How To Conquer Difficult Emotions and Boost Your Inner Peace

Five science-backed ways to change your life for the better

Posted Mar 12, 2019

Anisa Marshall, used with permission
Source: Anisa Marshall, used with permission

This guest post was contributed by Anisa Marshall, a graduate student in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program.

With the rise of everything from meditation apps to yoga studios, it’s no secret that mindfulness is having a moment. But does it actually deserve all the hype? Could just a few minutes a day of observing your thoughts really have any impact on your life? Based on a growing body of research evidence, the answer is yes: a slight shift in awareness for a few minutes a day can absolutely change our lives for the better1.

The next time you feel anxiety bubbling up or find yourself stuck in a funk, take a moment to practice cultivating these five habits shown to help boost positive thinking5 by using different aspects of mindfulness.

1.     Cultivate emotional awareness. It’s difficult to address maladaptive emotions if we lack awareness of them as they occur. Maintaining active attention and focus on the present moment is closely linked to meditation, but the truth is it’s possible to be mindful in every moment and situation. The key is to make this present-focused awareness a daily habit. Consistent practice is crucial, yet even just a few moments of your day can help build that mindful muscle.

Try this: Distill emotional experiences. Next time you experience a negative emotion, take a moment to notice any thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that arise in reaction to this emotion. Become aware of any thought patterns as you continue to observe your emotional experience. What feelings arise as you begin to experience this emotion? Are there any thoughts or behaviors that help lessen the intensity of this emotion? Practice becoming aware of and accepting these emotions and any subsequent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without judgment.    

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

2.     Flex your cognitive muscles. Cognitive biases are any systematic errors in thinking that affect one’s judgments, decisions, and even memories. While a natural psychological phenomenon, these biases can cause significant distress if events are consistently interpreted in a negative light. The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of negative events occurring and underestimate the ability to cope with these events are examples of harmful thinking patterns that can lead to emotional distress. One helpful strategy to challenge these thoughts is to examine the evidence that both supports and refutes each interpretation. With this evidence, think of possible alternative explanations without attaching significant meaning to any particular interpretation. Furthermore, brainstorming alternative interpretations prior to an intense emotional experience helps reduce any negative emotions associated with any particular situation.

Try this: Cultivate a beginner’s mind. One of the qualities of living mindfully involves adopting what’s known as “beginner’s mind”, which refers to having an open and eager attitude with no preconceived notions in any situation, regardless of familiarity. Challenging our cognitive biases becomes far more manageable when we can approach our thinking patterns with a fresh perspective. Try this out by thinking of a situation where you experienced a negative emotion. Bring to mind your initial thoughts regarding this experience and recall how you felt after these thoughts came to mind. Next, imagine this is not only the first time you’ve experienced this situation but the first time these thoughts have occurred to you. What would it mean if these thoughts were true? Why would it matter, and what would happen as a result? Notice if your perception of the situation changes after adopting this sense of curiosity and open-mindedness.

3.     Recognize Emotion-Driven Behaviors (EDBs). When we’re stressed out or upset, we naturally tend to avoid situations that exacerbate these emotions. Even when we’re feeling fine, we may tend to avoid situations that trigger these strong negative emotions. Known as emotion-driven behaviors (EDBs), these reactions serve an important adaptive role in certain situations that are truly dangerous. Yet in other situations, EDBs can be less adaptive and may even be harmful to us in dealing with a particular situation. By identifying any coping strategies used while under distress, we can begin to differentiate adaptive EDBs from those that are less useful.

Try this: Determine the adaptability of your EDBs. Bring to mind the same situation you thought of in the previous technique. Reflect on any specific behaviors that were prompted by the emotion. Be sure to include even subtle behaviors, such as facial expressions or body language. Now, without judging your responses, examine what function these behaviors served at the moment. How did engaging in these behaviors affect how you felt? Were they adaptive given the nature of the situation? If not, consider the reasons why these behaviors may have occurred, but do so without judgment. 

