and to be intentional. 
  2. Take time to slow down and try doing one task at a time. Observe what your mind is doing. Is it focused on the current task or is it wandering around, thinking about something else?
  3. When you wake up in the morning take a few moments to lay still and take some deep breaths. Take in your surroundings and be still for several deep breaths. 
  4. Become aware of your breath throughout the day. Are you breathing deeply or is it strained and shallow? Pay attention to your inhale and exhale. Feel the air filling and leaving your lungs. Notice the rise and fall of your chest. 
  5. Mindful Eating- When you are eating pay attention to the taste, smell and texture of the food in your mouth. What does it feel like to chew and swallow the food?  Take small bites and chew slowly. 
  6. Mindful Showering- Pay attention to the feel of the water. Notice the temperature and how it feels as the water makes contact with your skin. Observe what it feels like to feel the soap and suds on your skin or in your hair. Observe the fragrances of the shower gel, soap or shampoo. 
  7. Mindful Driving- Pay attention to your surroundings. Observe the trees and buildings around you as you pass by. Listen to the music you have playing on the radio. Observe your grip on the wheel and feel the wind blowing in your hair or against your cheek as you are driving with the window down. Pay attention if the ride is bumpy or smooth. 
  8. Take a few moments to write down 3-5 things you are grateful for about your day.

Remember not to worry about trying to clear your mind of thoughts and feelings. Instead, try to be a witness to observe them as they come and go. If you find yourself getting distracted, simply bring your attention back to your current task. Set reasonable expectations for yourself- you don’t have to be mindful every minute of every day. Remember it takes practice and try to be gentle with yourself! 

Today's the day to make a change.