One of the struggles I experienced when first employing journaling as a tool for processing past trauma, was facing complex emotions unearthed by the journaling process. Journaling provides an invaluable tool for processing past trauma long buried. The problem arises when the emotions buried with those events surface. Understanding how to manage difficult emotions is crucial to the healing process of trauma. But overwhelming emotions confront us at other times apart from past trauma and having a plan in place for managing them helps us avoid fearing our own emotions.
Welcome to Mindfulness Monday! Where we learn some easy ways to be more present “in the moment” at our jobs, in our homes, with our families and friends.
Learning to recognize God and what He has for us in each divine moment He offers. We acknowledge the belief that God is with us always.
We confess His presence is available to us, lifting our spirit and helping us with power and grace. Learning the art of “stillness” so we can hear His voice and view ourselves, others and our surroundings through His eyes.
For anyone suffering from past trauma, fearing the associated emotions is common. We all however, have experienced suffering in one form or another and carry an intense emotional memory with us. We may hear a song, encounter a particular fragrance or see someone or something from a painful past event. Almost anything can trigger complex emotions abruptly sending us into overwhelm and fear. Regrettably, repeated anxiety around specific emotions teaches our brain these emotions are harmful and subsequently the brain signals us to avoid them. Learning how to manage difficult emotions removes anxiety and fear associated with those emotions, retraining our brain, and eliminating the need for running away.
Most people have emotions they fear and therefore avoid or suppress. Sorrow, grief, embarrassment or shame, loneliness, fear or helplessness top the list of most avoided emotions. Unfortunately, the more we suppress an emotion, the more power we give it over us. Additionally, research shows suppressed emotions in the body are linked to chronic illness. Ironically, emotions play a large role in our mental health, and have a tremendous impact on every aspect of our lives; yet few of us understand the fundamentals of emotional intelligence.
Created in the image of God, we, like Him are emotion filled beings. Throughout the Old Testament we observe God the Father’s expression of emotion from love (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, Isaiah 43:4, Jeremiah 31:3), to compassion, (Exodus 33:19, Psalm 103:13) to joy, (Jeremiah 32:31, Zephaniah 3:17), to jealousy, (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 4:24) and anger, (Exodus 15:7, Numbers 11:1-2). Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man experienced all of the same emotions we do, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed full expression of emotion without sin. Since the Fall, however, sinful emotional patterns and painful emotions emerged, which often rule over us.
Briefly, compiled below are a few basic concepts about emotions providing a foundation for viewing your emotions from a perspective of knowledge rather than one of fear. Once we understand these few basic points, we can better learn how to manage difficult emotions.
It is just as wrong to despise all emotions as to advocate their unrestrained activity.Joseph Massman
Emotions Are Not Difficult
- Emotions are Helpful not Hurtful. Even the painful, uncomfortable emotions inflict no physical harm and pose no danger. One way our brain protects us, is through emotions. When feeling afraid, your brain alerts you to possible danger, when angry, your brain points out something requiring correction. While not foolproof, emotions exist to help us.
- Emotions are not Thoughts. Thoughts are self-talk; what we say about ourselves and our situations. Emotions are feelings, what we feel about ourselves and our situations. At times we struggle knowing the differences between thoughts and emotions; taking time for reflection when possible helps.
- Thoughts Generate Emotions. Sometimes it appears emotions come from nowhere, but factually, emotions come from our thoughts. When I become anxious over an upcoming meeting, the meeting is not causing the anxiety. My thought “They will increase the patient census again” triggers my anxiety.
- Emotions Are Not Actions. Have you ever yelled at someone when angry? Anger is the emotion, yelling is the action. Feeling strong emotions pushes us to react to diffuse the emotion, but learning how to manage difficult emotions helps us realize we can feel an emotion without reacting to it.
- Emotions Are Neither Good Nor Bad. Emotions are indicators bringing awareness to personal needs, others’ needs and situational needs. Classifying anger, sadness, fear and anxiety as “bad”, while labeling happiness, love, compassion and hope as “good” in actuality is simply classifying the behaviors associated with those emotions. Feeling angry is not a “bad” thing, lashing out as a result is unacceptable.
- Emotions Have No “On/Off” Switch. Unfortunately when we experience strong, painful emotions, there is no switch to flip to joy, hope or peace, or turn the “volume” down. Emotions come and go, our reactions to them determine how long they stay.
