How to Use Mindfulness to Help with Big Emotions

We all have times when we get a little hot under the collar, whether it’s at work, at home or on the road. Or times when we’re so anxious that it’s hard to keep it together.

These emotions—anger and fear—can feel so big and uncontrollable that you don’t know how to handle them. When they overwhelm you, you might lash out at someone or break down from stress.

Having a plan to diagnose and deal with those big emotions will help you feel better, avoid potentially harmful interactions with others and help you better express yourself.

“Mindfulness is the practice of being aware in the moment and noticing emotions and thoughts that are arising in that moment,” says UNC Health psychologist Karen Bluth, PhD. “It is the foundation for self-compassion, which is giving yourself the emotional support you need when you’re encountering emotional challenges.”

When you’re angry, frustrated or fearful, mindfulness can shift your focus and help you create a choice about how to respond.

While it takes practice, you can use mindfulness to address negative emotions, says UNC Health psychiatrist Jonathan Gerkin, MD. Try these four steps to get started:

1. Name that emotion.

When you begin to feel a big emotion, such as anger, label it. But instead of saying “I am angry,” say “I notice anger.”

“See it, and give it some words. There are four basic feelings: mad, glad, sad and afraid. Determine which one of those it is,” Dr. Gerkin says.

You’re acknowledging and accepting its presence, at least in this moment, while remaining detached from it. Just describing it gives you a little distance, he says.

2. Breathe.

Next, you want to open up some space for the emotion to begin to run its course by taking long, deep, cleansing breaths.

Take a deep inhale in, counting to five as you do. Then exhale to the count of eight. Repeat this breath cycle three to five times.

3. Expand your perspective.

Now, zoom out and pretend you are watching another person experience the situation and his or her reaction to it.

“Think about if you were watching this. What might you feel for this person?” Dr. Gerkin says. “What might you suggest the person do to get the outcome they want?”

This can offer perspective that can be hard to get when a feeling or situation is highly personal to you.

4. Take action.

Finally, decide what you want to do and then do it with presence.

“Taking action might mean actually doing nothing in that moment,” Dr. Gerkin says. You want to scream at your spouse, but you decide to take a mindful walk instead.

The key to alleviating strong emotions is to “recognize that these emotions—like anger, fear, grief and hurt—are normal human emotions and don’t mean you did anything wrong. That awareness in itself alleviates a lot of our emotional pain,” Dr. Bluth says.

Keep in mind, mindfulness takes practice.

 If you feel overwhelmed by your emotions, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.