A Mindful Guide to Navigating Difficult Emotions

World-renowned meditation teachers and researchers describe why courageously turning toward and meeting difficult emotions with kind awareness and self-compassion is so transformational.

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In winter 2021, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, my husband felt a pain in his chest while at work that sent him to the hospital in an ambulance. I drove immediately to join him in the emergency room, only to discover that I wasn’t allowed to even enter the building. My husband’s health issue, compounded with COVID restrictions, led me to a period of anxiety unlike any I’d ever felt. (Thankfully, he recovered and is healthy.) Since then, I’ve experienced intense bouts of emotion—from sadness and anger to fear and grief—due to reasons both personal and global, provoked by war, raging domestic politics, the lagging pandemic, and the climate emergency. If you, too, have had these sorts of varied and challenging feelings and are looking for some wisdom, please read on. Outside of my family’s support, my reliable superpower is my mindfulness practice.

“There is a lot to be depressed and anxious about and these are legitimate emotions,” says Dr. Chris Willard, a psychologist and author of the forthcoming book How We Grow Through What We Go Through. In the midst of both mundane and extraordinary struggles, Willard says, “Mindfulness can help you learn to tolerate, manage, and respond, rather than react, to negative emotions, but it will not get rid of them. We want to have our emotions be useful to us, not be overwhelming or destructive.”

No Feeling is Fixed

Each one of us experiences emotions differently. The first step is to bring a sense of openness to a negative emotion, an acknowledgment of what is happening, by asking yourself: What am I experiencing right now? The goal is not to clear or push away the emotion, but rather to welcome it and use mindfulness as a tool of exploration. “Feeling emotions is a subjective experience, so if I’m feeling anxious, for example, I’ll explore what it is to feel anxious for me: that I feel tightening in my chest, feel jittery, and have rapid-fire thoughts about something impending happening,” explains Kimberly Brown, a meditation teacher and author of the forthcoming book Navigating Grief and Loss. “We don’t try to get rid of anything—not pain or bad thoughts—we try to receive it, to allow it, to open to it, to bring kindness.”

“We don’t try to get rid of anything—not pain or bad thoughts—we try to receive it, to allow it, to open to it, to bring kindness.”

Kimberly Brown, meditation teacher and author

Focusing on the feeling itself with a sense of curiosity—What is this? What does it mean to feel mad? What does it feel like in my body? Hands are clenched, shoulders are raised, belly is tight?—is an effective way to cultivate awareness and can reduce the sense of being overwhelmed that often accompanies negative feelings. In these moments, offering yourself kindness can create the space to be with the emotions that are present. “When we bring a lens of awareness, we can often see that there are multiple parts to an emotion, and through direct experience we realize that they’re not monolithic—they are changing all the time, and that can help loosen their grip by showing that they’re more porous than we’d otherwise believed them to be,” says Dr. Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.

Mindfulness plays a beneficial role when it comes to acknowledging the judgmental thoughts that intensify negative emotion. Take the state of loneliness, for example. If you have the habit of piling on judgment when you feel a twinge of loneliness, it can grow into something that feels unbearable. If you rid yourself of the “add-ons” (I’m the only one who feels this way. This is never going to change), you are left with the feeling itself, which you can then investigate. “What’s behind the loneliness? Maybe boredom, self-loathing, feeling you have nothing to contribute, helplessness. You can see the different components and that every one of those parts is coming and going and shifting and changing,” explains Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author of Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. “So the emotional state that felt so fixed is not.”

“Is this anxious story I’m telling myself accurate and helpful right now, or just overwhelming? Once we name it, we can work with it.”

Dr. Chris Willard, psychologist and author

The practice of naming, or noting, can also be helpful in keeping our attention from getting lost in rambling thoughts. “By naming our emotional experience, we’ve begun to regulate our response in the brain,” explains Willard. “Is this anxious story I’m telling myself accurate and helpful right now, or just overwhelming? Once we name it, we can work with it.”

Regain Your Inner Balance

Once you have noted the emotion you’re feeling (Grief? Loneliness? Confusion?), the next step is to explore where you feel it in your body (In the head? Stomach? An overall sense of discomfort?), and then soften the body around the physical sensation, explains Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s what I refer to as ‘Soften, Soothe, Allow.’ Mindfulness allows us to let go of our resistance and helps us feel safe. We know that our emotions rise up, and if we don’t resist them, they tend to be digested, processed, and then just fade.”

