One of the main components of a large proportion of therapeutic processes becomes the management of emotions , especially those that destabilize us negatively or those that have an unpleasant connotation such as anger, worry (fear) or sadness.

A basic principle in the psychological work of emotions is learning to identify, manage and express them in an adaptive way. Opposite processes, i.e. repression or avoidance, usually lead to the appearance of significant discomfort in the medium and long term. In this sense, and especially in the face of disturbing emotions, it is useful to resort to Mindfulness , or Full Attention, to manage them.

Identifying disturbing emotions

One of the main objectives in achieving stability and emotional well-being involves dealing with the feelings that are generated after the cognitive experience of a specific situation, processing them in a rational and realistic way and, finally, issuing a response of acceptance and adequate assimilation of this discomfort. As Simon (2011) argues, a fundamental process in achieving this goal is to “calm the mind and see clearly”.

It seems necessary to train oneself to “disidentify” with the intense emotion experienced at a given moment in order to be able to analyze it with greater perspective and greater clarity .

One of the most recognized theories on how emotions are produced was proposed by James-Lange at the end of the 19th century, from which he established the hypothesis that the physiological changes produced in the organism are transmitted by the autonomic nervous system to the cerebral cortex and, as a result, emotions arise. Thus, these authors opposed the initial theoretical principle that defended that emotions are the cause of physiological change. For James-Lange the individual does not cry because he has sorrow, but he has sorrow because he cries.

Later, Cannon-Bard’s approach in the early 20th century achieved a greater consensus regarding the physiological explanation of emotions by postulating that both the body’s reaction and the emotion occur simultaneously and are interdependent. In this way, the idea began to be considered valid that a fundamental factor in the identification of emotions becomes the analysis of the physiological reaction that a person emits in the face of a concrete experience.

On the other hand, from the most current approaches to the emotional intelligence construct, it is understood that there is a two-way relationship between emotions and thoughts. In other words, both influence each other, which is why another essential element to observe consists of the type of cognitions that a person generates when interpreting a specific experience .

Coping with Disruptive Emotions

Simón (2011), an expert in the area of Mindfulness techniques, has proposed a set of seven steps, whose components can be altered in their order or appearance, which can serve as a guide in dealing with emotions that are difficult to manage either because of their intensity or their depth:

1. Stop

Stop doing what you are doing (an action, a conversation, etc.), interrupting the disturbing instinctive emotional reaction that has resulted from a particular event.

2. Take a deep breath

Taking 5 breaths from the diaphragm , respecting the 5-8 cycle (5 seconds of inspiration and 8 of expiration).

3. Awareness of emotion and body changes

It is about identifying which emotions are being produced and the thoughts that accompany the emotion, as well as whether they are accompanied by a behavioural intention (a behavioural response).

4. Accepting the experience

From the active and conscious experience of the emotion, a series of phases of aversion, curiosity, tolerance, permission and friendship towards the emotion in question follow.

5. Self-pity

It consists of giving oneself affection and love, instead of making judgements of guilt or anger , for example, having felt such a disturbing emotion.

6. Release

This step involves differentiating the emotion from the “I”, the disidentification, to let go of that feeling.

7. Deciding to act or not to act

Do this according to the circumstances of the situation, assessing the benefits and drawbacks of issuing a response at that time.

Acceptance or conformity?

Possibly, in relation to the above guide, one of the most complex phases corresponds to point four: the acceptance of the disturbing emotion. Here a fundamental distinction can be made between this concept and that of conformity or resignation.

First, one of the major discrepancies between the two constructs is the absence of judgment, criticism and evaluation of the experience of the emotion of acceptance. To do this, the first step is to get rid of the so-called cognitive labels , the qualifying adjectives that label the emotion as disturbing in order to eliminate the descriptive expectations or prejudices of this emotional experience.

Therefore, it is a matter of carrying out a type of mental processing DOWN-UP of the said feeling, where the person focuses his/her concentration on living the experience as if it were the first time, exploring the sensations and perceptions without classifying them, without valuing them. In this way, the person changes his or her relationship with the experience of the emotion in question, ceasing to be a relationship with negative or unpleasant meaning. This finally makes it easier for the person to detach from the emotion without being trapped by it.

Another relevant point is the active nature of acceptance, as opposed to the passive nature that is attributed to resignation or conformity . In the first case, the person makes a conscious decision to experience emotions and thoughts with full attention, voluntarily and actively.

Finally, within the previous point four of Simon’s guide, the following five moments follow each other from which the individual manages to make change in the relationship with his disturbing emotion feasible:

  • Aversion : the person does not want to feel this emotion because of its destabilizing and unpleasant nature and resists it.
  • Curiosity : the person begins to focus his or her attention only on observing what he or she is feeling, without valuing or judging it.
  • Tolerance : the person increases his or her acceptance of the emotion even though certain resistances are still present.
  • Permission : the resistance is less and less because the judgments of the emotion are eliminated.
  • Friendship : the person embraces the emotion as he or she accepts it as a personal learning experience. At this point, the feeling of compassion towards oneself begins to be activated where the individual gives himself permission to feel that emotion in a kind way, without emitting self-criticism or guilt.

By way of conclusion

One of the most useful applications of the techniques of Mindfulness is closely related to the competence in Emotional Intelligence , specifically in the process of identifying, managing and expressing the emotions that can produce discomfort.

The guide offered above can be a useful strategy for modifying how we relate to our emotions and move from seeing them as something unpleasant to avoid or ignore to understanding them as necessary and beneficial processes for one’s psychological well-being. This type of practice can bring us closer to a greater acceptance of this type of emotion, greatly diminishing the negative connotation that we might a priori give to them.

Bibliographic references:

  • Simón, V. and Germer, C. (col.) (2011). Learning to practice Mindfulness (10th edition.). Madrid: Sello Ediciones.
  • Lazaro, A. M. (2012) Learning to practice Mindfulness. Roles of the Psychologist, 2012. Vol. 33(1), pp. 68-73. Complutense University of Madrid.