Welcome to the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness series. This is part two of a series of four articles offering basic ways to cope with treatment for serious illness. This installment discusses how to manage difficult emotions.
Read part one | Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness: Getting Grounded
We all experience strong emotions—both good and bad. That is life. We are human, after all. We tend to remember the situations that are the most upsetting or arousing. Sometimes we worry or obsess about a specific event or situation, like getting a scary diagnosis, or experience ongoing anxiety about what’s going to happen next. We wonder if we are making the right choices and maybe even feel consumed by fear, guilt, or unease.
But another way to respond to emotions is to notice if they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral without judging them as “good” or “bad.” This is hard to do because we give our emotions a story line and we tend to label them. As part of our Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness series, Carleigh, a teen diagnosed with cancer, shared what her emotional experience was like.
“The hardest part of the diagnosis for me was feeling like I had lost some of my independence. The medications I was on made me dizzy, so I couldn’t be up and moving around as much as I wanted. Being so inactive made me restless, and it was a big change for me.” – Carleigh, diagnosed at 16
Our brains are hardwired to learn from negative experiences. That is how humans survived back in the early days when faced with danger, like when being chased by a tiger or having no protection from storms or other disasters. Our nervous systems are designed to give us constant feedback about whether we are safe. So without even being aware of it, we are scanning our environments to look out for possible threats. It is a necessary survival skill.
Stress happens when our bodies go into a fight or flight reaction in response to danger. Carleigh noticed that after learning she was sick, she was scared of all the unknowns. Receiving a serious illness diagnosis often stimulates a stress response. Fortunately, now we have doctors, caregivers, and medications to help. These are the outside resources that help us to cope and offer comfort. But we also have inside resources, too. When we tune into our bodies, in a particular way, we can learn to read our emotions without being hijacked by them. We can train our brains to recognize the powerful emotions—like fear, anger, or anxiety, as well as feelings of hope, happiness, and joy—as pieces of information our body is giving us.
Practice: Riding the emotional waves
We can learn to calm our nervous systems in response to experiencing strong emotions or dealing with uncertainty. The goal is not to try to get rid of upsetting emotions. Emotions are like strong surges. Handling emotions is more about riding the waves rather than plowing through them. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn how to feel the discomfort, fear and worry while relaxing our nervous system and finding comfort and peace in the present moment. This is not just a way to cope with a serious illness but a helpful strategy for handling many types of situations.
The following is a simple meditation guide in learning how to ride the waves of strong emotions:
It may be hard to imagine, but every emotion is temporary, whether it is a pleasant or unpleasant one, happy or sad, joyful or fearful, or just neutral. Emotions last about 90 seconds. They give you information about your moment-to-moment experiences of being a human living in a physical body. Acknowledge your emotions as signals trying to tell you something. Try not to push them away, but instead be curious as to what they mean.
This is where mindfulness comes in. It helps you navigate emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones. Imagine surfing a wave. Finding balance helps to ride out strong waves. Otherwise, clinging to the emotional ups-and-downs leads to suffering. Using mindfulness to ride the emotional rhythms is an amazing skill and one that needs to be practiced over and over again.
The artful skill is first to recognize and name the emotion without judging it. You may say to yourself: “This is Anger.” “This is Happiness. Sadness. Irritability. Fear. Hope. Pride. Joy.” And so on. You will notice how emotions can change from one minute to the next. Do not try to push them away. Simply acknowledge their presence and follow your breath, using it as an anchor to balance you. You may even notice qualities of your emotion: It may be hot, sticky, cool, scratchy, tight, loose, red, blue, yellow. As you describe your emotion you may notice that the emotion starts to fade once you do this. There is a sense of release when you name an emotion. This can bring acceptance and relief. Give it a try.
Notice what you may be feeling now. Name it. Try to bring compassion or tenderness to the experience—or at least avoid judging the emotions. Ride it out by focusing on your breath.
Emotions are like waves, they come and they go in various rhythms and tides.
May you surf the waves with ease and grace.
A common mantra in meditation practices is: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” When it comes to the negative emotions, the real skill is to not dwell there too long. In other words, realize that you are not controlled by your feelings. Emotions are bodily reactions to experiences, whether reactions to the thoughts in your own mind, sensations of physical pain, or responses to the outside world. You can learn to have a different kind of relationship to your feelings. Mindfulness skills allow you to say, “This too shall pass” and also create a sense of balance, calm, and safety.
Allow the feelings to rise—whether they are unpleasant, pleasant or neutral—and ride out the waves. Remember to be kind to yourself, too. After all, surfing takes practice.
Read more from the Mindfulness for Resilience in Illness Series:
[Part 3] Dealing with Difficult Thoughts
[Part 4] Practicing Self-Kindness
Techniques for Teens: How to Cope with Your Emotions | Psych Central
What to Do When You Feel Stuck in Negative Emotions | Greater Good Science Center