Recently, I shared a video on growing positive emotions and focusing on experiences of joy and gratitude during this difficult time. A friend of mine thanked me for posting, then asked, “but what do I do with all of the negative feelings I’m having?” While we all have to use distractions, compartmentalizing, and a positive attitude to maintain stability right now, we also have to take time to notice and tend to our negative emotions. Most of us are feeling varying amounts of fear, frustration, grief, sadness, and loneliness as we go through the challenges of the Coronavirus Pandemic – quarantine, loss (of normalcy, of work, of loved ones, of safety), uncertainty about the future, economic hardship. We can’t simply focus on the positives; we must balance both facing the negative emotions and focusing on the positives. When you have the time and emotional energy to turn inward and reflect on your more difficult emotions, here are my suggestions:
- Don’t “Second Arrow” Yourself: The Buddhist concept is that there are two arrows: the first is the one life shoots at us and we cannot control it. We are human and life is imperfect, there will be pain, discomfort, stress, and loss. The second arrow is in our hands and we have control over whether to shoot it or not – this arrow is our reaction to the first, our response to pain, discomfort, stress, loss. Daily life during this pandemic is filled with first arrows. We should notice them and tend to our wounds. As much as possible, we have to try to not add suffering to our daily pains – panic, self-pity, hopelessness, and self-harming are all forms of second arrows. We might need help in dropping some of our second arrows, but just this awareness can be helpful in being more mindful rather than reactive as we experience challenges.
- Let it pass: 90 seconds. This is how long it takes our brain to process a negative emotion. In Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains that when we react to something distressing that occurs in our environment, there is a reaction in our brain that releases chemicals through our body- that is a negative emotion. That reaction process takes 90 seconds. Beyond that, our negative feelings are due to our own thoughts or behaviors which reinforce the negative emotion (ie second arrows). If we can step back for 90 seconds and simply notice the emotional reaction in our bodies, and let it pass, we can greatly simplify our experiencing of negative feelings.
- Use compassion: Speak to yourself as you would speak to a dear friend, loved one, or child who was in pain. You would most likely listen and advise them in a way that showed acceptance, affection, concern, and encouragement. We often speak more kindly and offer more constructive help to others than we do for ourselves, because we can be more objective. So imagine your strongest, wisest adult self speaking to your struggling, scared, or child self with compassion and care about the negative experiences you are going through.
- Ask yourself what you need: Instead of a second arrow, if you’re feeling badly beyond the intense 90 second emotional reaction to a stressor, ask yourself honestly what your needs are. Do you need a hug? To feel heard or validated? Do you need to scream or vent? To journal and look at your feelings in words? To ask for professional help? Ask what you can do for yourself, not to push away the feeling, but to tend to it or work through it.
- Use different outlets: Sometimes our bad feelings want out and talking doesn’t make us feel better, or we don’t feel comfortable talking about the feelings. Use other outlets to work through your feelings: journaling, art, and movement can all help us process emotions without talking. Write your feelings down, draw or paint them, or get moving – yoga or other exercise can help us move feelings through our bodies rather than allowing feelings to be trapped in our tense muscles.
- Set parameters: Even though this post is about facing feelings head-on rather than distracting from them, we need to have boundaries in focusing on and processing our pain. Whatever outlet you choose, commit to yourself that you will spend a designated amount of time on it and then if the feeling is not resolved, “bookmark” it and come back to it the following day. We have to look at our difficult emotions, but within a window of time where the discomfort of facing the feelings is tolerable and doesn’t take over our thoughts or interactions.
Be patient with yourself as you work through your feelings and remember that help is available if you need it.