by Dianne Holliday Fish, MA, LPC
Many have heard the wise saying “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Buddhists refer to such suffering as “duhkha”. I interpret this saying to mean that we are all likely to experience some events and emotions in life that we find painful. However, many people amplify their pain and create ongoing stress and longer term suffering by wanting to CHANGE, AVOID, or RESIST unwanted emotions and experiences.
Our typical reactions to intense emotions and feelings are to:
- DISTRACT OURSELVES,
- NUMB OUT
and (for pleasant emotions)
- TRY TO PROLONG THEM.
For instance when we start to feel jealous or angry we may try to stuff these emotions down by reaching for that bag of chips or box of cookies. We may distract ourselves in a thousand and one ways including: excessive time on video games, social networking sites, or t.v.; by compulsively working at the office and at home; or by developing an obsessive focus on mates and /or sex. The classic ways we numb out include excessive drinking and drug use. An illustration of trying to hold onto or cling to a “positive” feeling is the person who uses cocaine as a tool to prolong the initial “buzz” from drinking alcohol and to allow continued drinking.
Over time as we continue to repeat our avoidance or clinging techniques, we develop deeply ingrained patterns or habits that are an automatic, unconscious response to the first subtle hints of experiencing certain emotions or feelings. As a result, we may develop an addiction to a substance or a certain behavior pattern. It may keep us feeling busy and distracted, or dulled and numb, but the underlying discomfort remains and may show up as anxiety, stress, fatigue, worry, depression, and illness. Also, the addictive habits themselves begin to create negative consequences in our lives.
How can we learn to stay more present and open to strong emotions?
We can find our power by learning to stay present with strong emotions and uncomfortable feelings. Emotions are simply energy. When allowed to run their natural course, we experience emotions as a wave (or several waves) that strengthens, reaches a peak, and then slowly decreases as we return to neutral. You may find over time that the negative consequences of all the effort you place into avoiding feeling strong emotions far outweighs the negative experiences from directly allowing and working with the emotions themselves.
Tools to help you begin to work with strong emotions include: Mindful practices that steep us in the present moment and the physical senses. Specific Yoga, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi practices help move the energy and allow you to work with, rather than resist, powerful emotions.