Darby Saxbe, used with permission
Learn to turn it off
Source: Darby Saxbe, used with permission

4.     Become aware of – but not reactive to – your physical sensations. Anxiety and distressing emotions are often associated with different physical sensations. The body’s fight or flight response activates when we perceive a threat, and these somatic sensations can, in turn, influence our thoughts and behaviors. Becoming more aware of which physical sensations are related to different emotions can help us learn how these feelings may contribute to negative thought and behavior patterns. We can practice strengthening this awareness by engaging in interoceptive exercises that evoke the same physical sensations related to anxiety and stress, such as briefly running in place or spinning in circles. Awareness of physical sensations can also be cultivated by simply focusing one at a time on different areas of your body and noticing areas of tension, tightness, or pressure.  

Try this: 5-minute body scan. Take a moment to settle into a comfortable position, either seated or lying down. Bring attention to your body, closing your eyes if that’s comfortable for you. Become aware of your breath, taking care to notice the quality of your breathing. Shift your awareness to the weight of your body on the chair or floor. Next, notice the sensations in your feet. Gradually shift your awareness to your legs, feeling any pressure here. Slowly move your attention to your stomach, back, arms, hands, and shoulders, observing any sensations while letting go of the urge to change any sensations. Bring your attention to your jaw and notice if it can soften. Become aware of your breath again, noticing if it has changed at all in the past few minutes. Click here for an audio version. 

5.     Embrace discomfort. Like the previous habit of increasing your awareness of physical sensations related to emotional experiences, exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations that evoke these sensations can help facilitate awareness of these feelings. Embracing these situations can also increase your tolerance of the discomfort through a process known as habituation. Facing these difficult situations helps us learn to accept any external triggers that exacerbate our emotional experiences.  

Try this: Feel the fear and do it anyway. Identify a situation that tends to upset or stress you out. Become aware of any physical sensations associated with thinking about this situation. Next, imagine experiencing these uncomfortable sensations and accepting these feelings without trying to change anything. Finally, visualize embracing the situation in light of these sensations.

At its essence, mindfulness is about detaching from automatic habits of the mind in order to let go of taking things for granted. A variety of techniques can help to cultivate this state, including practices that help return one’s mind to the present moment. Embracing curiosity and acceptance can also facilitate this state of mind. 

The mindfulness movement has developed in tandem with an increase in diagnoses of a range of emotional disorders. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide2, with diagnoses of major depression increasing by 33% in the past five years3. Anxiety and depression often occur together, with nearly one-half of people diagnosed with depression also suffering from an anxiety disorder4.

Anxiety and sadness are normal emotions that comprise the human experience. Yet when we perseverate on these negative emotions it can decrease the quality of our lives. By incorporating mindfulness into our daily routines, we can learn to better manage these emotions and as a result, increase both peaces of mind and happiness.

These five techniques are based on a type of psychotherapy5 designed to treat a range of emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression. If you think you may be struggling with depression, PTSD, or an anxiety disorder, consider working on building these habits with a licensed therapist.

References

1.     Spijkerman, M. P. J., Pots, W. T. M., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2016). Effectiveness of online mindfulness-based interventions in improving mental health: A review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Clinical psychology review, 45, 102-114.

2.     Who.int. (2019). Depression. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

3.     Bcbs.com. (2019). Major Depression: The Impact on Overall Health | Blue Cross Blue Shield. [online] Available at: https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/major-depression-the-impact-overall-health [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

4.     Adaa.org. (2019). Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. [online] Available at: https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics [Accessed 11 Feb. 2019].

5.     Barlow, D. H., Farchione, T. J., Sauer-Zavala, S., Latin, H. M., Ellard, K. K., Bullis, J. R., ... & Cassiello-Robbins, C. (2017). Unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders: Therapist guide. Oxford University Press.