Emotions can be challenging to navigate. They come and go with the same impermanence as waves yet often carry the same brute force as a storm at sea. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by their force, whether the emotions that come are in the form of anger, fear, sadness, disgust, anticipation, joy, or any other feeling. Our emotional landscape when heightened can be an intricate intermingling of numerous feelings and sensations that often boils down to an indescribable experience of unease and discomfort. In this melting pot of emotions, we can find ourselves unable to find clarity, peace, and stillness.
The great struggle with emotions is often not the raw emotion itself but is largely the story that accompanies it and the mood that results. Of course raw sensations can be very challenging to navigate in and of themselves, but our cognitive processing of events that led to the emotion doesn’t usually take us deep enough to nourish the root of whatever is arising. When emotions arise we may unconsciously decide that they are too unbearable – too powerful – to sit with and so attempt to deal with them in a variety of ways. We might:
In some cases, we do need to withdraw from certain situations to see things more clearly, and in some moments it can be helpful to engage our mental facilities to help understand the situation at large; however, more often than not we revert to these habitual ways of being in order to suppress, avoid, or distract ourselves from the present moment. The problem with these defense mechanisms is that they do not help us to overcome the sense of suffering that accompanies the raw sensations that we experience. When we incorporate mindfulness into our emotional landscape, we start to develop a different relationship to the challenging feelings that arise.
The stories we tell ourselves about prior events leading to the feelings at hand can easily become entangled with the raw emotion itself. Even when we are not consciously aware of what is moving through us or another, there are a variety of signs that can inform us about what emotions are at play. Once we understand what emotions are present, we can look more closely at what they are signifying. Here are few examples of the visual signals that an emotion is present and what the underlying meaning might be.
When expressed outright, anger comes out as a roar; however, it is sometimes more controlled. More subtle signs include a sharp edge in the voice, narrowed lips, focused eyes, and lowered brows.
Ranging from dissatisfaction to boundary challenges to threat.
Fear shows up on the face as wide eyes, stretched lips, and raised eyebrows. We may physically withdraw from whatever the threat is. Other signals include screaming, heavy breathing, and a pulling away of the head.
Ranging from slight concern to panic.
Disgust appears visually as a protruding tongue, a raised upper lip, and a wrinkling of the nose.
Ranging from wishing for something to be kept away to the belief that something is socially or morally wrong or unclean.
This emotion shows up as a frown, as raised cheeks, as eyebrows drawn upwards and together, and as tears. A quivering voice and sobbing often accompanies the emotion.
A desire for comfort or empathy.
Smiles and wrinkling around the outer corners of the eye are most common. A sign of relief or laughter are auditory cues.
From contentment with the feelings present to an encouragement of social interaction.
Getting to know these signs and meanings can help us to see each emotion in a new light and to understand the deeper meanings behind them. When we let go of the stories attached to the feeling and look more closely at what is trying to be conveyed and how we are trying to convey it, we can manage our emotions more effectively.
It is not uncommon to be overcome by a particular bodily sensation when a certain emotion washes over us. When we feel depressed, we might experience heaviness within the body, or it might feel as if energy flow within us is stagnant. When we are angry, we may feel some tightness in the forehead or increased activity in the head region in general. Whatever the pairing, it turns out that each emotion seems to appear across cultures.
Research conducted by Finnish scientists sought to discover how bodily sensations pair with various emotions. Over 700 volunteers participated in the study that linked various basic and complex emotions with felt increasing and decreasing activity within various bodily regions. The result was a heat map that provides insight as to where different emotions manifest within the body. The results were congruent between West European and East Asian samples, suggesting that the link between emotions and the body is a universal phenomenon.
Understanding that emotions have a direct effect on the sensations we perceive within the body can help us to become more mindful of the intimate link between body and emotion. It provokes the question: can we become more aware of the very raw, physical manifestation associated with a rising emotion, rather than becoming consumed by the story that led to it?
Recognition of the body’s reaction and potential contribution to emotions can empower us to move through them mindfully as we’ll see in the next section.
Emotions are part of the human experience. In and of themselves they are neither good nor bad, so becoming mindful of them does not have to entail condemnation, judgment, or suppression; in fact, mindful awareness of our emotions is quite the opposite. Opening to our emotions mindfully is possible only from a place of unconditional love. It is a continual practice that offers us a new vantage point from which to relate differently to these energetic flows.
When emotions arise consider these four ways to open up to them mindfully.
There is a common tendency to move away from difficult emotions when they arise. While this may have once served as an effective defense mechanism, we can help ourselves to move through the emotion more effectively by turning towards it. By taking a few deep breaths and gently opening ourselves to whatever is present, we are able to transition through our emotional landscape with greater understanding and acceptance. The key here is to opening from the heart and staying open to whatever arises.
It is easy to become caught up in the story associated with the emotion – why we feel it, who is responsible, and how it could have been avoided. While there is a time and place for this inquiry, it can be useful to detach from the emotions when we are in the heat of them. We can practice this by becoming aware of what exactly is moving through us. Rather than saying to ourselves, “I am angry,” which often leads to, “because…” we can instead simply notice what is present. Simply witness ‘anger’, ‘grief’, ‘sadness’, or whatever is the case as though it were a separate entity. Open to this energetic presence with compassion and curiosity, noticing if the mind intervenes with judgment. Come back to an open heart.
When we become caught up in a web of emotions, we can open our awareness to the entire body. What do we notice? Where do we sense increased or decreased activity? Even numbness can be observed. Feeling into the way the emotion presents itself in the body can help us to create some sort of distance in-between ourselves and the energy moving through us. As we practice creating this distance, strengthening our awareness of it, we come to realize that our emotions are just a happening that can be witnessed from a quieter, more peaceful place.