- Emotions Are Brief. Psychologist Joan Rosenberg demonstrates in her book, “90 Seconds to a Life You Love”, emotions last approximately 90 seconds, without resistance or engagement. When we understand emotions come only briefly and move through our bodies quickly, provided we avoid engagement or resistance, we remove their power over us.
how to manage difficult emotions
Armed with some foundational information about emotions, we now move toward understanding how to manage difficult emotions with ease. Complex emotions often surface while journaling, or when a sensory encounter triggers memories related to specific emotions. But, we also experience emotions engaging in everyday tasks. The challenge then becomes disarming painful emotions in a practical way rather than suppressing them, causing more harm.
Mindfulness provides an excellent method for increasing awareness of painful emotions in a gentle, non-threatening environment. Today I share a special mindfulness resource designed specifically for managing difficult emotions and thoughts. The RAIN practice offers a gentle approach for confronting the truth about why you feel the way you do. Using the RAIN technique does not “eliminate” the painful emotion or stop the associated unpleasant physical sensations; it teaches you a safe way of confronting and accepting the emotion without the associated anxiety. Ultimately transforming your mind with the truth of God’s Word, which brings healing.
Let it RAIN
Plan approximately twenty to thirty minutes for working through the RAIN practice. As with all of my mindfulness practice recommendations, secure a place with limited disturbances, where you also feel comfortable; I enjoy this practice outside! After ensuring your comfort, begin with a five minute Mindful Check In, which helps you transition from active life engagement to a quiet, calm presence. Upon completion of the Mindful Check In, simply sit quietly for a moment of two, noticing your thoughts and any emotions present.
Slowly transition through prayer to awareness of God’s Presence. Directing your mind to specific scripture helps ground you in the present moment. My standard verses are Psalm 139:23 and Psalm 42:5, for the RAIN practice. Stay focused on God’s Presence with you, His protection over you and His love for you. Maintain slow, mindful breathing, while moving through the RAIN practice.
The RAIN Technique
Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughtsPsalm 139:23
- R- Recognize. Notice what emotion seems most dominant right now. Ask yourself what emotion feels strongest. Name that emotion. Naming the emotion tames the emotion and breaks the negative cycle. You can say, “I feel angry“, or “I feel sad“. Notice any thoughts and body sensations associated with the emotion. This step is for simply recognizing what is already present. Recognizing without judgement or action moves us to the next step.
- A-Accept. The mind and your inner critic often seek dismissing painful emotions, instead, accept the emotion as it is. You can say, “Right now, this is what I feel.” This step is about taking responsibility for your emotion without running away. Work on sitting in acceptance of this emotion for five minutes. If your mind attempts to evade the emotion, simply repeat, “Right now, I feel angry, sad, frustrated…”. Ask God for grace to sit quietly with this difficult emotion. Remember His Presence with you.
- I-Investigate. Employing gentle curiosity, lean into the emotion you recognized in step one and affirmed in step two. Emotions manifest in the body via physical sensation. Notice how your emotion feels in your body. Tension? Where is the tension? Heaviness in the chest? Butterflies in your stomach? Then notice thoughts or memories associated with the emotion, without judgement or the need for reaction. Ask, “Why does this thought/memory/event trigger this emotion?” Ask God for understanding about this emotion and why it surfaces during specific times. This step is about understanding your emotion with compassion.
- N-Nourish. Finally, remember you are more than your thoughts and emotions, show compassion to yourself. Experiencing anger does not identify you as an angry person. Sitting quietly before God, feeling the painful emotion, opens you to God’s healing hand. Spend the final few moments speaking the truth of God’s love for you and your identity in Christ to yourself. I use the following verses: Romans 8:31-39, 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, and Ephesians 1:4-7. Close in a time of gratitude to God.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.Psalm 42:5
god can transform our emotions
Use the RAIN mindfulness practice anytime you feel confronted with emotional overwhelm. A useful tool for creating a calm space for honest exploration of feelings in the presence of God, the RAIN practice helps you confront painful emotions in a safe place. Noticing which emotions manifest most often, you can increase the power of the RAIN practice by adding specific scripture for those emotions to the “Nourish” step of the practice.
Ignoring or running from painful, complex emotions, traps us in the past, infuses the future with fear and paralyzes us in the present. Enjoying a healthy balance in our emotional lives is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
God, an emotional being, intended our emotions for good, and though marred by sin, if we openly, humbly and sincerely offer them to Him, He will redeem and transform our emotional brokenness. Recognizing our dependence on God, sitting prayerfully in His presence with our painful emotions, and trusting His sovereignty over our lives, His transforming power allows our emotions to work harmoniously in our lives for the purpose of loving God and loving others.