When did you last experience a negative emotion and how did you feel? Was it fear, anxiety, guilt, anger, or something else? Having identified the emotion, how did you deal with it? Did you experience it completely? Or did you antagonize with the emotion? It’s fair to say, many people are unaccustomed to dealing with negative emotions because we are not taught how to process them. To compound matters, we receive instructions from parents or guardians that it’s unsafe to express our negative emotions and so we conceal them, hoping they will disappear. But we both know, negative emotions rarely disappear but come back with greater force, if left unexamined.
So how can we better deal with our negative emotions? Why do we experience them in the first place and what point do they serve? It’s important to realize that negative emotions can offer insights us into ourselves. I must be clear: I use the term ‘negative’ emotion to distinguish it from a ‘positive’ emotion. The term ‘negative’ doesn’t imply the emotion is bad or shouldn’t be experienced. Negative emotions are useful emotions and shouldn’t be labeled as bad, otherwise, we miss out on the messages they convey. Stowing away emotions is like turning up the heat of boiling water and expecting it not to overflow and cause fire and damage. This happens when we push down negative emotions, instead of processing them.
I’ve spent the better part of a decade processing my emotions on a deeper level. I wrote a book about transforming our emotional wounds titled Awaken Your Authentic Self. Therefore, to heal our negative emotions, we must feel them not ignore or push them away. When I talk about feeling our emotions, I’m referring to being with ourselves and processing them through somatic awareness. Therefore, if you are triggered by a negative emotion such as anger, create time to recall the emotion, placing your awareness on the physical sensations created in your body.
Processing Stored Emotional Pain
There are many teachers working in this area, who approach emotional healing from different perspectives, including a psychotherapy-based approach, CBT, mindfulness-based approach, or a combination of Eastern and Western approaches. One of my favorite teachers is Tara Brach, who created the R.A.I.N. method, which stands for Recognise, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. Tara’s method is one of many you can find in well-resourced books, so I encourage you to do some research if it interests you. Similarly, if you are working with trauma-based emotions, it would best serve you doing it under the guidance of a trained mental health therapist.
So, how do we experience negative emotions in a healthy manner? What follows is a general guideline to process emotions safely. This is important because it decouples the emotions in our physical body, allowing the nervous system (mind-body) to process them.
First, create a safe sanctuary to process the negative emotions. Don’t try this exercise with music blaring or knowing text or phone calls will distract you.
Shift into a relaxed, comfortable seated position and take a few deep breaths. This can be done on a chair or on the floor. Be sure you are well hydrated and avoid consuming caffeine before the exercise, as it will intensify your emotional reaction.
Focus on a negative emotion you want to process. It might be anger, fear, anxiety, shame or guilt, or whatever is important to you.
Allow the emotion to arise and shift your attention to the area of your body where the emotion lives. It might be your chest, abdomen, throat, or somewhere else in your body.
Observe the emotion and notice any thoughts or images that surface. Don’t follow them but return to the site of the negative emotion in your body.
Continue taking deep breaths if the emotion feels overwhelming. This allows it to move through you, instead of remaining stuck in your body.
Remember: it takes an emotion 2 ½ minutes to move through your nervous system, according to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor.
Identify the negative emotion by giving it a shape, color, or intensity. For example, is it blisteringly hot or ice-cold? Recently, whilst undertaking this practice, I identified hopelessness as a negative emotion and recall it being ice cold and hollow.
Once you’ve identified the negative emotion, sit with it until you feel the emotional intensity diminish. This may take a few minutes or longer, but don’t rush the process. It is like sitting with another person, listening to them speak. You wouldn’t leave or interrupt them and the same is true of processing negative emotions.
Lastly, I encourage you to undertake this practice daily, if you truly seek inner peace and freedom. It can become one of the most liberating practices because it allows us to experience ourselves intimately. People have reported healing long-standing physical illnesses, pains, and aches in their body. However, it is not a guarantee you will heal physical symptoms, but by processing stored emotional pain, you may find your physical symptoms settle. Again, I encourage you to work with a trained mental health therapist, and a trusted health-care provider, if you’re experiencing physical symptoms or illnesses that require medical attention. This practice is a wonderful way to become intimate with ourselves and process the pain and wounds of the past, so we can liberate ourselves once more.