Mindfulness: How to Mindfully Manage Difficult Emotions

During stressful times, it can be a truly difficult task to understand how our emotions are affecting our daily lives. In today’s mindfulness post, Home Base social worker, Erika Lundgren, highlights ways to stay mindful in our emotions so we can improve our communication with ourselves and others.

Step One: Acknowledge the Emotion

Allow yourself to sit with the emotion that has come up for you without feeling the need to push it away or “stuff it down.” Bottling up our emotions may feel good in the short term, but in the short term that can come out in unexpected ways, like snapping at a coworker or loved one.

Difficult emotions are here to tell us something about what is going on within us. Think of them as alarm bells signaling you to take action before a crisis occurs.

Step Two: Identify and Label the Emotion

Practice labeling the emotion that you are feeling by naming it out loud or in your head, say to yourself, “This is anger that I am feeling” instead of “I am angry.”  When we are able to acknowledge the emotion while detaching it from ourselves, we are better able to look at it more critically, which helps in later steps.

If you need help identifying your emotions, consider looking online for an Emotion Wheel. There are many options available online to help you brainstorm what you are feeling.

Step Three: Practice Accepting the Emotion

This can be a difficult step for a variety of reasons. Often our instinct when feeling an unpleasant emotion is to deny it or push it away. Acceptance of emotion takes time, patience, and practice.

When you feel a difficult emotion arise: pause, acknowledge, and accept that this is the emotion you are feeling in the present. Whether you are feeling grief, anger, sadness by practicing mindful acceptance you can embrace these emotions with a sense of compassion, understanding, and awareness.

One way to do this is to think about if a loved one or close friend were experiencing this same emotion, what would you tell them? Think about how you would support someone else, then turn those same thoughts inward to yourself. You might say: “I am okay. I have managed this before. I will get through this. It won’t last forever.”

Step Four: Emotions are not Permanent

When we experience a strong unpleasant emotion, it can feel as if it will last forever. We know that emotions are fleeting and will pass with time. Denying out emotions or trying to stuff them down actually causes are emotions to last longer.

Allowing ourselves space and the patience to sit with our emotions gives them the power to change, lessen in intensity, or even completely evaporate.

You may consider asking yourself some of the following questions to help guide you:

Was there a time when I experienced this same emotion and managed it effectively?

What is it that I need at this moment?

Is there a person/people I could reach out to help remind me that I will get through this?

What and where in my body am I feeling this emotion?

Asking ourselves these questions and responding can force us back into the present moment of sitting with difficult emotions.

Step Five: Dig Deeper and Investigate

After your brain and body have calmed and the emotion’s intensity has lessened begin to explore what happened to lead to this emotion. It might not be perfectly linear to what sparked the emotion and may require some digging into what was going on over the last few days or weeks.

You might ask yourselves any of the below questions to start the process:

What was going on for me right before this happened?

How did this discomfort arise- was it slow and gradual or sharp and sudden?

Is this a pattern?

What were my thoughts or assumptions before I became sad, angry, anxious, etc.?

Did the intensity of the emotion fit the intensity of the situation?

Critically questioning and investigating the root of the emotions can allow us to gain a deeper understanding and compassion for what we are experiencing. By allowing yourself to pause after acknowledging the emotion gives you the space to see things with a different perspective. Taking on or examining other perspectives provides the ability to remain present focused.

While these steps may seem hard or even impossible at first, with practice and patience we can change our patterned systems of reacting to emotion to a more helpful accepting of the emotion. Releasing the need to “control” the emotion will give space for the emotion to naturally unfold; this can cause the emotion to lessen in intensity much faster.


About the Author: Erika Lundgren, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at Home Base. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Services at the University of Maine at Farmington and her Masters of Social Work at the University of New Hampshire. Erika previously worked at the Manchester VA providing support and resources to veterans and their caregivers within the Caregiver Support Program. She also completed an internship at the Krempels Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living with brain injury, facilitating groups, and offering support services for new members.