With COVID-19 continuing to influence many of our daily decisions, our world sits in flux and uncertainty. With the reopening of many cities, the shift between working from the office to working remotely back to working from home has had an impact on our routine and state of mind. The uncertainty of what the next week will look like, how our health will be affected, and the stability of our nation weighs heavy on each and every one of us.
Even with all of this looming, there are things you can do to manage the anxiety you might be feeling. When things feel uncertain and chaotic, a great way to take back the feeling of control is to identify what things you do have control over. One way to do this is through mindfulness of emotion. Before discussing mindfulness emotions, it’s important to know the difference between a thought and an emotion.
Thought versus Emotion
If asked, many people would say they know the difference between a thought and an emotion. However, when asked to describe the difference, they struggle to find the words. This is because both concepts are very abstract! So, if this is new information to you, you’re not alone!
A common example of a thought is the inner dialogue we have inside of our head. Our thoughts seem to talk to us, usually through our stream of consciousness or self-talk. Thoughts are the words we use in our minds to describe what we are experiencing, our judgements of self and other, and our description of all things. For some, thoughts can show up in their mind as images rather than words.
An emotion is how we experience the world. The words emotions and feelings are used interchangeably. Emotions are a natural human state that we experience in our minds and in our bodies. For example, the emotion joy can be a mood (mindset) and we often feel the emotion of joy in our bodies (i.e. buzzing in our limbs, stomach feeling jumpy, a ‘burst’ in our heart, etc).
While separate, emotions and thoughts are connected. When we experience an emotion, we often have a thought about that emotion: “I am so happy right now”.
How to be Mindful of Emotions
So, now that you know the difference between a thought and an emotion, how can we use this to help manage the stress and uncertainty in our lives? This is where mindfulness comes into play. Being mindful means identifying the things that are filling our minds, i.e. our thoughts and emotions.
Often times we move through the day on repeat, unaware of what is happening in our minds and to our bodies. One way to be mindful is to live in the moment, identifying and describing our thoughts and emotions. This can be difficult if you have not practiced this before, but here are some steps to being mindful of your thoughts and emotions:
Step 1: Identify the emotion you are having.
Stop what you are doing. Take a break, physically and mentally. Observe your surroundings. Then try to identify how you are feeling. Use an emotion list or chart (easily found through a google search) to find the emotion(s) that you identify with in that moment. Using an emotion chart helps us to expand our vocabulary and more closely identify what we are feeling. For example, you might be use to saying you are sad when in reality you are feeling lonely. While in the same category, the feeling of sadness does not pinpoint the feeling of lonesomeness.
Step 2: Acknowledge the emotion.
It is important to acknowledge and accept the emotions we are experiencing. While they may not be pleasant, they are there for a reason. Emotions signal to us things about our environment and situations. If we reject or avoid acknowledging them, we are rejecting reality which can make living life much more painful than it needs to be. Acknowledging can be done aloud or written down:
I am feeling very lonely right now. I am unhappy that I am feeling lonely.
Step 3: Remind yourself that the feeling will pass
Emotions are like waves. They come and go, each one a different size than the last. Gradually growing until it reaches its peak, and finally decreasing until it has gone completely. If you have ever been in the ocean, you know that swimming out against the waves is much more difficult than swimming into shore alongside the waves. This is a perfect metaphor for how we can experience our emotions. You can choose to swim against them or ride the wave into shore.
While riding the wave does not make the emotion change, it can lessen the duration of that emotion. Our emotions want to be heard and felt. By riding the wave of emotion, we are going to get back to shore quicker than if we are constantly swimming against the emotion.
After acknowledging the emotion in Step 2, remind yourself that this too shall pass:
Feeling lonely is not fun and I know that I don’t always feel lonely. This feeling will subside soon enough.
Step 4: Do something kind for yourself
Steps 1-3 can be draining, especially if this is something new for you! That is why it is important to be intentional about doing something kind for yourself after taking time to be mindful of your emotions. This looks different for everyone, but can be thought of as self-care. Taking a break to watch a show, checking something off your to-do list, or calling a loved one are all good examples of ways you can be kind to yourself.
Practicing mindfulness of thought can be a great tool in battling the hustle and bustle of our world that is now mixed with uncertainty and anxiety. Learning to practice this can be done alone, with a therapist, and even with family and friends! Most importantly, have grace and patience with yourself as you develop this new skill.
Madeline Stiers, LCSW Director of Clinical Services at the Hope and Healing Center & Institute. She has a Masters of Social Work, Clinical from the University of Houston and a BA in Psychology from Baylor University and is currently working on a PhD in Social Work at Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University.