By Lauren Stutman, Psy. D. and Lily Spost, M.A.
Have you ever felt like you were not in the driver’s seat when strong emotions take hold of a situation? If the answer is yes, this is actually good news. Cultivating awareness is the first step to taking control of the only thing you can control: your perspective. A change in perspective is a change in your experience of reality. In order to achieve this shift, you must first become mindful of what you want.
When faced with various obstacles, most people tend to allow their emotions to dictate their behaviors. When this occurs, it is as if you are stuck in a storm. As emotions increase, the blizzard of your thoughts can be disorienting, much like driving in the middle of a snowstorm. If you value your safety, you will pull over. Taking some time to let the storm pass may be all that is needed to successfully navigate such situations.
Depending on your ability to monitor and keep a balanced perspective, anything can potentially activate an emotional storm, from a traffic jam to a serious illness. However, you can be equipped to handle even the most challenging obstacles if you gain the tools to stay present and keep your cool in such situations. How do you keep your cool to avoid stormy weather? TAKE A VACATION! Just being aware that you have a choice each and every moment is a tremendous feat. To do this, you must first be able to recognize the beginning stages before the emotional storm hits. Having this skill will increase your ability to define your own reality.
CHECK-IN: Any vacation requires you to “check-in.” First, check in with your body. You can do this by starting with a simple body scan.
- Start at your feet, and move slowly towards your head making regular stops to observe each part of your body.
- If you identify a tense area, simply breathe into that body part and visualize it slowly softening and releasing.
- Remember, this is not a time to demand. Simply become aware of the state of your physical body by locating the tension and mindfully choosing to let it go.
While you are scanning, also tend to your breathing. Breathing is a constant anchor that you can turn to as a first line of defense. One method to incorporate mindfulness of breath with the body scan is to use guided imagery:
- Picture that you are breathing-in a warm and healing light through imaginary holes at the bottoms of your feet.
- Visualize this warm light soothing and softening your body as it slowly travels up until it is finally exhaled through an imaginary hole at the top of your head.
- At this point, let the warm healing light shower your entire body until it reaches back down to the bottoms of your feet
- Repeat the process for as long as it feels comfortable.
A helpful trick to maintain focus is to visualize this light as each of the seven colors of the light-spectrum. Another way to retain focus on breathing is to reverse the breath cycle. People are often focused on inhalation. Instead of focusing on the in-breath, focus on the out-breath. Try this now: breathe out for a count of eight and discover what happens. Did you automatically inhale? This is like being on a sailboat and letting the wind do most of the work. You can let go of control, and your lungs will automatically fill with a deeper intake of air. Continual practice will help you learn that by letting go of control, the work will be done for you.
Next, tune in to your sens0ry world. What does this mean? Better to show you than to explain it. While reading this paragraph, did you notice a zero in the first sentence instead of an “o”? Why do you see it now when you didn’t notice it before? It was because you didn’t mindfully attend to your visual awareness. This is what tuning in to a sensory modality is all about. Like it or not, let’s face it, life isn’t all about us. When we tune out of our inner world, we have a chance to see a different view of reality. Beauty frequently goes unnoticed because we are too involved in what is going on in our heads to see it.
You can use your senses in many ways to achieve a different perspective. Next time you go for a walk, try to notice each color of the light-spectrum. As you read this, take a moment to identify any sound in the room. Now that you are mindful of sound, you will likely hear noises that you were not aware of just moments ago. There are infinite choices of what you can attend to. You can also simply let each of the 5 senses naturally arise and transition to the next organically. This is called “choiceless awareness” and is a great way to practice attending to and letting go of whatever comes up.
With all this awareness work, you will inevitably begin to notice uncomfortable feelings. The best way to deal with these is not to run, but to sit with and accept them. Explore these feelings with a gentle curiosity much like a child enjoying a new toy. When the feelings are aversive, you can still try to discover through curiosity where these feelings are strongest in the body. You can regain some control by willingly adopting a playful stance while attempting to shift these sensations. You may be pleasantly surprised that they are often drowned out by the curiosity itself. This does not mean that aversive situations will cease to arise. After all, life is unpredictable, and anything can happen at a given moment.
Practicing these tools will provide you with a more productive way of handling yourself when faced with unwelcomed events. It is important to remember that, like the weather, our emotions and circumstances are constantly changing. So is your ability to adaptively cope. Who says vacation has to only be two weeks long? Utilize and practice these tools, and you will be on your way to a permanent vacation from letting strong emotions dictate your perspective.