The ABC’s of Working with Difficult Emotions

The ABC’s of Working with Difficult Emotions

Just daily living evokes many emotions throughout the day anyway, and especially in a time of great disruption and change like the current pandemic, we experience some emotion or another every single moment of the day. Anger, fear, joy, surprise, disgust, rage, grief, often one right after the other.

And whether we like feeling these feelings or not, whether they trust them or know what to do with them or not, in truth, all emotions are signals to “Pay attention! Something important is happening here!” Our feelings constantly filter our perceptions and guide (sometimes mis-guide) our responses to all of our experiences, and thus play an integral role in how well or poorly we bounce back from any adversity. 

The ABC’s of Working with Emotions

I want to offer an acronym  – ABC – that is easy to remember and is easily applicable to helping us work with our emotions, no matter how difficult or disruptive they are.

A is becoming aware.

Aware of what is happening (and our reactions to what is happening) attuning to the bodily felt sense of our experience (and our reactions to the experience), allowing what’s happening (and allowing our reactions to what’s happening) to be there. Accepting that this is what is happening, accepting that I am reacting this way to what’s happening, even accepting reactions to reactions to reactions.

I can so quickly feel outraged by some of what I hear in the daily news. I can just as quickly feel fear because of that same news. Then in the next moment feel sunk in discouragement. Then the neighbor kids across the street ride their bikes up my driveway and I feel delight at their aliveness; my cat uses my computer as a scratching post and I laugh. And worry about the internet crashing. And notice how rapidly these emotions flood through me; a challenge to stay steady and grounded. When I’m aware and allowing and accepting, I can stay larger than the emotion and work with it. [See Emotional Mindfulness Strengthens Resilience]

B is for being with or be-friending

Not always easy. Taking a moment to pause, notice the presence and the sensations of the feeling – a tightness in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, a racing of the heart. Being aware, allowing, accepting, and normalizing. I’m a human being and what I’m experiencing is completely normal and appropriate. Then welcoming – ah, recognizing that any emotion or sensation is a signal to pay attention, something important is happening here.  Thank you for waking me up, calling my attention, listening to the message before trying to change it or fix it.  [Listen to Soften, Soothe and Allow by Chris Germer]

C is for compassionate connection.

Compassionate connection with safe other people is what activates the release of oxytocin, the hormone of safety and trust, returning our nervous system to the zone of safety we need to be resilient, the Goldilocks state of neither too revved up nor too shut down. 

We are hard-wired to reach out to other people for reassurance and soothing when we are upset, and even in this time of sheltering-in-place we can reach out to people we trust for comfort, grounding, even a reality check. In person if possible, sheltering with others. Through a quick phone call or text, through email or Zoom.  Even in our imagination, calling to mind people we feel better with when we think of them. And so we think of them. [See Creating the Circle of Support You Need – Anytime You Need It]

ABC works with any strong feeling any time.  We may choose to name the emotion – “If you can name it, you can tame it.” We may choose to inquire into the cause or the trigger of the emotion if that’s helpful in normalizing it and reassuring our self for having the emotion. We may deliberately choose to antidote any problematic emotion (we bow to the negativity bias innate in the brain) with a more positive emotion like gratitude or awe. [See Plowing through the Day with Gratitude]

ABC allows us to experience the full range of our emotions without being flooded or derailed by them.  And then we can use those emotions – signals to pay attention to what’s important – to make wise choices and respond resiliently to the troubles and turbulence of our day.