Emotions might be overwhelming for you.
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your emotions? Do you sometimes struggle to understand why you feel or think a certain way? If so, you're not alone. Getting caught up in our thoughts and emotions is easy, making it difficult to process our feelings effectively.
One powerful technique for navigating the emotional landscape is mindfulness. I know, I know. You're probably tired of hearing about "mindfulness." It's everywhere. But hear me out; I can make it more practical and understandable.
By learning how to feel your feelings and improve emotional processing with mindfulness, you can experience greater emotional well-being and build resilience in life's challenges.
Understanding Mindfulness and Emotional Processing
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an experience of non-judgmental awareness that focuses on the present moment. It involves paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and bodily sensations without getting sucked into despair.
Mindfulness & the present moment
If you're curious and connected to the present moment, you're being mindful. Mindful awareness can be of the present moment through:
the external environment through your senses
your internal experience through interoception
That's it. Mindfulness can be done while moving or while being still. There is no one right way of being mindful. Pretty simple, right?
What is emotional processing?
On the other hand, emotional processing is the ability to identify, understand, and healthily manage your emotions. Jack Rachman defines emotional processing as "a process whereby emotional disturbances are absorbed, and decline to the extent that other experiences and behaviour can proceed without disruption."
In other words, emotional processing is the ability to feel your difficult feelings and allow them to reduce in intensity. In addition, this calming will enable you to experience more of what the present moment offers.
Mindfulness and emotional processing go together.
The relationship between mindfulness and emotional processing is one of mutual support. By practicing mindfulness, you become more aware of your emotions and can better recognize them when they arise. This increased awareness allows you to approach your feelings with curiosity and understanding rather than fear or avoidance.
Through being more mindful, you can better process your emotions.
How does mindfulness lead to emotional processing?
To answer this question, you must first understand what is happening biologically when you are mindful. The Polyvagal Theory teaches us that to be connected to the present moment, your brainstem pathways responsible for safety need to first be activated. These ventral vagal pathways are responsible for your ability to connect with yourself and with others.
When these pathways are active, they keep your heartbeat calmer ("the vagal brake"), which keeps your defensive biological pathways from activating.
Suppose your body is not in a defensive state. In that case, you will not experience anxiety, anger, panic, and other negative emotions that keep you from being mindful.
In other words, when your body is prepared for safety, you won't exist in negative emotions. If this is true, you are much more capable of emotional processing. Your negative emotional experiences will calm and open up the potential for other experiences.
Likewise, if your body is prepared for safety, it is much more likely to be able to process your negative emotions. For example, if anger surfaces, you can notice, allow, and mindfully experience it. This process leads to a reduction in the intensity of the anger. You can learn more about these techniques in Unstucking Defensive States.
Benefits of practicing mindfulness
Some of the benefits of practicing mindfulness for emotional regulation and processing include the following:
Reduced stress and anxiety
Improved mood and emotional well-being
Enhanced self-awareness and self-compassion
Greater resilience in the face of challenges
Strategies for Practicing Mindfulness and Feeling Your Feelings
Practicing mindfulness needs to be both practical and accessible. Here are four techniques to practice mindfulness:
cognitions to open mindfulness: validation, normalization, giving permission
body scanning to identify where your emotion lives
mindful breathing, extending your exhale if you can
journaling and creative expression with a focus on the present moment
Thoughts to open mindfulness
You can use brain-to-body messages to help open up your capacity for mindfulness. Doing these three cognitive techniques helps to lay a foundation for feeling your feelings:
validation - is your emotion real? That's validating. It's accepting it as real without evaluating, rejecting, or even embracing it. Read more about validation here.
normalization - does the emotion make sense? If it makes sense based on the context of the present moment or the context of your life, then you can normalize it. You can read more about normalization here.
giving permission - if your emotion is valid and normal, give it permission to exist within your body in the present moment. You can read more about giving permission here.
You can use the upcoming mindfulness techniques more successfully after using the three cognitions above.
Body scanning to identify where your emotion lives
Another way to practice mindfulness is through body scanning. After you give your emotion permission to exist, ask yourself where it lives in your body.
I like to pretend a futuristic laser body scanner starts from the top of my head and goes to the tip of my toes. I picture a red line going horizontally as it journeys down my body. This helps to playfully be curious about my emotions and where I feel them.
Mindful movements, such as yoga or tai chi, encourage you to focus on the sensations in your body, which can help you become more aware of your emotions. You can also do simple movements, like fidgeting. Paying attention to the experience of fidgeting may help you attune to your internal world.
Mindful breathing techniques
Think of the breath as a way to connect with the present moment. It's always present, predictable, and rhythmic.
Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Observe the sensation of breathing in and out without trying to control it. Your body knows how to breathe naturally; let it do so and be a curious observer.
The only other breathing technique I recommend is to extend the exhale. This activates your parasympathetic safety state, keeping you in line with the present moment for a tad longer.
Mindful journaling and creative expression
Writing can be a powerful tool for processing emotions and developing mindfulness. If you write or use other creative means to feel your emotions, focus on what is happening here and now. Here are three of my five tips for mindful journaling:
alternate your speed of writing based on what you feel inside.
focus on the process, not the outcome.
don't use a journal.
Trauma Recovery: the normal & non-linear process of change
I explain why understanding the non-linear process of change is crucial for trauma recovery and offer some tips to navigate the journey you might be on. Read the entire blog here >
What is the relationship between mindfulness and emotional processing?
By practicing mindfulness, you become more aware of your emotions and can better recognize them when they arise. This increased awareness allows you to approach your feelings with curiosity and understanding rather than fear or avoidance. Through being more mindful, you can better process your emotions.
How does mindfulness lead to emotional processing?
Mindfulness comes from being in a Polyvagal state of safety. This state of safety reduces negative emotions like anxiety, anger, and panic, allowing you to be more open to emotional processing. In this state, you can mindfully experience and process negative emotions, leading to a reduction in their intensity.
What are some strategies for practicing mindfulness and feeling your feelings?
Some strategies for practicing mindfulness and feeling your feelings include cognitions to open mindfulness (validation, normalization, giving permission), body scanning to identify where your emotion lives, mindful movement, mindful breathing (extending your exhale if you can), and journaling and creative expression with a focus on the present moment.
Quotes from this blog:
"Mindfulness is an experience of non-judgmental awareness that focuses on the present moment. It involves paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, impulses, and bodily sensations without getting sucked into despair."
"Some of the benefits of practicing mindfulness for emotional regulation and processing include the following: Reduced stress and anxiety, Improved mood and emotional well-being, Enhanced self-awareness and self-compassion, Greater resilience in the face of challenges."
"The relationship between mindfulness and emotional processing is one of mutual support. By practicing mindfulness, you become more aware of your emotions and can better recognize them when they arise. This increased awareness allows you to approach your feelings with curiosity and understanding rather than fear or avoidance."
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He hosts the Stuck Not Broken podcast and is the author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.