Understanding the cause of your distress, accepting the moment and practising mindfulness to soothe yourself through hard times are powerful tools in recovering and coping with mental illness. In fact, anyone living in this fast-paced world of ours could benefit from regular mindfulness practice. Below are some coping strategies, in which you can use mindfulness to deal with difficult emotions.
1. Accept that emotions are part of being human
Your emotions serve to guide and send you important messages about your current situation. If you suffer from anxiety or depression, however, your alarm bells might be a little more sensitive to warnings and therefore not always accurate. Forgive them; they are just trying to protect you from the monsters they have had to fight.
Focus on where the feeling is sitting within your body. For example, has it manifested itself as a stomach cramp, headache, pounding heart or shallow breathing? Notice it, sit with it, accepting it is there. Don’t try and push it away or pretend it doesn't exist as this will only perpetuate the feeling. Similarly to a toddler in a supermarket throwing a tantrum to get his mother’s attention, it will only get worse if you keep ignoring it. If sitting quietly is too difficult, go for a walk or immerse yourself in some sort of soothing activity. Again, without pushing the emotions away, but just accepting them and letting them come along with you.
Accept that your emotions are just trying to do their job, save you from danger, even though it is uncomfortable and might feel threatening, they don’t mean any harm. The part of you feeling most threatened might be the unhelpful coping strategies we may have developed over time. Retrain the emotions through acceptance to not over react.
2. Identify the emotion(s)
Resist from labelling yourself when identifying how you are feeling. Expressing phrases to yourself like, “I am sad”, or “I am angry”, is less helpful than recognising that “this is sadness” or “this is anger”. Your emotions aren’t you, they are emotions. You experience them but they aren’t your complete identity. You don’t need to hook into negative and judgemental conversation with yourself about your experience. You are normal, you aren’t a bad or flawed person for experiencing these emotions, compared to anyone else.
The critical voice will not help, nor will blaming yourself – instead it will take you away from the present. Be kind to yourself and to how you are feeling.
3. Acknowledge uncomfortable emotions
Again, pushing your emotions away will only feed them and they will return bigger and more powerful than before. Try not to resist how you feel. It is present, it is real and it is valid. Embrace these difficult emotions with compassion towards yourself, be gentle and understanding. Most of all, remember this is part of what it is to be human and it is totally okay not to feel okay. You don’t have to like it, you just have to accept it as it is and do the right thing to get through that tough spot.
If you are finding self-compassion difficult, then think about what you might say to someone you love if they were experiencing similar distress. How would you comfort them? Probably with gentleness and empathy towards their feelings. Try the same for yourself: no self-bullying or defeating!
4. This too shall pass
We have all heard the above saying and, like the weather or ocean waves, your distress will come and go. There is no place on this earth where it is always stormy. Repeat that as often as necessary to unhook from the feeling that this is permanent and you will never be well. Even though it may feel like it, you don’t need to make permanent decisions based on temporary feelings (especially when your mind tries to trick you into believing it is a permanent situation).
My therapist once encouraged me to approach my emotions like an explorer walking a new planet or making a new discovery. How does it feel? How does it look? Does it have a texture? If so, what kind? Can you taste it? What feelings do you have in your body? Any question that explores your current state will help you unhook from it as being part of your identity and encourage you to look more into what it is and what the purpose of it is.
6. Let go
A common expectation we have of ourselves is the need to control how we feel. Try and let go of your urge to control your emotions. Be open to the process of getting through and how that unfolds. Understand and approach your emotions with the explorer’s curiosity; know that you can’t control how you feel but you can choose how you respond. You choose how to bounce back and you choose how to embrace the challenge (even if you don’t want to, remember, just do what is right).
It might take some practice but, over time, you can really hone these skills and will soon find yourself diffusing or unhooking from these stressful times. You will always face moments of discomfort but it is how you deal with this discomfort that really helps your growth while you battle mental illness.