A Self-Compassionate Approach to Working with Difficult Emotions


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There continues to be mounting evidence that stress negatively impacts the systems in our body. Many of you experience how stress manifests in your gut, impacting your quality of life.

We might not even realize we are stressed, so it is necessary to become aware of stress cues and how stress shows up in the mind, body and our behaviors. It is also important to take notice of our stressors. When we pay attention to what causes us discomfort, we can begin to recognize our stressors. When we can identify our stressors, we can prepare resources to better manage our response to stress.

A common stressor that many of us encounter is when unpleasant emotions arise in our experience. These recent times have posed many challenges and continue to be a cause for us to feel powerful emotions. If you have chronic health issues, dealing with difficult emotions might occur quite frequently.

It can be painful when we feel unpleasant feelings that we are unable to manage. Our tendency is to ignore these emotions by distracting ourselves with things like social media, or we move to problem solving in order to bypass the feelings, or we may try and make them go away by eating comfort food or drinking alcohol.

Taking a moment to reflect on how you tend to avoid difficult feelings? You may have noticed avoiding emotions is not an effective strategy and can lead to more stress, exemplified in the saying, “what we resist, persists”. We have to realize that challenging emotions are natural and part of being human.

We all feel emotions such as fear, anger, sadness and shame at times. These emotions are not pleasant to feel but it is not the emotions that make our lives difficult, it is the resistance to feeling the emotions. We may judge ourselves for having these emotions and think they shouldn’t be happening or there is something wrong with us for experiencing them. This reaction only adds to the difficulty and can create a sense of disconnection and isolation.

Emotions need to be felt, they are a signal that something needs our attention. Mindfulness, awareness of our present moment experience, creates an opportunity to open to our experience and acknowledge what we are feeling. It provides some space to make a choice of how to respond. When we recognize, acknowledge and experience these emotions, we are less likely to react in a way that hurts others or ourselves.

We also need a little more support and kindness to stay steady through this experience, some self-compassion. Self-compassion allows you to focus your energy on supporting yourself instead of focusing on the difficulty itself. When we choose to respond with an attitude of care instead of judgment, this creates a safe environment in which to explore and be with the emotions.

When we have tools to improve our ability to navigate through challenging emotions it can create a sense of empowerment, build emotional resilience and lead to a happier life.

Below is a 3-step approach to applying mindfulness and self-compassion to better manage emotions. Try it out and see how it works for you. Please do not try this practice when you are feeling overwhelmed or unsteady.

1) Identify and label the emotion
Our brain likes certainty so when we can label what we are feeling, it can help to create a little space between the emotion and ourselves.
Research shows that when we label a difficult emotion, the amygdala, the area of our brain that assesses threat, becomes less likely to trigger a stress response.

It is helpful to use an understanding and kind tone when labeling the emotion, such as Oh, I feel angry right now, or I feel scared.

2) Become aware of the emotion in the body
When we realize emotions have physical components as well as mental components, it can help us drop the mental storyline and guide us to where we feel the emotion in the body. When we can locate the feeling in the body, such as tightness in the abdomen, we have something to work with in the moment.

3) Compassionate response
Once we label what we are feeling and locate the physical component we can then open to responding with an attitude of care for ourselves because we are experiencing difficulty. This is self-compassion. We can practice this response by softening the body. Take a few slow breaths and as you exhale, each time, softening the muscles and relaxing into the surface that is supporting your body. We then support or soothe ourselves by placing a hand on our body, such as our abdomen or chest or one hand in the other. Feel free to place a hand somewhere you might find supportive. As you feel the warmth and contact of your hand and feel your own presence, realize this is a gesture of showing up to support yourself through this experience. You may also offer yourself some supportive words, similar to what you might say to a friend, such as, “I care about you” or “We can get through this”.

Then allowing yourself to feel whatever you are feeling, even if there is discomfort present.
You can continue to soften, soothe and support yourself as you open to allowing yourself to be just as you are.

This practice called, Soften Soothe and Allow, has helped me in trying times to turn towards difficult feelings, acknowledge them and offer myself compassion while decreasing my suffering in the moment.

This practice can be used on the spot when you notice you are struggling with difficult feelings and wish to respond with compassion and care. It can also be practiced as a meditation.

Click here for the 15 minute guided meditation practice from self-compassion expert, Dr. Kristen Neff: Soften, soothe, allow: Working with Emotions in the Body

To read more about self-compassion please refer to Dr. Kerry Wangen’s great article on self-compassion.

Suzanne Smith, MSN, NP, CMT-P is nurse practitioner at UCLA where she heads the Integrative Digestive Health and Wellness Program, teaching mind-body based skills and promoting healthy living for gastrointestinal conditions. She is a regular contributor to the MGC Blog.