Coping with Mental & Physical Stress: Part Two
In Part One of this post we looked mostly at physical manifestations of stress. In Part Two, we’ll look more closely at what is happening in our emotional world when we are faced with pervasive stress, and look at a few strategies to help move through these experiences.
Honoring Your Emotions
Difficult emotions are not unique to any one person—you experience them, I experience them, and so do your neighbors, friends, family, and even famous people and successful people. Emotions like anger, shame, guilt, sadness, fear, anxiety, and grief do not discriminate. They are not biased. They are all part of the greater experience of living a human life. They are one of the things that can bring us together—and keep us apart.
When we find ourselves feeling strong emotions such as anger, shame, loneliness, inadequacy, self-doubt, anxiety, or grief, a natural response is to shut down or distract. This turning away from the pain of these emotions is a valiant effort on the part of our ego-self to feel safe and okay. (When I’m speaking of ego here, I’m referring to the part of ourselves that is strongly attached to being and feeling “good”. It’s not “bad” to have one--we do, however, want to get a better understanding of what it's doing though!)
When we’re faced with persistent stress, these unpleasant emotions tend to appear in bigger and bigger waves, resulting in behaviors and responses that often generate even more of these unpleasant emotions.
For example: If we’re feeling self-doubt, overwhelm, frustration, and anxiety, we might respond to an innocent comment with defensiveness. We might express impatience with our patterns, children, or aging parents, leaving us with feelings of guilt. These feelings of guilt create more tension in the body, leading to more and more of the same.
As a global community, the spotlight has been shining in our darkest corners. We’re seeing some of the uglier parts of humanity, and realizing where we as individuals are culpable. It’s normal to experience feelings of shame, guilt, helplessness, and even overwhelm when faced with our shadows. Falling into the difficult emotions and becoming buried in them is not anymore helpful than distracting ourselves from them. These actions only feed the emotional distress.
So what are we to do? The pathway to managing emotional stress is to move through emotional stress. We must learn to honor the emotions by feeling each one and living each moment of the painful experience with deep compassion.
The key to understanding and managing our emotions is through empathy: pure acceptance and understanding.
Acceptance and understanding are not to be confused with approval. I’m not suggesting that we have to like the painful experiences. What we are seeking to do is to release judgment of the experience. We are not blaming ourselves for having the feeling, or telling ourselves that we should or shouldn’t feel a certain way. There is no condescension here. We are only understanding that it is normal--and healthy--for all humans to experience the full range of emotions: pain, sorrow, guilt, shame, loneliness, sadness, anger.
We can learn to embrace the reality that we are not our emotions; but rather, we are experiencing the emotions.
From this position of deep understanding, we see the pain, grief, shame, and desperation for what it is: a feeling in the depths of our being. We can then shower it with compassion and tenderness. Compassion softens the contraction in the body. It opens the heart. It lessens the resistance we have and allows it to move through us--ultimately releasing all together.
This same process applies when we are with the pain of others. As we start to better understand and tolerate the depth of pain in our own hearts, we can lean into a deeper understanding for all those in pain. This understanding of the shared pain within the human experience allows us to take the critical step of forgiving ourselves, releasing our guilt, and freeing us from the weight of carrying these heavy emotions. Lighter, we have more freedom to act in alignment with our deeper beliefs and values. This aligned action also helps to summon more positive emotional experiences.
Honoring our emotions can look like a lot of different things. There is no “one perfect” way to do it, and it can often be a little messy. That’s okay. Here is one practice that I use with my clients and group members that was introduced to me through Dr. Kristen Neff’s brilliant work and research on self-compassion.
The self-compassion break practice is a short meditation that invites ease into the body and softens the heart. The breath hand positions invite activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest & digest response in the body). The words invite ease into the mind and the heart. You acknowledge your pain as real and valid, place it in the context of time, remind yourself of the impermanence of emotion-experiences, and break the illusion of isolation—your experience of pain connects you to the greater global human community. You then invite tenderness toward yourself and release perfectionism as you embrace evolution, healing, and self-care as a learning process.
The Self-Compassion Practice:
Place one hand on your heart-center and one hand gently around the abdomen. Inhale through the nose, exhale slowly through the mouth.
Repeat the following phrases:
This is a moment of pain
Pain is part of the human experience
I am not alone—other people feel this too
May I be kind to myself
(State your name to yourself)
I’m here for you.
I’m learning to take care of you.
I love you.
DIFFICULT EMOTION SOS PRACTICE: Come to Your Senses
Sometimes, the emotions are very strong. We may need a little emergency treatment to get to a place where we can honor the experience. Anxiety, stress, and even frustration can often leave us feeling rattled, ungrounded, and unsettled. One grounding practice that I've found particularly helpful--and one that I've shared with many clients over the years is a practice that I refer to as Coming to Your Senses, or Counting with Your Senses.
It's a simple practice that gently directs your attention back into your body in a way that is soothing to the nervous system, while releasing the grip of ruminating thoughts in the mind.
It also takes about 3 minutes (sometimes fewer!).
Start by finding a gazing point, preferably facing nature either through a window or actually outside. Otherwise, any still point will do. A bookcase is a great option.
Close your eyes and exhale slowly
Open your eyes and name 5 things you see. Pause and tune into each one for a few moments before moving on to the next, taking in the qualities, colors, and textures you observe.
Shift your focus to your hearing. Name 4 things you can hear. Pause and tune into each one for a few moments before moving on to the next.
Shift your focus to your sense of touch. Name 3 things that you can feel. Pause and tune into each one for a few moments before moving on to the next. Notice the qualities, temperatures, and sensations.
Shift your focus to your sense of smell. Name 2 things you can smell. Pause and take in the qualities. Notice how your body responds to the scents.
Shift your focus to your tongue. Name 1 thing you taste. Really take it in and notice the subtle qualities of taste in your mouth.
Close your eyes. Inhale through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth with an audible sigh, releasing though the body and expressing a moment of gratitude to your senses.
As we continue to move through a period of historic evolution as a global community, we will continue to experience stress as individuals, families, and local communities. During times like these the needs for self-awareness, self-care, and compassion are greater than ever.
Experiment with honoring your emotions. Practice self-compassion, use SOS practices as needed, and above all—be gentle with yourself.
Try this free guided self-compassion meditation on the Insight Timer app.
Learn more about how to deepen your self-care practices here.