What To Do When Our Emotions Get the Best of Us: Practical Tools to Ground Us (Part Three)
Exercises to cope with intense emotions.
By Beth Kurland.
This is part three of an excerpt from chapter 5 of my book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well- Being. In Part One and Part two, I talked about the cost of avoiding difficult emotions, and discussed what happens in the brain when strong emotions overtake us. I also shared how mindfulness can help us create a helpful pause to be with difficult emotions. To read Part One click HERE, and to read Part Two click HERE.
Because emotions can become quite intense, and at times overwhelming, it is helpful to have some ways to create a feeling of safety, security and stability in our bodies, from which we can observe our emotions. In the following exercises you will have an opportunity to practice this. The first exercise is a guided meditation that you can read and do on your own, or download the audio so that you can listen along. Please note, if you are currently experiencing very intense emotions (e.g., from a loss, trauma, etc.) it may be important to do this exercise with a therapist, or choose less intense emotions with which to practice.
The second exercise below will give you an opportunity to become more aware of how emotions arise for you throughout the day, and will offer the reminder to call up a feeling of stability in your body and “anchor” yourself as you experience any difficult emotions arising. Each of these exercises has an accompanying worksheet to go with it, and the first exercise has an audio recording to accompany it. You can find and download the audio and worksheets at https://bethkurland.com/samples/.
Exercise One: Dropping Your Anchor Meditation
You will need to set aside five to ten minutes for the initial part of this exercise. Follow along with the audio if you like, at https://bethkurland.com/samples/. Get into a comfortable seated position during a time when there are no distractions around you.
Allow your awareness to turn to your breathing, and begin to follow your breath as it comes in, and as it goes out. Allow your shoulders to drop, allow your face to relax, as you follow your breath in and out. As you follow your breathing, begin to imagine a ship in the middle of the ocean, and see a big, strong anchor that goes from the ship, down into the water, and deep into the ocean floor. This anchor keeps the ship safe and secure, no matter what the ocean waters are like above. Imagine your breath as a kind of anchor; as you exhale slowly, drop your anchor and see it take hold on the floor beneath you.
Continue to follow your breathing as it comes in and as it goes out. As thoughts arise in your mind, allow them to pass by as you bring your awareness back to your breathing.
Imagine for a moment that the waters are calm above you. Take a moment to see if you can find that place of calmness within your own body. See if you can locate a feeling of safety and security inside yourself. You might even recall a time when you felt very safe and secure. Think about that time and notice what happens in your body as you do. You might also imagine going to a familiar place where you feel peaceful, calm and safe (e.g., at the beach). If you can’t feel this inner stability or safety, that’s OK. Do not force it.
Just hold open the possibility for it as you continue focusing on your breathing and visualize the anchor of the ship. When you are ready, change the scene slightly to one of rough waters at the surface of the ocean. See if you can use your breathing to find your own inner anchor, that sense of calmness that lies beneath the waters if you go deep enough. See if you can imagine the waters rough at the surface, but calm deep underneath. Continue to hold an image of an anchor in your mind, and the sense of stability the anchor represents. Now imagine that there is a storm at sea. Visualize the storm in all its intensity, and then see the storm passing, as the ship remains safe because it is anchored securely to the ocean floor. As you imagine the storm, see if you can find your “center”, that calm, stable place within, and again notice what it feels like in your body. Use your breath to anchor you by returning again and again to your inhalation and exhalation. Now, when you feel ready, call up a difficult emotion that you are currently experiencing or one that you experienced recently. Choose something that is not too intense or overwhelming: perhaps a recent frustration or irritation, disappointment or stress.
See if you can allow this feeling to be present while you continue to focus on your breathing. Visualize your breath as an anchor, and simply be with whatever feeling is there without needing to change it or make it go away. Stay with this for several minutes, simply being present to whatever feelings arise. Bring your awareness back into the room when you are ready. As you go through your day today, notice the emotions that arise and see if you can name them. Several times throughout the day, stop and imagine dropping your anchor and bringing your awareness to your breathing for about a minute or so. Notice what you experience in your body when you do that.
Example: Bernie considers himself a “high strung” person and often feels tense and somewhat anxious. He initially resisted the idea of this exercise, but once he tried it he discovered that it really helped him to feel an internal calmness that he rarely experiences in his day. He liked the idea of allowing the storm to pass while seeing the ship securely anchored in the water. He recognized how easy it is for his own ship to get swept away in the storms when he gets upset. He called up a feeling of irritation that he felt over a recent argument he had with his spouse. Bernie practiced staying “anchored” as he allowed the irritation to be there, and found it helpful to be able to practice not being swept away by his irritation. During his day he noticed irritation, anxiety, worry, anger, and frustration arise. Because he was more aware, he caught the feelings earlier on, before they built up to full intensity. He found it helpful to take a minute several times throughout the day to drop his anchor, and was surprised by the way he could call up that feeling of stability in his body, even during these brief pauses.
Exercise Two: The Hurricane Exercise — Catching Difficult Emotions
Today you will have the opportunity to try your hand at meteorology. Your job is to observe your emotions closely throughout the day as if you were a meteorologist observing a hurricane. Your job is not to make any predictions, but simply to notice, label, and narrate to yourself what you see. When you are aware of a challenging emotion arising, name it (e.g., frustration, anger, rage, sadness) and then decide how intense it is using a 1–5 scale — similar to rating a hurricane category 1 through 5 (category 1 being mild and category 5 being the most out of control and intense).
As you notice challenging feelings in your body, see if you can call up the image of the ship and its anchor while you are experiencing the feelings. Be aware of yourself as separate from your feelings, reminding yourself that you are not your feelings; they are simply a transient experience within you. Like the hurricane or storm, they will pass. Take some time to write down your observations on your worksheet, which can be found at https://bethkurland.com/samples/.
Example: Petra’s most challenging moment of the day was in the morning when her daughter had a meltdown after she was unable to find any clothes that she wanted to wear. At the same time, Petra needed to get her and her daughter out the door on time so she would not be late for work. She noted that she was feeling intensely frustrated, and rated this as a category 3 storm. She started to fly off the handle and have her own meltdown in reaction to her daughter’s behavior. She remembered the exercise and shut herself in the bathroom for a moment and visualized a huge storm at sea. She took several conscious breaths and imagined dropping her anchor so as not to be completely swept away. This helped to prevent the hurricane from being upgraded to a category 4 storm. As she was able to experience a momentary calm within the storm (like being in the eye of a hurricane, she imagined), she was able to think clearly enough to realize that her own huge reaction would just make things worse, and she was able to keep her behavior in check.
The following is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being, (reprinted with permission from Wellbridge Books, an imprint of Six Degrees Publishing Group).
Beth Kurland, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of the award winning book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being (awarded Finalist in the Health and Wellness category by Next Generation Indie Book Awards). She is also the author of three upcoming children’s books and accompanying games for each, designed to help children learn practical tools to manage difficult emotions, face challenges, and cultivate positivity. (These books and games are scheduled to be released at the end of 2017 through Childswork Childsplay.) In addition, she writes poetry to inspire mindfulness. Beth has been in clinical practice since 1994 and provides evidence- based treatment to people across the lifespan, with a focus on using mindfulness and mind-body strategies for whole person health and wellness. To enjoy free meditation videos and audios, visit https://BethKurland.com.