The allowing, or accepting, our emotions is what gets at the root cause, says Dr. Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and author of Unwinding Anxiety. “An emotion like sadness isn’t the issue; it’s how you relate to the sadness, and mindfulness helps with the relationship piece.” In fact, a 2018 study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined the mental health of people who accept, rather than judge, their negative emotional responses to daily stressors. The research concluded that acceptance of negative emotions was linked to better mental health six months later, as well as greater resilience to daily stress. Nurturing a sense of curiosity is an important element when facing difficult emotions. Brewer recommends substituting curiosity for whatever negative emotion you’re feeling. Ask yourself: “Am I holding on to this? …resisting it?” This practice fosters curiosity, allowing you to explore whether it feels better to worry, in the case of anxiety, or to get curious about the feelings of worry. Then you can tap into what Brewer calls “the bigger, better offer”—because awareness of worrying feels better than worry itself.

While we know that it’s appropriate to feel sad in response to a tragedy and experience fear in times of threat, it’s often challenging to let go of the hold these emotions have on us. “What’s not appropriate is the perseveration of those emotions beyond the point where they may be useful,” says Davidson, “and this is an area where a mindfulness practice can help.” The brain circuits for regulating emotions, particularly disturbing emotions, are strengthened by mindfulness practice, according to Davidson, who contributed to a 2018 study looking at the impact of mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity.

“In meditation, we are deepening calm and relaxation on the one hand, and on the other we’re increasing energy through interest (curiosity) and investigation.”

Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and author

Because there is no one-size-fits-all response to a negative emotion, you can experiment with what may bring you a sense of balance. Salzberg explains that in meditation, we are deepening calm and relaxation on the one hand, and on the other we’re increasing energy through interest (curiosity) and investigation, and those two things don’t necessarily occur in equal measure. The experience of a challenging emotion can offer an opportunity to experiment with creating a sense of equilibrium. “If you’re feeling sensitive to something painful, the purpose is not to be crushed by it, but to have a balance of interest in response to the pain,” said Salzberg. “If you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, you can’t do that.” It may be wise at such times to turn away, she says, to move from pain to something that’s easier. “The important thing is that you haven’t failed, you’re just trying out different things to help with balance. Out of the state of balance, we find insight and love.”

How to Turn Toward Painful Emotions

If you find yourself feeling disconnected or lonely, loving-kindness meditation cultivates connection with ourselves and with others and can be a salve for a variety of emotions, including loneliness, fear, and anger. “With loving-kindness, you may be connecting with the memory of the person who helped you in the supermarket; they are real and an actual being, so it fosters a different sense of connection,” says Salzberg. “You don’t feel like you’re in a rigid world of us and them.”

Using phrases that offer wishes of happiness, health, safety, and ease—first toward yourself and then to other people and all living things— loving-kindness practice can prompt you to see that you are not alone. “Just to be walking outside is to be surrounded by life and can act as a reminder that we are always connected,” says Kimberly Brown. “When we forget that, we get further disconnected from ourselves and each other.” While it’s not necessarily easy, engaging in loving-kindness practice is something you can always take with you, anywhere or anytime, to nurture a sense of connection. “In a public place like the subway, you could be very closed off and defended, or you could be quietly looking around and wishing phrases of loving-kindness—not to be nice, but to feel connected with each other and our good hearts and to wish everyone, including yourself, safety too.”

Another practice to add to your toolbox is self-compassion, which can have a profound impact during a difficult experience. In a study on the psychological impact of COVID-19 on mental health, researchers found that self-compassion—including self-kindness, mindfulness, and social connection—is linked to an increased sense of peace and meaning. “Self-compassion is really a way of relating to any moment of difficulty or pain, being mindful of what you’re feeling, giving it space, remembering you aren’t alone, that there’s nothing wrong with you, and adding some emotional tone of friendliness, support, kindness, care,” says Dr. Kristin Neff. “A meditation practice can be helpful to develop self-compassion, but even people who don’t meditate can effectively use the skill of self-compassion.”

Neff believes that self-compassion can act as a much-needed shift in mindset when facing pain or difficult emotions, and that mindfulness is at its core. “Without awareness, you haven’t got anything to work with. You have to be able to turn toward uncomfortable emotions and feelings and be willing to experience what’s uncomfortable,” Neff explains. “For the compassion part, we’ve seen that our suffering feels so isolating and we tend to feel disconnected from others by our pain and think, ‘It’s just me.’ When you reframe it as ‘Hey, we’ve all been here,’ it reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness.” But awareness of our pain doesn’t necessarily mean connection to others. “If one of the three components of self-compassion—mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness— is missing, it will still be very challenging. You need all three,” says Neff. One of the easiest ways to prompt self-compassion is to ask yourself: “What would I say to a good friend who’s feeling what I’m feeling?” It’s about being a good friend to yourself, while recognizing that each experience is slightly different. One friend may come with a breakup, another got fired, and one has cancer, and the way you relate to each will differ. It’s the same with diverse emotions. “What you say and focus on might vary depending on what you need in the moment,” she adds.

