Observing Negative Emotions

“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”
Lao Tzu
Emotions exist to serve us. They induce us to respond to our world. Negative emotions, like anger and fear, are designed to protect us from danger. They consist of a physiological response, such as the startle reflex, and a cognitive response that helps us assess the danger. Our bodies respond quickly to stimuli that our senses perceive as dangerous and our thoughts follow. Our cerebral cortex, where we do our higher thinking gets in the game after our limbic system, our emotional brain center, may have already initiated the fight or flight response.

If our thoughts tell our emotional brain that everything is OK, the emotion inducing parts of the brain tell the body to settle down and relax. If our thoughts persist in describing circumstances as being dangerous or wrong, the negative emotional response will continue.

Sometimes people get into problematic emotional patterns because the limbic system learns a fear or anger response so well that cerebral activity isn’t called in for analysis. Once a phobia takes over or a rage response is over-learned, rational discourse won’t easily change it.

Fortunately, the fight or flight response that gets us all riled up is counterbalanced by the relaxation response. When we breathe more deeply, relax our muscles, get out of a tense posture and think calm thoughts, our parasympathetic nervous system gets the signal that we are safe, and it turns off the chemicals, like adrenalin, that are involved in the fight or flight response. Relaxation ensues.

In order to remain responsive to our environment, we don’t want to eliminate negative emotions entirely. They are important signals that something is wrong. But we also don’t want to be victims of them. When they persist beyond their usefulness, when they arise in response to inappropriate stimuli, we need to intervene. Talking or writing about emotions can help defuse them. Just closely observing them can too. One may find in meditation that mental activities observed closely tend to desist. When we focus upon observing our thoughts, the thinking process may stop.  When we focus on emotions, the emotion may dissipate.
When you feel anger, fear or other negative emotions that are staying in you beyond their usefulness, take the opportunity to sit or lie down and meditate upon your emotional state. Just observe what is happening within you. Don’t try to change the emotions, but also don’t try to persist in them. Observe the feelings in your body and observe the thoughts that arise. Seek not to pursue the thoughts. Just note them and let them go on their way.

At the same time, allow your breathing to relax. Be aware of any tension in your body that is keeping you in your emotional state, and let it go.  You don’t need to force yourself to relax, but observe how you are holding onto your way of breathing and your muscle tension and allow yourself to be in a more neutral state without the tension.

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© 2005 Tom Barrett