Two Ways of Working with ‘Negative’ Moods

Moods are a normal part of everyday life. We all have our ups and downs. If we focus on so-called “negative” moods—e.g., unhappiness, feeling miserable, hopelessness, or even despair—we might end up causing ourselves unnecessary distress. There are many causes for these feelings such as depression, chronic fatigue, or illness, in this blog we are going to look at these moods as a call for change.

Negative feelings are not necessarily a problem. They can prompt us to make beneficial changes. One way we can help bring about these change is by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Who and what are the most important people and things in your life?
  • What are your dreams and goals?
  • How does the way you spend your time reflect the priorities you identified above?
  • What do you fear, and how do you show courage?
  • What do you trust, and how do you show trust?

Another approach to relating constructively with negative moods is to heighten our awareness of our physical body sensations. Low energy often accompanying these negative moods may feel like a heavy lid. This lid consists of layers of historical hurt that include strong emotions, heavy thoughts and physical sensations buried in our bodies. By giving clear, gentle and sustained attention to these sensations we can reconnect to ignored aspects of our experience, resolve past traumas, transform negative moods, and recover our natural balance and vitality.

© 2013 Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

Therapy: Promoting Wellbeing through Compassion

Lotus FlowersResearch suggests that teaching people to develop compassion can reduce shame and self-criticism, as well as change the brain structure in a clear and dramatic way promoting longevity, physical and emotional wellbeing.
It’s hard to think of any therapy that doesn’t encourage practicing with compassion and teaching people to connect with compassion in everyday life. Compassion is a quality that sustains wellbeing and relationships.

Compassion is our response to hurt—our own and that of others. It includes firstly directly contacting the experience of hurt, an embodied visceral connection, then allowing this experience to touch the heart, without trying to fix it or push it away. It’s a full mind-body experience and takes an act of courage.

In order to contact compassion we need to slow down, stop doing and pay attention, be present, be mindful acknowledging what is going on. When we slow down we allow more space and compassion naturally arises. It’s our natural response to care, caring for ourselves and others.

Compassion is harder to find in conflict situations. The first step is to slow down, recognize that we are in conflict and start attending what is going on in us: what do we experience in our body and heart? Usually we begin to blame, “I am hurt and it must be somebody’s fault”. However, the entryway into compassion is self-forgiveness, recognizing we are at war with ourselves, we are hurt because we feel things should be different.

At this point we could work with the blame, be compassionate toward our “it’s all about me state of mind”, “the world is out there to get me”. We feel something is missing, something is wrong—we are not enough. Underneath blaming others there is a sense of victimhood, weakness, shame, and deficiency.

When we hurt, we not only blame others, but also blame ourselves and add more to the hurt. We use self-blame to control ourselves, to have power over so we blame others to have power over them. There is still in each of us some wholeness, some intrinsic wisdom toward finding compassion.

When we forgive ourselves we transform the shame, the hurt we are in and realize we are not bad—a a sense of compassion naturally arises. We start to free ourselves, we forgive and hold our hurt place then we can begin to really forgive others as we see their hurt places.

Forgiveness is an inner experience of the heart/body: we let go of shame, of a sense of badness. When we hold our hurt with kindness, another possibility opens up: we can begin to look at how others also hurt. Compassion is a gradual process. We can learn to develop compassion with the help of a friend or therapist.

References

Brach, T. (2012). Cultivating a Forgiving Heart. The Compassionate Brain, Session 3, with Rick Hanson.

© 2013 Maria Stella, PhD. All Rights Reserved.

A Life-long Journey: Working with Emotions

Emotions are part of our human experience. We feel the heat of anger, the despair of sadness, the dread of fear. We talk about our emotions over coffee, during a telephone conversation, in a therapist’s office. When an emotion is triggered, we feel it, react to it, and allow it to influence decisions that have important consequences for all our relationships.

Working with emotions can be considered a form of art. It requires skill, awareness, and creativity. The starting point is not struggling with the present moment, fully accepting what is occurring, being open to sensing the freedom in this open space.

This is easier said than done. It takes a lot of practice to remain open to intense emotions without habitual responses of defending our territory. Staying open, we can relax in the midst of emotional upheaval and appreciate it for what is. How we experience this openness depends on the situation. After accepting that we have been triggered and opened up to the situation we learn to discriminate: how to go toward wakefulness versus reacting from habitual patterns that are self-confirming. We sharpen our intelligence and discriminate what the next step might be.

This process can be irritating and at times disorienting. Anger strikes, our hands are sweaty, our heart beats faster, and our face goes red; we can choose to open up instead of blaming and reacting. We stay with the intensity of the anger even if we wish it were gone and the situation was resolved in some other way. We are now able to work with uncertainty, fully attentive to our feelings and our surroundings, sensing what is needed with an open mind and heart.

