Regulating our emotions and expressing them in a healthy and effective way can be challenging. Many of us are not taught how to regulate our emotions and express them in a way that will still get our needs met. There are varying reasons why so many people struggle with healthy emotional expression. Two reasons that I see most commonly are: 1) Lack of Skill: You were never taught how to express your emotions in an effective way. Perhaps those around you did not model healthy and effective emotion regulation and expression, or maybe you only got your needs met when you were highly emotional (e.g. think about a child throwing a “temper tantrum” to get attention or to let his parent know how upset he is). 2) Emotion myths: Perhaps you were taught that certain emotions were “bad” or that showing emotions make you a weak person.
Regardless of why effective emotion regulation and expression are difficult, mindfulness can be a helpful tool to use when trying to learn healthy emotional expression. Emotions are complex responses, involving both our minds and bodies. Mindfulness can help us tune into the entire emotional response – the internal experience (e.g. changes in heart rate, temperature, muscle tension, breathing, action urges, etc.) and the external expression (e.g. facial expression, what we say, how we say it, action we take, etc.). We can use mindfulness to be more aware of what we are experiencing on the inside and how we are expressing it on the outside.
In order to regulate and express emotions in a healthy way, we have to first understand that emotions have a purpose. They are adaptive and give us important information about internal and external events. They help motivate action and communicate information to others around us. For example, anger motivates us to work towards change when there’s something we dislike about a situation. Fear and anxiety communicate that something is potentially dangerous to us, motivating us to leave the situation or protect ourselves. Love connects us to other people. Sadness lets us and others know that we need some support or comfort. Shame and guilt help keep members of society in line—they ensure that everyone does not just do whatever they want and hurt others. The goal here is to figure out what that emotion is communicating to us in order to effectively manage and express it.
We might first use mindfulness to describe what we are experiencing internally (those biological changes I mentioned earlier) and expressing externally (those facial and bodily changes I mentioned earlier) in order to name the emotion we are experiencing. For example, we might notice our face getting warmer, our hands starting to sweat and tighten into fist, our breathing becoming more rapid, our heart rate increasing, our teeth clenching, and our brow furrowing. We might also use mindfulness to notice that we have an urge to yell, slam doors, or throw something. Being mindful of this entire process, we can label the emotion as anger. When being mindful, we might notice that the emotion comes and goes like a wave on the beach –it will build up, peak, and then gradually subside. When we are mindful of this process, we are less likely to get hooked into unhelpful rumination.
Taking it a step further, we can allow ourselves to take a moment to breathe mindfully and check in with ourselves about what this emotion is communicating to us. We might notice that the anger was triggered by a family member yelling at us, which we interpreted as a verbal attack. We can then take a moment to decide how to communicate that anger to this family member in a way that won’t make the situation worse (i.e. more stressful or harder to manage). We might decide to tell her, “I’m feeling angry right now about you yelling at me. Let’s talk about this in an hour when we’ve both had a chance to cool down so we don’t say hurtful things we don’t mean.” However, if you hadn’t used mindfulness and had been unmindful of the emotional process, you might have lashed out by yelling back, name calling, and maybe even throwing something at her, all of which could potentially damage an important relationship. Being mindful allows us to understand why we are experiencing a certain emotion and to regain control over how we express that emotion.
While I used anger as an example, we can become mindful of all emotions. When we are mindful, we can decide to take a moment to check in with ourselves about what’s going on internally and externally. We can give ourselves a moment to decide what action(s) to take in order to express that emotion in a way that will get our needs met, help us maintain our self-respect, and not damage a relationship or make the situation more stressful.
Written by Jondell Lafont, LPC-Intern
"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."
It is officially fall, which is my most favorite season of all. That first breath of cool refreshing air is like magic. Eager to shed my summer skin, autumn calls me to a still and silent place. Spring and summer entice me to direct energy outward, to express, to engage socially, to be seen. By the time fall rolls around, I am content to sit back and observe a little more. I begin to look at myself a little more honestly and hopefully with a little more kindness.
Fall is a time for harvest. As I approach the second half of my life, I am no longer bothered by the frenzied struggles of my youth. Success has fallen under a new paradigm. The things I use to worry about, what I thought was so important, no longer weigh on me. I have kids now. My harvest is right here in front of me. It’s in the recognition of trust and safety in my newborn son’s eyes. It’s in my little girl’s laughter, in her wild dance. But in order to reap this harvest, I must be present. I cannot let the worries and stress of life steal this precious moment away because I can’t get it back. This is the fall of my life, and I am so grateful to just be.
Written by Jiovann Carrasco, LPC-S
Some of us may think of mindfulness as being too abstract or serious for kids and teens to relate to or understand. However, mindfulness is actually the very simple concept of non-judgmentally opening up to the present moment with awareness of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Kids are naturally much more present than adults because they often do not think past the here-and-now situation. Although they are typically present, they may not yet understand the essence of awareness without judgment or attachment to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
Why It’s Useful for Kids
In recent years, mindfulness has been recognized as an important learning tool in schools. It helps kids (and people of all ages) “develop attention, emotional and cognitive understanding, bodily awareness and coordination, as well as interpersonal awareness” (Hanh, 2011). Additionally, mindful practice provides children and teens with the tools necessary to effectively handle stress, anxiety, frustration, and other difficult feelings so they will be more peaceful, open, and socially conscious human beings.
How to Teach Mindfulness to Children and Teens
So, how can we teach these skills to kids in a way that’s not boring, clinical, and complicated? Well, I like to use metaphors and hands-on materials to help the abstract concepts become more concrete and tangible. For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh illustrated in his book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, the idea that through mindful breathing, we can hold all our thoughts and feelings in our minds yet remain peaceful and aware. He used the “Mind in a Jar” exercise to convey this abstract concept to children.
Here’s how “Mind in a Jar” works: The teacher sets a clear jar filled with water in the middle of a circle of children. Additional smaller jars, filled with a variety of colors of sand, are placed around the large jar of water. The colored sands symbolizes different thoughts and feelings people may possess at any time. The children are then asked to choose a color of sand to represent certain feelings they have experienced and then sprinkle the sand into the jar of water. One child stirs the sand and water while the teacher asked for other thoughts and feelings the children have experienced in their lives. The children add more colors of sand into the swirling water, while the teacher explains that the swirling colors represent our minds when we are feeling stressed, angry, or upset. Then the teacher asks the children to stop, breathe, and observe the sand as it settles to the bottom of the jar. They observe together that the water becomes calm, peaceful, and clear, even though all those thoughts and feelings are still present inside the water. This is one way to tangibly illustrate how mindful breathing might assist kids in learning self-regulation and coping strategies when they encounter difficult thoughts and feelings.
The earlier these important tools are taught to children, the better! Mindfulness skills serve kids in every aspect of their lives – at home, with friends, siblings, at school, and as they grow and develop into well-adjusted, healthy, balanced adults. Don’t you wish someone had taught you about mindfulness when you were a kid?
Reference: Hanh, T.N., (2011). Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Written by Stephanie Trueblood, LPC-Intern
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Here you will find articles contributed by members of our team. We hope to provide helpful information here to inspire mindful living and general wellness. The information provided here is not a substitue for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need to speak to a professional regarding your mental health, please make an appointment.