You are in the middle of divorce proceedings. You have recently lost a loved one. You have just found out that your job is on the chopping block as your employer makes changes to their business model. You have been diagnosed with a chronic illness. You are struggling with financial obligations.
Life can be challenging for anyone at any given point in time – time-limited or not. How do you cope? There are a variety of ways to deal with these challenges – some healthy and some…. not so much. Some of these coping strategies are used for deflecting or ignoring the uncomfortable emotional fallout from these events and conditions. Are you using more substances (alcohol and/or drugs), eating more, eating less, shopping for things you don’t need, or engaging in any other behaviors to a greater degree than you normally would? Are you getting into arguments with family, friends or coworkers? Are you losing sleep or sleeping too much? Are you experiencing more health issues (stomach upset, headaches/migraines, more colds/flus, etc.)?
Running away from our emotions, whatever form that takes, may work in the short term but will have increasingly negative impacts on our mental, emotional and physical health. Learning how to process our difficult emotions (or “emotional regulation”) is a proven strategy for getting through these events in a healthy way so that we may, once again, find enjoyment, happiness and fulfillment in our lives.
Mindfulness has become a mainstream strategy used in emotional regulation and is a major component of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and many other therapeutic techniques. Why is it so useful? Part of the success of mindfulness as a coping strategy was first articulated by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher. She coined the acronym R.A.I.N. to articulate the aspects of mindfulness that can get us through the difficult moments.
R – Recognize (what is going on).
The first step is to acknowledge the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are affecting us in this moment. We must recognize that we are stuck and subject to any number of painful and hypercritical beliefs, emotions and physical sensations. Some signs to be aware of are:
- Critical inner voice
- Feelings of shame/fear
This means that for this first step, you need to notice you are experiencing something, then take a step back to observe rather than react and, finally, “name” or describe what is going on without getting into storytelling. This is the opposite of denial.
A – Allow (the experience to be there, just as it is).
After recognizing what is going on, we need to let the thoughts, emotions, feelings or sensations we have recognized simply be there. We don’t need to fix or avoid any of it. I like to call this “sitting in the yuck” (and, by “yuck”, I mean the discomfort – as the labelling of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgement in itself!). This doesn’t mean that we must agree with our self-critique of unworthiness. It means that we are going to let those things be there while acknowledging all the judgement we are placing on ourselves, others and the situation at hand. Judgement language can be recognized in the absolutes: right-wrong; always-never; all-nothing; etc. Also look for other judgemental thought traps that I have spoken about here.
This is the time to engage in self-compassion for being so hard on ourselves and others. This might take the form of some compassionate self-talk – out loud or mentally. You could even put a hand over your heart while doing this. I use the simple phrase, “It’s okay.”
As I indicated at the beginning, we go through a variety of “storms” throughout our lives, so you will find yourself practicing this frequently. In fact, the more frequent the “practice”, the better!
I – Investigate (with interest or care).
All the hard work encapsulated in the first two steps now allows you to let your natural curiosity take over. Some of the questions you might ask yourself are:
- What most wants attention?
- How am I experiencing this in my body?
- What am I believing about this situation?
These questions can bring your primary focus on to what you may be feeling in your body, called a felt-sense. The non-judgement and compassion that you have been practicing in the previous steps creates a sense of safety to explore the hurts, fears and shame that you are likely carrying around with you.
Unless your feelings are brought into consciousness, these beliefs and emotions will control your experience and continue to perpetuate your identification with those narrow and limiting beliefs.
N – Not identify.
The final step is to notice the thought, feeling, sensation, and don’t identify with it. These are fleeting aspects of who you are. You are NOT your thoughts. We are much more complex than that.
This is the outcome from all the work done in the first three steps.
This is only one of the components of mindfulness that makes this a powerful tool for everyday living. This does not stop the storms from happening, it just allows us to move through them with a greater sense of equanimity and peace. I refer to one of my favorite quotes by Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Are you feeling overwhelmed by the storms in your life?
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