The first step to accepting distress is to start seeing your feelings and emotional experiences in a new light. Emotional discomfort is a very normal universal human experience. Negative emotions such as sadness, anger and fear are part of being human. These emotions are not just common, normal and OK, they are actually important and useful to us.
For example, fear is extremely helpful to our survival. Fear is helpful when it kicks in at appropriate times, like when there is a real threat to our safety (e.g., a gun pointed at us or a wild ferocious animal coming our way) or when the fear is proportional to the situation (e.g., nervousness before a big exam). At these times the fear we experience and all the physiological sensations that accompany that fear, help us to effectively deal with that situation. Heart pumping, breathing faster, feeling hot, sweaty, all these things are signs that the body has gone into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Being in this mode prepares us to either face the danger (e.g., study like hell) or escape the danger (e.g., run like hell from the gun or wild animal). In this way fear can be a very good thing. If we were really relaxed and didn’t study or didn’t try to get away from the gun or wild animal, we would have big problems.
Similarly, anger is a helpful emotion to have. Imagine if some wrong or injustice was being done towards ourselves or someone else, and we weren’t phased at all by it. If we didn’t experience anger then we would probably allow all sorts of bad treatment to come our way, or allow harm to be done to other people. Anger can spur us into action to try to change things for the better, for both ourselves and others.
Sadness is a tricky one. How on earth could sadness be helpful? Probably the easiest way to see how sadness is helpful is to think instead of what it would mean if we didn’t feel sadness. We generally tend to feel sadness when we lose something important to us in some way (e.g., a person, job, possession, someone’s attention or affection, etc). If we didn’t feel sadness when these things occurred, it would mean that nothing was important to us. It would mean we didn’t appreciate or value the things we had, and we weren’t interested in or connected to our lives or other people. So sadness inadvertently helps us to live a fulfilling life, because it means we care about the things in our life and don’t want to lose them.
I guess the take home message to remember is that negative emotions are important to our survival, rather than something to be feared and avoided at all costs.
Another way you might start to see your emotions differently is to recognise that your emotions are not permanent. Instead you might start to consider your emotions as changing experiences that are always fluctuating but eventually pass. When we feel distressed it can seem like the distress is going to go on and on forever, just getting worse and worse, until we emotionally combust. But we know this isn’t how emotions work. Instead emotions act more like a wave, at times increasing and becoming more intense, but inevitably always reaching some plateau, subsiding and finally passing. Sometimes the emotion may rear up again, setting off another wave or smaller ripple. But the key is that emotions move and change, they are not permanent. This is particularly so when you don’t fight against and try to block the emotion. Sometimes just being able to remind yourself that emotions pass like a wave, may allow you to better tolerate whatever upsetting feelings you are experiencing.
What Is Acceptance?
First, let’s consider what the effect is of urgently needing to get rid of your distress? You may now be realising that it just ends up making your distress worse. The alternative to urgently trying to rid yourself of your distress, may well be adopting an attitude of willingly accepting the distress. A radical concept we know given the likely long history you have with pushing your distress away. If you are still a little concerned about this notion of accepting distress, another question to ask yourself is whether pushing your distress away has worked for you so far? So it might be time to try something quite different…like acceptance.
Accepting distress is not about having to like emotional discomfort, or being resigned to feeling miserable, or wallowing in negative emotions. Instead, accepting distress is about seeing the negative emotion for what it is, and changing how you pay attention to the emotion. Reacting in an accepting way towards your emotion, often changes the effect the emotion has on you.
This approach is often referred to as learning to watch your emotions “mindfully”. Mindfulness is state of being where you are in the present moment, watching whatever you happen to be experiencing at that time, with an attitude of curiosity, and without judging or trying to change your experience. In this way our emotions are not some tumultuous chaotic vortex we are sucked into and from which we react impulsively. Instead we become the watcher of our emotions, noticing what is happening to us like a third person, observing and watching our distress with a sense of distance or detachment. As such we don’t have to engage with, react to or stop our emotions. Instead we take the stance of just allowing, observing and making space for the emotion until it passes.
How to Accept Distress
There is no right or wrong when it comes to practicing accepting emotional distress, but below are some steps or guidelines that might help with the process. I stress that this is just a guide, and at the end of the day being able to watch and accept your emotions is something you will need to experience via trial and error practice, rather than something you can read about.
