Shauna Shapiro explains how to face difficult emotions, re-center, and find calm.
All of us can feel the impact of these uncertain and challenging times on our hearts and in our nervous systems. While there are parts of our current crisis that we cannot control, that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. When we’re up against change, uncertainty, and stress, resilience is the key to navigating life and emerging with more happiness and satisfaction.
We can cultivate resilience through the practices of mindfulness and compassion. This is the miracle of neuroplasticity—what you practice grows stronger. We can carve out pathways of greater clarity, courage, and compassion through practice.
The five steps below help us face difficult emotions, re-center, and find calm. These steps don’t have to be done perfectly. Think direction, not destination. The key is practice.
1. Name it to tame it
It’s helpful to remember that our emotions are here for a reason. They often serve as a smoke alarm, letting us know about an impending fire. When we ignore or repress our emotions, it can lead to bigger problems.
Mindfulness teaches us a different way to manage difficult emotions—to acknowledge and name what we feel. This is called “name it to tame it.” Research shows that when we acknowledge and name our emotions it allows the body to physiologically calm down. Naming an emotion puts the brakes on your reactivity, down-regulates the nervous system, and allows you to see clearly.
2. Welcome your emotions
Emotions have a limited time span, typically lasting for only thirty to ninety seconds. They arise, do their dance, and pass away, just like waves in the ocean. When we remember that this painful feeling will not last forever, it becomes more manageable.
Through practice, we can learn to welcome all of our emotions with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. This involves becoming interested in the emotion and the felt experience in the body. For example, you may feel sadness as a tightening in your throat, or fear as a contraction in your belly. All emotions have a signature in the body.
3. Be kind to yourself
Self-compassion is not our typical response when we’re facing a challenge, have made a mistake, or are in pain. All too often, instead of kindness, we judge, shame, and criticize ourselves. But self-judgment and shame aren’t helpful. They actually shut down the learning centers of the brain and inhibit our ability to heal, change, and grow.
The antidote is self-compassion, learning to bring kindness to our pain. The easiest way to practice it is to treat ourselves as we would treat a dear friend facing a similar situation. The willingness to face the pain in ourselves and in life takes great courage. As we practice self-compassion, we learn not only to grow from our own struggles and sorrows, but also to connect with the suffering of others.
4. Recognize our common humanity
It’s natural to be feeling fearful and overwhelmed at this time. We’re not alone in our feelings. There are many others right now all over the world who are also frightened and overwhelmed. As we recognize our common humanity, our isolation begins to lessen, and we understand that we’re all in this together. It can be helpful to send compassion to both yourself and everyone else who is suffering.
5. Practice, not perfect
The fifth step is to realize that you won’t do any of the first four steps perfectly. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about practice. Small changes lead to big shifts. In fact, one of the most important discoveries in brain science—neuroplasticity—shows that the brain has the ability to make new neural connections throughout life. This is a very hopeful message because it means that all of us have the capacity to change, heal, and grow. Perfection isn’t possible, but transformation is.