Isolated Showers with a Chance of Mindfulness
Before I venture out on vacation, especially the beach, I always check the weather ahead of time. I look at the 10 day weather forecasts scouting for any possibility of clouds and rain. Basically, I always want it to be sunny! When I end up getting to my destination, when clouds or rain appear, I start making judgements and interpretations about what this means. Usually, these thoughts are mostly negative. On a logical level I understand, and genetic testing has confirmed, that my fair-skinned ancestors don’t particularly do well with seven days of direct sunshine on a tropical island. By day two, I would be desperately seeking shade under the nearest palm tree. However, I judge the weather anyway. While this is not particularly damaging on a vacation, this type of thinking can have detrimental consequences when applied to other areas of my life.
Weather and emotions are similar in that they are constantly changing, and we don’t really know which emotional climate we are going to encounter. Over time, we are going to have sunny days, scattered clouds, and then a storm is going to hit and hit hard. Like the weather on vacation, human beings develop preferences, and non-preferences, for certain emotions. We’d rather be happy than sad, up than down, energetic than lethargic and calm than anxious. However, there is a problem with this. When we prefer one state over another, there is a tendency to interpret difficult emotions such as sadness, depression and anxiety as negative and unwanted.
Many people think that when they experience these emotional states that there is “something wrong.” We try desperately to change these uncomfortable, often turbulent states. What most people don’t realize is that the way they are responding to these threatening emotions actually causes more suffering. Here’s why. Human being are excellent problem solvers and we are hard wired through years of evolution to “figure out what is wrong and fix it.” So, when we experience an emotion that we don’t particularly want, we have a tendency to try to solve this problem as if we were trying to solve other problems in our lives (a broken dishwasher, keeping squirrels out of the birdfeeder, a squeaky door). We apply analytical thinking, ideas, interpretations, beliefs and judgments (thinking mind) to emotional states like anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness (being mind). There are two problems with this process. How we respond/react to emotions makes a significant impact in the level of pain we will be experiencing.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn has pointed out in his book The Mindful Way through Depression, “at the very earliest stages in which mood starts to spiral downward, it is not the mood that does the most damage, but how we react to it. Also, our habitual efforts to extricate ourselves, far from freeing us, actually keep us locked in the pain we’re trying to escape.” In other words, the way in which we usually solve problems does not work with emotions!
One way we try to ease our threatening emotional states, is to ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way?” What kind of accurate information do you think you are going to receive when you ask yourself this question when feeling upset. When people are anxious, the answer often is “because it’s all falling apart, or it’s not going to work out well.” When we are anxious, depressed, lonely, or angry, our thinking may not be telling us the truth. It is counterproductive to try to problem solve in these states. The question isn’t whether we are going to suffer at times, the issue is are we making the situation worse by our response to our emotions.
So, what can we do to help the stormy weather move through us more quickly? Are you intensifying the emotional storm by the way you are using the power of thought? Practice mindfulness and three principle strategies to help learn how to navigate difficult emotional states. Get properly evaluated by a mental health professional to see if you are suffering from a neurobiological disorder that may be contributing to your suffering. Learn skills and strategies on how to be “OK” with not feeling “OK.” And always remember, the weather will eventually change whether you do anything or not.
We don’t get to choose the weather on vacation. We get to choose how we respond to the weather, and the way in which we do this, will lead us towards clearer skies or stormy seas.