Watch or Observe
Foremost is adopting the stance of watching or observing your emotions, paying attention like a third person to whatever you are feeling in the present moment. Observing as the intensity might increase, hold its course, decrease or shift and evolve into a different feeling. Regardless of what the emotion is doing, you are not your emotions; you are the watcher of your emotions (Tolle, 2010).
Label or Describe
When being the watcher of your emotions you might find it helpful to label or describe to yourself the emotion you are experiencing. It is a little bit like being the commentator of your emotional experience. The self-talk that goes with this might sound something like “…there is fear, I can feel it in the fast beating of my heart”, or “…there is sadness, I can feel it in the heaviness of my shoulders”, or “…there is anger, I can feel it in the tightness of my jaw”.
Curious and Non-judgemental
You’ll notice that the language used to describe your experience has a sense of curiosity and non-judgement. The fear or sadness or anger that you feel is not deemed good or bad, or right or wrong, it is what it is.
The use of imagery can often be helpful in allowing yourself to foster this detached observer perspective. Different images work for different people.
- Some people like the image of an ocean wave as we have already discussed. Previously you might have panicked in the wave, fiercely treading water and thrashing your arms against the wave, getting exhausted and feeling close to drowning. Instead when you are being mindful of your emotions you don’t fight the wave, but instead allow the wave to carry you over its crest and down the other side, or you might choose to surf the wave allowing it to carry you into shore.
- Others like to think of their distress as a non-stop express train, in that it is impossible to stop the train, and it would be very dangerous to try to get on board while it is moving. Instead you just watch your emotions pass by like an express train until it is safely through the station.
- Some people like to imagine their emotions as clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream. With either image you can’t stop the emotions, but you can imagine each cloud or leaf as your emotions. As such, you can just watch your emotions floating by you in their own time, eventually passing out of sight.
- Some people like to imagine themselves as an empty room with a front and back door. Emotions enter through the front door and leave through the back, coming and going. Some emotions may take their time in the room, others may move quickly, and some may re-enter the room a number of times. But, they all eventually leave.
- Or some like to think of their emotions like a naughty child throwing a tantrum at the supermarket. There is no point trying to stop the child because the tantrum just gets worse, and it would be dangerous to abandon the child in the supermarket. Instead you might just keep a watchful eye over the child from a distance, until they exhaust themselves and settle of their own accord.
Maybe you can think of another image that works better for you. This may require some trial and error to discover what image you identify with. You also don’t need to be someone who can imagine things in vivid detail. Most people have trouble doing this, and a more general ‘felt’ sense of the image is ok. The key is that if you can relate to your emotions like they are a wave or cloud or express train or whatever image works for you, then you are watching them for what they are, paying attention to them in a helpful way, and ultimately tolerating them rather than trying to rid yourself of them.
Once you feel you have fully watched and experienced the negative emotion, feeling it come to its natural conclusion, it might then be time to gently direct your attention to the present moment. This could be anything sensory, a particular task you are doing, a sound, taste, smell, sight or feeling of touch you may not have realised you were experiencing that you can now tune into. And if you can’t think of anything to be present-focused on, there is one thing you can guarantee will always be present to practice on…your breath. Whatever you choose to anchor you to the present moment, become aware of its sensory intricacies and details, and allow yourself to fully experience it.
Dealing with Emotional Comebacks
Be aware that no matter how expert you are at doing all the previous steps just mentioned, it is normal for negative emotions to sometimes reappear. This does not mean that you have failed at being mindful of your emotions. The key is to be aware that the emotion has made a comeback, congratulate yourself for catching this rather than getting sucked in or swept up in the emotion, and repeat the steps as before. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to catch and watch your emotions, because that in itself is the task…catching and watching your emotions. Sometimes people mistakenly think the goal is to be so completely absorbed in the present moment that they don’t feel any emotions, and hence they get frustrated by any resurgence of emotion. When an emotion pops back it is just another wave, or express train, or cloud, or whatever it is that allows you to again be the watcher of your emotions.
And remember, if you do get frustrated by an emotion popping up again or bored when doing your mindfulness practice, just realise that these too are emotions that you can practice watching mindfully.