When strong feelings take over…
Recently I have been encouraging my clients to practice an exercise that combines the best elements of several healing modalities*, and I’ve been getting some great reports about how it has helped. Just yesterday, I received this text out of the blue: “The exercise we spoke about really works/helps! Thank you 🙂 Last night I was frustrated, and I felt the feelings and then it went to sadness and then it went away! Awesome!”
This exercise allows you to encounter difficult feelings in a skillful and compassionate way. This helps them subside, leaving you feeling clearer and more prepared to make choices that will improve the situation.
How does it do that? Well it draws on something the great Carl Rogers was referring to when he said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” By doing this exercise you can create enough space to accept what is arising in the present moment. And by simply making space for it, it begins to change all by itself.
1. When you feel a big uprising of strong and difficult feelings, right away just put your hand on your heart.
2. Send your awareness into your body and see if you can identify the strong feeling.
3. Say hello to the feeling. (Saying hello does a few things I’ll explain at the end of this post.)
- If you can recognize the feeling — ie you can identify it as a specific feeling like anger or sadness or fear — say, “Hello my anger, I see you,” or “Hello my sadness, I feel you.”
- If you can’t quite identify it, you can just say, “Hello my strong feeling,” or maybe, “Hello tension in my stomach.”
- If using the word “my” feels too strong, you can also just say, “Hello feeling,” or “Hello fear.”
- If it feels right, you can add, “I am here for you,” as in, “Hello my sadness, I am here for you.”
4. Breathe in and out and just feel the feeling in your body, resting your awareness on the feeling. As best you can, don’t think about it, but feel it in your body.
5. If new feelings arise, continue to say “Hello” to them, one by one, staying with your awareness in your body.
6. After a few breaths, you will probably begin to notice the feelings change.
- It could be that under or next to your anger you will find fear or sadness, or even a feeling of happiness.
- The feelings might start to diminish.
- Or it could be the feelings will intensify, and this is ok. It just means that you encountered the wave of the feeling while it was in the increasing phase, but just stay with it, because it will reach its peak and begin to diminish.
8. Now would be a good time to try putting your two feet on the floor and resting your awareness in the soles of your feet for a few breaths. (This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to start calming the stress response, helping your heartbeat regulate, and quieting the autonomic nervous system.)
8. If you’re noticing any tension in your body — in your hands, your shoulders, your legs, anywhere at all — just gently soften the area around the tension, letting your muscles be a bit softer. It might feel good to stretch.
9. As your nervous system begins to move into a state that is a bit more regulated, your capacity to think and make skillful choices will begin to come back online. This is where you can begin to figure out what this particular moment needs.
- You might be noticing the feelings subsiding a lot. Sometimes just staying with the process of being present to what’s coming up is enough to move you all the way into feeling happy.
- Or you might realize you need to take another step…
- Perhaps you need to go outside and take a walk.
- Maybe you suddenly remember you haven’t eaten, or you notice that you’re exhausted.
- You might realize that you are not up to dealing with this particular situation right now, and you need to excuse yourself.
- Or you might recognize that there’s no changing this situation in this particular moment, and so you have to find a way to deal with it most skillfully. (See the bus shelter story below)
That’s it. It’s very simple, but you do actually have to do it.
In fact let me restate it as simply as possible so you can’t forget:
Put your hand on your heart and say hello to the feelings.
Stay with them as you breathe in and out.
This is so simple that it might seem like it’s not a big deal, but let me STRONGLY encourage you to try it. Try it right now if you like… we’ll wait for you here. :^)
I will be posting a downloadable mp3 with a guided version of this practice that you can use, and I’ll send out an email when it’s up. (If you’re not on our mailing list, click here to be notified when it’s posted.)
You really don’t need to know anymore about this, and you can just do it and not read on any further! But in case you want to know some more about what this simple practice is doing, read on…
This exercise does some very important things.
- First it brings attention back into the body. This is a really powerful shift in awareness that begins the process of recovery.
- Second it deliberately uses the language part of the brain in a mindful activity (naming the feelings and saying hello.) This interrupts the process of rumination and reactivity, and puts the prefrontal cortex back in charge.
- Third it creates an “I” that is not the feeling, but is the observer. When the observer says, “Hello my feeling,” it creates an important separation between the feeling and the “you” that you identify with. This changes the situation in a really important way… Instead of “you” being the feeling, the feeling is now in you. This means there is a part of your awareness that is outside the feeling.
- Fourth it slows you down and supports the quieting of the Fight or Flight response. This allows the nervous system to begin its very natural process of moving toward regulation and well-being.
I promised the Bus Shelter story, and here it is. This comes from the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy class.
Imagine you are walking home, late on a cold winter night, and suddenly there is a crack of thunder, the heavens open up, and it starts pouring down rain. You have no hat and no umbrella, so you frantically look around for some way to get out of the rain, and you spy a little way down the next block a bus shelter! You race toward it and duck in with a big sense of relief. Phew! You shake yourself off, and wipe the rain from your eyes and take a breath. You think, “Well, that rain came out of nowhere, and it’s raining so hard, it can’t last for long. I’ll just wait until it slows.”
So you stand in the bus shelter, waiting for a few minutes. But the rain shows no sign of stopping. You wait some more, but eventually you realize this rain is not stopping any time soon. And you want to get home. And that means you are going to get very wet and very cold.
Now you are faced with a choice. You can walk home through the rain, hunched over and angry, bracing against the cold and feeling miserable. Or you can walk home through the rain, your body relaxed and your mind free. Your choice. Either way you’re going to get wet and cold. But the choice is whether you will be miserable.
This is an important understanding of this exercise. It’s not always going to make you feel better. It could be that it doesn’t change what you’re feeling much at all. It could be it can’t change the situation. But like the bus shelter, it offers a temporary refuge so you can reset, recover a little, assess the situation, and make the best choice you can in the moment.
Give it a try! I’d love to hear how this works for you. Or if you’ve already been using it a while and finding it helpful, maybe you could write about it below to encourage others give it a try.
I hope this helps you weather the next internal thunderstorm you encounter with a minimum of misery!
p.s. Here’s a cool bonus… Pema Chödron shows us another version of this practice!
I was delighted when I came across this short video of Pema Chödron that shows another way of doing this simple practice. She explains in a clear and beautiful way how to connect with difficult feelings without pushing them away. Instead of suppressing them, which makes them last, this allows them to naturally subside, leaving us on the other side of the feelings in a place of ease and peace.
* Note: I drew on three healing modalities in developing this exercise:
- The teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, who taught me the “Hello my anger” practice
- Somatic Experiencing, which taught me how essential it is to contact the feelings in the body, and
- MBCT, which offers a similar practice, the three-minute breathing space, another version of a stopping practice to intervene when strong feelings are present.