Mindfulness and Strong Emotions

May 27, 2016 by School of Medicine Webmaster

Why do some things just really seem to irritate of us?  For most of us, there are certain actions that others can take that automatically elicit, or “trigger”, strong reactions. Often, our first response in these situations is “they shouldn’t do that”. The “shouldn’t” is often associated with judgment. For instance, if we’re driving along, paying attention, and someone suddenly cuts in front of us so we have to brake to not hit them, we may have a strong emotional response such as anger, and quickly think “that person is not being respectful” (or an even stronger negative thought).  Both of these happen so quickly and feel so natural we may not even be aware of what is going on.  But why do we have these reactions to certain triggers?  Why isn’t the emotional response relief that we didn’t hit them, and the first thought “they must really have something important to do if they’re driving that way?”

Often we have these strong reactions due to our personal histories and the rules we have learned to live by.  A possible rule in this case could be “people should be respectful of others”.  That’s a nice sentiment, and most of us may feel this is appropriate, but it is not a universal value shared by everyone.   If we do feel this way, it has been learned, and the earlier we learned it the more strongly we are likely to react when it is violated.  If we learned this growing up from a very young age, it’s likely to be very strongly held.  It isn’t right or wrong that we hold these strong beliefs, but it is important that we recognize them.  Yet, we often don’t, we just feel that’s the way things should be.  And yet, when we do recognize them, then we have choices about how to respond.  Otherwise, every time someone cuts us off in traffic we’ll find ourselves feeling angry and then reacting out of anger, and most of us have learned that this often doesn’t bring out our best behavior.  That’s not to say we won’t feel anger, we will, because emotions arise in the limbic system, a part of the brain not under conscious control. Thus, we can’t just think our way to not feeling anger.  But we can notice anger when it arises, and we can recognize it’s arising because someone has violated one of our rules (which may not be one of their rules), and we can acknowledge that they may have had a perfectly good reason for acting as they did.

This leads to several important points.  First, since emotions arise from the limbic system, getting upset at ourselves or others for having an emotion is not consistent with our actual physiology.  We usually can’t control feeling emotions very well, but we can control how we respond to them.  Second, jumping from observing a behavior (getting cut off in traffic) to an assumption of intention (that person is not respectful) is based on our view of the situation, not on any actual knowledge of the other person’s motivation.   Often our first reaction is to assume a negative reason for their action, but this is a choice, and we could choose to assume positive intent instead.  Many people find that intentionally assuming positive intent regarding other’s actions can have a very powerful positive effect on their relationships and their own well-being.

Perhaps the most important lesson from all of this is the impact that being mindful in the moment can have.  When we feel ourselves experiencing a strong emotion we can pause and notice it.  As soon as we pause, then we have the possibility of making different choices.  We could choose to react to the emotion as we have in the past, or we might choose to respond differently.  We could choose to be judgmental of ourselves for having a strong emotion, or we could choose to bring some kindness to ourselves and acknowledge how difficult it can be to be with our emotions.  We could choose to be curious, and ask ourselves when we first felt this way, and wonder what personal rule might have been broken.   And we could choose what assumption to make about another’s intentions.  Do we assume they were out to get us, or do we choose to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume they had a good reason for acting as they did?  All of these choices can arise from intentionally paying attention to our present moment experience, with kindness and without judgment.  And an excellent way to learn how to bring this way of being into our daily lives on a consistent basis is to take a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class, and once we have taken a class, to continue to practice mindfulness regularly.

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