With OCD, are obsessions cause anxiety or discomfort that we find difficult to tolerate. We then engage in compulsive behaviors or mental rituals in order to manage our anxiety or discomfort. But if we can learn better ways to manage and regulate our emotions and how we feel, then we no longer need to rely on compulsions. This video describes how we can regulate our emotions with mindfulness and acceptance.
Mindfulness and Acceptance of Emotions
This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.
Emotion regulation refers to our ability to influence our emotions and how we feel. Part of emotion regulation involves increasing how often we experience positive emotions like happiness or decreasing how often we experience negative emotions like fear sadness and anger. But emotion regulation isn’t about blocking or avoiding so-called negative emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling fearful or sad or angry at times. And sometimes that’s exactly how we need to feel.
But emotion regulation helps us influence our emotions, either by reducing the strength or magnitude of these emotions and how intensely we feel them, which allows us to have emotions like fear and sadness and anger and even happiness without these emotions overwhelming us.
Or by transforming the emotion itself and changing how we feel either through modifying our actions and behavior, or our thoughts and you can learn how this works in my videos on opposite action, and reframing our thoughts and cognitive restructuring. And you’ll find links to these videos in the description and pinned comment along with my other videos related to emotion regulation.
So typically when we’re experiencing an emotion we don’t like we try to get rid of it. Either by problem solving it away, or trying to control how we feel, or by trying to suppress or block or avoid our emotion altogether.
Most of us learn from an early age how to think logically and solve problems rationally. And so it’s natural that we try to use thinking and logic to solve our emotional problems. Unfortunately emotions aren’t something we can rationalize and think our way out of. Emotions don’t conform to rational principles, they don’t listen to logic. We can’t think our feelings away convince our emotions through logic how they should feel. Or use rational arguments with our emotions to try to change them.
Trying to problem solve our emotions away tends to just make things worse because we end up stuck in our heads arguing with our feelings, even though our feelings have no interest in what we’re trying to tell them. And in the end the emotions we were trying to problem-solve away are still there, and now our minds are racing and we’re thinking in circles, ruminating and dwelling on things, which is just creating more stress, and anxiety for ourselves, and making our emotions even more intense.
So when we can’t problem solve our emotions away we try to control them. But fighting against our emotions to try to control how we feel is a battle we just can’t win. We can influence how we feel by modifying our thoughts and behavior. But we can’t change how we feel by sheer will or brute force. No matter how much we try we cannot make ourselves feel a certain way because our emotions just don’t listen to our attempts to try to control them.
Perhaps you can recall an occasion when someone tried to tell you how you should feel. Maybe you were upset and they told you to just calm down. Or you were anxious and they told you there’s nothing to be afraid of and stop worrying so much. Or you were feeling sad and they told you to cheer up. Now if something like that’s ever happened to you, how well did it work? When we tell someone else how we think they should feel it usually makes them feel worse.
Well the same thing happens when we try to control our own emotions by telling ourselves how we should feel. When we try to control our emotions they resist and fight back and generally become more intense.
In the mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety john forsythe and george eiford explain why controlling our emotions doesn’t work:
Emotions differ in important ways from other problems in life that can be controlled quite effectively. Situations that are controllable tend to involve objects in the world outside your skin. Changing things in the world around you is often possible and works well. So it only makes sense that you’d want to apply it to manage emotional pain.
The problem is that what works well in the external world just doesn’t work well when applied to things going on inside you. You might try to deal with your thoughts and feelings in the same way you deal with clothes you don’t like. Can you give away or throw out your unpleasant thoughts and feelings? Can you replace a painful emotion you don’t like with a new one? Have you ever been able to do that?
The take home message here is that you can’t win a fight against yourself. And as much as you may wish to throw out your painful emotions there’s simply no way to take them in your hands and out of the room.
So since we can’t control our emotions and just get rid of the ones we don’t like why not just suppress these emotions and ignore or avoid them all together. Well unfortunately this doesn’t work either. Maybe we can avoid our emotions for a while. But they keep coming back/ they’re like a child craving attention. Our emotions won’t leave us alone until we acknowledge them and give them what they need. And each time we try to just ignore them or send them away they come back louder than ever demanding our attention.
And so because we can’t avoid our feelings we’re left with one option for emotional control. And that is to avoid any situation or circumstance we think could trigger the emotions we’re trying to avoid. But this type of avoidance winds up seriously limiting how we live our lives. If you’re depressed and start avoiding situations that may trigger more distressing thoughts or feelings you wind up isolating yourself and not taking part in things that could actually help you feel better. And as a result you end up feeling even more depressed.
If you’re experiencing anxiety you might start avoiding anything that could provoke your anxiety, like certain social situations, travel, furthering your career and so on. And as a result your quality of life begins to suffer. Once you start avoiding some things it’s easy to keep finding other things you need to avoid, until eventually your life becomes so restricted that you can no longer take part in the things that are most important to you. So for these reasons in acceptance and commitment therapy emotional avoidance is regarded as one of the main factors that contributes to anxiety and depression.
So since we can’t problem solve our emotions away or control or avoid our emotions what can we do when we’re experiencing difficult or painful emotions? We’re left with two options. To continue to struggle with them in a fight we can’t win that only gives them more strength. Or find a way to accept how we’re feeling accept whatever emotions we’re experiencing even if they’re uncomfortable or painful and we don’t like how they make us feel.
Because accepting how we feel is the first step in being able to regulate our emotions, and as soon as we stop fighting them and start accepting them they tend to start to lose some of their intensity, or at least stop escalating and becoming overwhelming.
So how do we accept our emotions., and if you’re not sure what we mean by acceptance in this context check out the videos i link to in the pinned comment in description. So one thing we can do is to name and acknowledge and validate our emotions. A lot of times we feel bad but we don’t know exactly what it is that feels bad. So we need to start by identifying the emotion we’re experiencing and putting a name to how we’re feeling.
All we need to do is to say to ourselves i feel sad. I’m feeling anxious. Or I’m angry right now. And just this simple act of naming our emotions helps us acknowledge how we’re feeling. And just this alone can help calm our emotions and stop them from escalating.
And then once we’ve acknowledged our emotions we can validate how we’re feeling. Have you ever noticed yourself saying things like i shouldn’t feel this way. There’s no reason to feel sad. Or why can’t i just get over this? When you do find yourself judging your emotions like this how does it make you feel?
Judging our emotions is the opposite of validating them. And it’s similar to trying to control our emotions and it probably makes you feel worse. So how do we validate our emotions?
As sherry van dyke says in the dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook:
Validating your emotion basically just means giving yourself permission to have them. It doesn’t mean that you like to feel that way, or that you don’t want the feeling to change. It simply means acknowledging the presence of the emotion and allowing yourself to have it.
And this is precisely what we mean by accepting our emotions. So instead of saying things to yourself like why am i always so sad, i shouldn’t feel this way, try to validate the way you’re feeling. Tell yourself that even though it’s not pleasant to feel sad or anxious, these are natural human emotions. And everyone feels them sometimes.
You might prefer to feel differently—who wants to feel sad or be anxious?— but there’s nothing unusual or wrong with feeling sad or anxious or angry or however you’re feeling. And just because you’re feeling that way right now doesn’t mean you’re always gonna have to feel that way. Emotions come and go all of the time without us ever having to do anything. In fact the more we try to do something about an emotion other than just accepting it, the longer it sticks around and the more intense it tends to become.
Now another aspect to accepting our emotions is learning to accept the physical sensations that go along with them. And that’s the topic of my next video.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.