Feelings, thoughts, and sensations all come and go; such is the nature of life. When emotions rise we can heighten our awareness of the transitory nature of our experience. Through this opening to the flow of our emotions, we become less consumed by them. We start to loosen our grip on the beliefs we hold about them. We come to realize that we are not, in fact, our emotions; and through this realization we find strength to journey through the storm in our sails.
The signal of an emotion describes the universal ways that emotion is displayed in the face and/or voice. There can also be other vocal tone changes and body language indicators, but these are not included here because they are often culturally informed and learned as opposed to universal.
The message is what the emotion is telling us. All emotions have a message that is a response to the world around us.
In the voice, anger generates a roar if not controlled; when anger is controlled, the voice may have a sharp edge that is very detectable. In the face, the signal includes glaring eyes, lowered brows and narrowed, tightened lips. When people hear or see an angry signal, they are typically hurt just by the perception of the signal, and may retaliate with angry actions.
The message of anger is “get out of my way.” Anger can carry a message ranging from dissatisfaction to threat.
Common signals are very wide open eyes, horizontally stretched lips and raised, drawn together eyebrows. There may be movement away from the target. Screams may accompany intense fear. Lesser fear signals can include heavy breathing, a head position slightly backwards and away, and horizontally stretched lips accompanied by tightened neck muscles.
The message of fear is “help me”; it can range from showing low-level concern to conveying panic.
There are three facial expressions associated with disgust. The first is sticking the tongue out as if the person is getting something out of their mouth. The second is raising the upper lip, but it is relaxed and not tense, which can display gums and teeth depending on the shape of the mouth. The third is wrinkling of the nose and raising of the nostrils. These expressions can occur separately or in unison.
The message of disgust is “get away from this.” It can show others that the target of disgust is to be kept away from or that the target is unclean, dirty or socially/morally reprehensible.
The signals of sadness include a frown (lower lip pushed up slightly and lip corners pulled slightly down), the inner corners of the eyebrows drawn up and together in the center of the forehead, raised cheeks and tears. The vocalization of sadness can include sobs and heaving and quavering of the voice.
The message of sadness is “comfort me.” It encourages, or intends to encourage, empathy from others.
Enjoyment signals include the Duchenne (authentic) smile, activation of a smile (lip corners pulled obliquely up), and activation of the orbital eye muscles that tighten the lower eyelid and create wrinkling around the outer eye corners (especially with age). Enjoyment also includes vocal signals such as the sound of relief (a sigh or exhalation) and the sound of amusement (laughter or giggling).
The message of enjoyment is “this feels good.” It encourages engaging in social interaction.
Moods are longer-lasting cousins of an emotion that cause us to feel the related emotion repeatedly without any clear trigger.
Certain personality traits are related to specific emotions.
A hostile person is often angry and is known to others for the frequency of anger responses to the world. Often anger occurs with any frustration; the threshold for frustration is low. Hostile people may experience regret afterward and apologize for their anger, but nevertheless continue to respond angrily. Sometimes hostile people express their anger in a nasty way, using words to demean and cause psychological pain to others.
A shy or timid person. This personality type is likely to avoid risks and uncomfortable situations. Timid people may perceive the world as full of difficult situations.
A person who often feels disgusted by others may have an inflated sense of self-worth and a hyper-aversion toward others. Someone who is disgusted or dissatisfied with everything can be unpleasant to be around.
A somber person who is often feeling low may have clinical depression or may simply have more frequent feelings of sadness. This person may hold the perspective that life is hard and difficult.
A cheerful person may also be thought of as optimistic. This person sees the world in positive way and can easily be made to laugh and feel enjoyment.
Each emotion relates to distinct psychopathologies, which describe persistent behaviors that interfere with one’s ability to function.
A tendency to cause physical or verbal harm in inappropriate contexts. Anger may be out of control, or passive but persistently preoccupying.
Anxiety states involve prolonged fear without knowledge of the source of the threat, and incidents of panic (episodic attacks of severe anxiety).
The psychopathology of disgust includes feelings that prevent everyday interaction with the world, the self or others. Disgust can be a paralyzing feeling that makes simple interactions (such as eating) extremely painful if not impossible. Disgust and fear are both thought to contribute to various phobias, such as fear of small animals.
Depression is a well-known type of psychopathology that is reported to affect over 25% of the population. Depression interferes with daily life and causes pain for both the sufferers and those who care about them. Depression is a common but serious illness.
Unlike with other emotions, it is hard to imagine enjoyable emotions contributing to challenges in managing our everyday relationships, work and ability to meet our basic needs. However, pathological enjoyment is quite serious; hyper-elevated states of enjoyment can cause delusions in addition to feeling good, which can lead to destructive behaviors.
Actions can be intrinsic (without conscious intent) or intentional (an active attempt to enact change), or both.
Quarrel, Insult, Undermine, Dispute, Scream/yell, Use physical force, Simmer/brood, Be passive-aggressive
Set limits, Be firm, Withdraw, Take a time out, Breathe, Practice patience, Reframe, Distract, Avoid, Remove the interference
Withdraw, Avoid, Hesitate, Freeze, Scream/yell, Ruminate, Worry
Reframe, Be mindful, Breathe, Distract
Withdraw, Avoid, Vomit, Dehumanize
Seek comfort, Withdraw, Mourn, Protest, Feel ashamed
Seek more, Maintain, Exclaim, Engage/connect, Savor, Indulge
Here are some ways to counteract emotional states. Impediments involve blocking a positive emotion; antidotes involve reversing negative ones.