At this point our awareness is fully functioning, open to the novelty of sensing what the situation calls for. Creating is about not knowing. Acknowledging that our past responses didn’t work very well, we start from the present moment and look for its creative potential. We reconsider the situation; we look at the details with fresh eyes; remaining sensitive to our feelings. We begin to lighten up; we get over ourselves and look at the brilliance in every situation. Something lights up and makes it possible to create something new.

A burst of anger if expressed habitually may result in hurt for ourselves and others; whereas given some openness, it may allow us to recognize the energy available for use in a more harmonious way. Where mind, body, surroundings, people and situations all work together, there is no separation between “me” and my perception, there is simply wholeness and harmony.

Working with emotions is a life-long journey. Sometimes the scenery appeared familiar, sometimes strange and unusual, stimulating and frightening, from a serene view of a beautiful, calm lake, to a cool and claustrophobic cave, to a mountain top, vast and fresh. I would like to close with a wish: “May everyone find deep inner freedom,” and, “May everyone discover the sacred in everyday life while working with emotions.”

This is an excerpt—concluding thoughts—from Working with Emotions: A Shambhala Buddhist Approach (Stella, 2011)

Working with Emotions: Embodied Presence

When our natural and authentic aspects are not recognized as children, these aspects become disconnected (Van der Hart, 2006). We begin to develop an apparently normal part that understands reality and reason for emotions but does not feel them directly. These emotions are generally projected into the world. The disconnected aspects or emotional parts hold the intense emotions of the past and are not open to current perception of the world. They are focused on defending from feeling the ‘endless’ emotional anguish.

The apparently normal part is always worried about the emotional parts that contain the energy of anger and rage. As we develop a relationship with the emotional parts and the apparently normal part we begin to embody multiple parts into one embodied presence. This process shows us how we open these emotional parts and bring them into integration in the body (Stanley, 2012).

When our mind is elsewhere—thinking about the past or the future—while our body moves along in the present, our motions are jerky and disconnected. Mindfulness practice opens the doorway to experience both body and mind in the same time, or the same moment. This meeting can only occur when both are present right this very moment. This integrated state of being—embodied presence—is both stable and stead as well as open and vulnerable. We are fully present physically, emotionally and mentally all together at once (Ferguson, 2010).

Working with emotions is the key to integration. This process allow us to develop an unconditional sense of wellbeing, a deep sense of joy in being alive as mind, body and emotions come together into one embodied presence.

References

Ferguson, G. (2010). Natural Wakefulness. Boston: Shambhala

Stanley, S. (2012). Complex Trauma and Dissociated Self-State. [PowerPoint slides]. Lecture series presented at Sleeping Dog Farm, Victoria, BC

Van der Hart O., Nijenhuis, E., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: Norton.

Bringing Acceptance into our Lives

When we feel overwhelmed or shut down we are usually caught in habitual patterns, behavior and stories that separate us from our lives. It’s as if we were in a bird in a cage.

The way out of our cage begins with accepting everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience. […] It means feeling pain and sorrow without resisting. It means feeling desire or dislike for someone or something without judging ourselves for the feeling or being driven to act on it (Brach, 2003)

This process starts with becoming aware of the sensations in our bodies. By paying attention to unpleasant sensations we eventually come to realize how we hold on to stories and behavior that perpetuate our suffering.

When we meet these sensations and accept them for what they are, they begin to loosen. Instead of resisting or avoiding the unpleasant sensations we can open up to them, letting them be and allowing them to shift. This way we free ourselves from the stories and separation and experience what is like to be fully present and connected in the present moment.

Riding Emotions

Emotions are powerful and can push us over the edge. When we struggle with our emotions by trying to gain some control “they can take us on a nice roller-coaster ride […] quite high where the view is very beautiful—then when we suddenly fall downward we start screaming. But the ride’s not over. It turns us upside down and rolls us around before going up high again. […] But when we get trapped again and again by our compulsive and neurotic emotional patterns, we just keep on screaming” (Ponlop, 2010).

By slowing down we can take a look at emotions with mindfulness and interrupt their momentum. We learn to fully experience the emotional energy—simply breathing in and out during the roller-coaster ride—and this creates a sense of trust in the process.

We can ride the energy of emotions and connect to this powerful force that is part of our creative potential. Working with emotions in this way brings about clarity, joy and peace.

Touching Emotions

Mindfulness practice helps us slow down and access deeper levels of experience. By touching positive emotions while meditating, we can learn how to nurture them, and by touching negative emotions, we can learn how to transform them.

In Thich Nhat Hanh words:

When we are able to touch our habit energies and transform the roots of violence, despair, fear and anger in our store consciousness, transformation at the base occurs.

Thus mindfulness practice assists the process of healing painful emotions, and discover their hidden wisdom.