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  • Writer's pictureKatie Dunnigan

How to Process Emotions in Therapy and Everyday Life

"Fear of life is really the fear of emotions. It is not the facts that we fear but our feelings about them." -David Hawkins

Learning to process our emotions is a common goal when coming to therapy. Many clients mistakenly believe that therapists have a strategy or technique to make it happen. The human mind likes to feel as if it is doing something, which is why strategies are desired. But the truth is that processing our emotions isn’t fancy, complicated, or even an act of doing. Emotions come and go as they need to: it is our minds that get in the way! We develop an aversion to emotions, like the fear of fear itself. This aversion keeps us panicked, overwhelmed, and stuck. At other times, we indulge in the emotion, which perpetuates or intensifies it. This occurs when we get caught up in a dialogue or story in our mind, like when we are angry at someone and can’t stop ruminating about it. But if we step out of the avoidance or the story (and we do this by practicing inner silence), what we find is that emotions come and go naturally. And, it is our Being (or awareness, or consciousness, or Self) that is ever-present and capable of noticing, watching, staying with, and gaining insight from our emotions. This deeper part of us is what transforms our perspective and eventually moves us into acceptance.

In mindfulness therapy and transpersonal therapy, we are looking for the middle way: being with our emotions and knowing that they are an important aspect of our humanity, while also recognizing they are impermanent, flowing, and not necessarily linked to the truth (i.e. not the same as our intuition). So how do we process emotions effectively?

How To Process Emotions Effectively:

1. Find Your Willingness – we have to be ready to face our feelings. People mistakenly believe that they can just make up their minds to process emotions, but our fears run too deep. Willingness develops over time, sometimes very slowly. It is best to be honest with yourself and to have a therapist explore your resistances with you. Prompting yourself with the question “Am I really willing to face everything?” is helpful. Do not make up an answer. Simply ask the question and wait to see what arises. Start from where you are, because you can’t be anywhere else!

2. Observe Your Patterns – we start by non-judgementally observing when we are not dealing with our emotions. Pay attention to what is happening internally. Begin to notice the energy of a feeling as it arises, and what you do with it: how you avoid, distract, dissociate, check-out, repress, or escape in some way. Start to get honest about the impact of this. See if instead of rushing to do something with the emotion, you can just pay attention to what is actually happening in-the-moment. Trust that as your awareness opens, it will guide to you to the next step.

3. Quiet the Mind – our thoughts perpetuate and intensify our emotions. By practicing inner silence, we begin to feel comfortable allowing emotions to arise because they no longer overwhelm us. We also cultivate a connection to our center of Being that we can come back to over and over when we need steadiness and presence. See if you can spend 15 minutes a day training your mind to quiet down (see this blog for the practice). Know that you must create a base of inner stillness to work from before you will have the capacity to process a feeling.

4. Accept the Energy – when we drop the story about what we are feeling, we can begin to experience the raw energy of the emotion (otherwise known as the sensation). This can be a tingling, quickening, tightening, pulsing, burning, and so on. Practice staying with the sensation for a while and seeing if you can neutralize the emotion by stepping out of the story in your mind. What you will come to realize is that it is the mind that labels the sensation as uncomfortable, distressing, and so on. Once you realize this, you can begin to either allow the sensation to be there without needing to do something with it it (i.e. accept it), or you can let go of the energy of the emotion.

5. Take Small Steps – it is important to note that processing emotions doesn’t mean sitting and working through your most intense traumas. See if you can start slow by noticing various emotions as you go about your day. You can name them in your mind as they arise, and then return to what you are doing. You can also begin identifying emotions as they come up in your therapy sessions, rather than focusing on the content of your story. You can practice this by saying “I am noticing ___________ arising in me” or “I can feel ________ coming up for me right now” and then pausing and allowing it to be there for a moment, instead of distracting with another story.

6. Get Comfortable with Discomfort – emotions are not always pleasant or comfortable. However, if we want to experience the fullness of life, we have to be willing to feel all types of emotions. Try to gently remind yourself that discomfort isn’t a sign of something being bad or wrong. For example, sometimes our fear is a sign that we are moving closer to the truth (i.e. becoming more honest with ourselves).

7. Stay With It – it is easy to want to give up, go back to your “normal,” or become frustrated and impatient with the process. Remember that there will be ups and downs as you learn to process your emotions, but staying consistent and committed to yourself is important. Remind yourself of the benefits of living a life connected to your emotions and also the challenges you’ve faced by avoiding or repressing.

8. Let Go of Control – stop meddling in your emotions! The paradox is that the more we give up control, the more control we gain. When we repress or avoid our emotions, they build-up over time and pop up in other areas of our life as symptoms (e.g. rage, binge eating, depression, OCD, anxiety). This means that the more you allow your emotions to arise and express themselves naturally, the more you will be able to make decisions based on your real values rather than reacting to your feelings.

9. Come Back to the Self – when we are struggling internally, we can always come back to our center of Being and rest in present awareness. We begin to learn that emotions, like thoughts, come and go, but that our Self remains the same. This is the deepest part of us that allows for resilience and healing. If you are feeling overwhelmed, come back to that state of presence you have cultivated through your inner silence practices. Trust that your awareness and intuition will guide you through the emotion when it is time. Relax your mind and find peace in stillness, even briefly, as a reminder of your natural state.

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