When it comes to self-compassion, Neff suggests trying out different things: “What do I need for my self-compassion practice?” You can use mindfulness meditation to create space, supportive messages (You did the best you could; It’s OK to be imperfect), and physical touch, such as placing a hand on the heart or on the face in a supportive way. “Our thoughts and emotions are where the suffering is, and the body is a bit more tangible, so for me it’s most effective to get out of the head and into the body,” says Neff. The physical touch also works on the level of the nervous system, she explains, increasing heart rate variability (linked to better heart health and stress management), decreasing inflammation, reducing cortisol, and reminding us that we are there for ourselves, literally, when we touch our body.

What Grief Can Teach You

Tuning in to your experience in each moment can also help when dealing with grief. A balance between mindfulness of sensation, loving-kindness, and compassion—an element of which is a willingness to be with your struggle and not look away—will again vary, depending on your subjective experience. “If grief has you feeling like your mind is scattered, I may suggest sitting down and using a practice that requires a gathering of attention, focusing on the breath to create relaxation and stillness and offering loving-kindness to slow down thoughts,” explains Kimberly Brown. “And if you can’t get out of bed, I may use mindfulness to have you pay attention to everything arising in the moment—the car horn, itch on your foot, weight of your body, sound of the birds.”

Grief can also bring up reactions, such as fear and anger. “We don’t often talk about what it looks like if you’re present when someone else is dying, and what feelings may arise,” says Brown. If fear comes up, she recommends taking a few breaths to notice if you’re getting overwhelmed, and offering kindness to yourself in the moment, allowing in all the support you’ve had in your life, which can be steadying. Losing a pet may bring up a feeling of gratitude for all the things this animal brought to your life. And when anger accompanies grief, which is not uncommon, the antidote here is patience, explains Brown. “Most of the time with anger, you want to discharge it somewhere, use words or throw something. But if you sit with what’s coming up, you can hear hurt, or fear, and then you don’t have to act out of it.”

The idea that I can actually welcome the feeling of anxiety, or any other difficult emotion, sit with it, and allow it to hang around— knowing it will, with time, become less acute and likely fade away—has been life changing. Mindfulness has gifted me a skill where fear no longer determines my emotional landscape; rather, I’m guided by curiosity and acceptance. Life will continue to deliver its inevitable challenges and painful moments. And I, with my mindfulness as my inner superpower, will face them with an open hand.

Befriend Difficult Emotions with the Handshake Practice

There’s no shortage of insights and practices from mindfulness teachings that can help us find the presence to navigate painful emotions. When we approach our pain with open-hearted kindness, we find we have the ability to turn toward whatever we’re feeling, the ability to see it and name it for what it is.

When we approach our pain with open-hearted kindness, we find we have the ability to turn toward whatever we’re feeling, the ability to see it and name it for what it is.

Making friends with any difficult emotion is at the heart of the handshake method, which is explained in detail in the forthcoming book Why We Meditate, co-authored by psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman with teacher and author Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

The Handshake Practice

As the name suggests, the aim of the handshake method is to meet and make friends with upsetting feelings, to know them rather than avoid or fix them. “You tune in to the disturbing emotion mindfully, without judgment, and with full acceptance of whatever thoughts and feelings come up,” says Goleman, who cautions against using the handshake practice if the emotion is related to trauma.

In a 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that the naming of emotions seems to activate a different part of the brain than the one that triggers the emotion. When a group of volunteers with social anxiety was trained to observe their thoughts and feelings in an accepting, nonreactive way, they experienced a reduction in their anxiety and less reactivity of their amygdala.

The handshake method is made up of four steps: meeting, being, waiting, and communicating. The goal, says Goleman, is to let the emotions dissipate by making friends and accepting whatever comes. Paying attention to what comes up in the mind and body, without judgment, is the essence of mindfulness.

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About the author

Caren Osten Gerszberg

Caren is a writer and certified positive psychology life coach. She works with individuals and groups, helping clients find balance, resilience, and positivity during transitions and challenging times. A contributor to publications, such as The New York Times, Psychology Today, and Mindful, Caren’s articles cover health and wellbeing, mindfulness and education. Learn more about her work at carenosten.com