SITE UPGRADE COMING SOON: On or around January 31st, 2022, I'll be moving Mindful Teachers to a new, more mobile-friendly platform.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Three Ways to Handle Negative Thoughts and Strong Emotions

updated August 21, 2021

I cringed when I saw a mindfulness workshop that was “guaranteed to make you feel happier and more relaxed.” Mindfulness is about awareness. It's not about being in a particular mood all the time.

In fact, something unexpected happened a few weeks after I started practicing mindfulness. I’d been feeling like, “This is great! Everybody should do this! I feel so much better!” Until suddenly it didn’t feel so good anymore.

  • When I started paying more attention to my thoughts, I realized how much time I spent ruminating. I was always stressed out about what was happening, anxious about what was going to happen, or worrying about something that already happened.
  • When I started paying more attention to my feelings, I realized there were a lot of emotions I was trying to avoid, like anger, frustration, sadness, and embarrassment.

  • And when I started paying more attention to my interactions with other people, I realized that I wasn’t always using mindful speech. I had a tendency start talking before thinking through what I really wanted to say. I frequently embarrassed myself by doing that. Other times, I really hurt someone’s feelings.

That was a challenging time in my life, but I’m glad I went through it. Now I understand how to respond more thoughtfully rather than reacting in a way that might be hurtful to myself or other people.

You Are Not Your Thoughts

Because we can’t control things that have already happened, or that haven’t happened yet (and may never happen), we often feel a lot better if we shift our attention to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness meditation can also help you realize that “you” are not your thoughts, by separating what you’re thinking or feeling from who you are as a person. Do you sometimes feel angry or have unkind thoughts? That doesn’t mean you’re an unkind, angry person. It means you’re a person who sometimes has unkind thoughts and angry feelings.

Meditation doesn’t mean trying to completely clear your mind so you don’t have any thoughts. You can’t stop your brain from thinking. That’s its job. Meditation is more about becoming aware of our thoughts so we can see more clearly what’s really going on, like cleaning a window or the windshield on a car.

Practice 1: Labeling Thoughts and Feelings

  • Close your eyes if that’s comfortable for you.

  • You don’t have to focus on anything in particular right now, just notice your thoughts and feelings as they happen.

  • Give your thought or feeling a name or label, like “worried thought,” “pleasant memory,” “angry feeling,” or simply “thought” or “feeling.”

  • Let go of that thought or feeling. When a new thought or feeling comes along, give it a name, like “hungry feeling” or “memory.”

What did you notice about your thoughts? If you’re like me, you probably were surprised by how many thoughts are going through your head one after another. Don't try to get rid of your thoughts or judge them as good or bad. Just acknowledge them and let them go.

You can try labeling your thoughts and feelings as a type of meditation, or you can do this as an informal practice throughout the day. I find it particularly helpful when I'm feeling anxious.

For example, when I was working on a big project, I kept having thoughts like “Oh, no. I’m gonna mess this up!” I was so focused on my negative thoughts that it was hard to focus on the project.

Because I couldn’t concentrate, I felt even more anxious because I was afraid that I wouldn’t finish on time. That made it even harder to concentrate, which made me even more anxious. What finally helped was simply reminding myself “I’m feeling anxious.” Then I started thinking about why I was feeling anxious: I wanted to do a good job.

After that, whenever I caught myself feeling anxious about the project, I’d remind myself, “I want to do a good job.” That motivated me to get back to work, and once I was actually working on the project, I felt a lot better. That made me feel less anxious, which made it easier to concentrate.

Practice 2: Pause Before Reacting

When we're feeling angry or frustrated, the problem isn't the feeling itself but the potential hurtfulness of our reactions.

There are a lot of acronyms for taking a mindful pause, like STOP or PEACE. My favorite is TAP, which I learned from my colleague Dr. Sam Himelstein/

T: Take a Breath
A: Acknowledge
P: Proceed

When you Take a Breath, you pause for a moment before reacting. This can help you avoid doing or saying something you might regret.

When you Acknowledge, you think about what’s going on inside you and around you. For example, if you’re having an argument, you might recognize that you’re feeling angry and frustrated. You might also realize that the other person is feeling the same way.

Now you’re ready to Proceed, taking whatever action seems most appropriate. Sometimes you might decide not to act. There are times when not doing or saying anything can be the most helpful action of all.

Practice 3: “Next Time, I’ll Do Better”

One night at dinner, I told my husband, “I'm sorry. I didn't hear what you just said. I was thinking about this week's guest post.”

“Oh, what's it about?” he asked.

I felt pretty embarrassed when I told him, “Mindful listening.”

This kind of thing happens so often that I joke about starting a Mindless Moments podcast. Sometimes you've just gotta laugh at yourself, right?

On the other hand, sometimes we all do things that aren't a laughing matter. Maybe we hurt someone's feelings or we make a big mistake.

It’s uncomfortable to feel guilt or shame over something we’ve done. But instead of trying to push away these negative feelings, we can use them to avoid making the same kind of mistake again.

Think about something that you feel bad about doing or saying, and what you wish you’d done differently. Then answer the following questions.

What specifically do I regret doing or saying?

Why do I regret it?

What led up to this incident?

What did I learn from this situation?

How I could have handled it differently?

What I can do to avoid this type of problem in the future?

As you’re becoming more self-aware, it’s important to be very gentle with yourself. I don’t know anyone who’s 100% mindful all the time (and I know a lot of mindfulness trainers!). That’s why we call it mindfulness ‘practice’ not ‘perfect.’ Keep practicing, do the best you can, and you’ll find that even on the busiest and most stressful days it gets easier to stay focused, calm and compassionate.

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash.

Portions of this post are adapted from Being You: A Girl's Guide to Mindfulness, by Catharine Hannay. © Prufrock Press, 2019. Used with permission.

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)