Emotions, including intense ones, are requisite channels of communication that have helped our species survive for hundreds of thousands of years. However, when people (including me!) are overwhelmed with an intense emotional burst, we often react – quickly, impulsively – without giving ourselves even the briefest of moments to assess the situation, rethink, and ground ourselves in a more wise course of action. Without being aware of intense emotions and thoughts–and their associated action urges– time races by. Then, suddenly, one reacts instead of acts.
At its core, mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment. It offers a window of opportunity to reduce the odds of regrettable reactions and unnecessary emotional suffering in multiple ways:
If we are not aware of something (a thought or an action urge), how can we begin to understand and change it? Awareness is a critical first step because we must notice something before we can enjoy it, interact with it, and/or change it. Typically, body sensations (sweaty palms, racing heart) and action urges (wanting to shout, slam the door) are signals of emotions and thoughts.
Once you are aware, you’re better poised to describe the situation nonjudgmentally. Nonjudgmentally describing a situation helps us avoid adding extra ‘drama’ to our lives with colorful language or cognitive errors that may not actually help us in that moment. Does calling the bus “smelly” or “always ridiculously late” change the fact that I have to take it to work in the morning? Nope, it doesn’t. In fact, it actually may serve to annoy me further about my mode of transportation and may increase the likelihood of being grumpy upon my arrival to work.
From this nonjudgmental stance, you are best equipped to select and employ the skill(s) to navigate the situation, should you wish.
Ultimately, mindfulness means giving full awareness to the external situation, as well as internal stimuli like thoughts, feelings and action urges. By tuning in to your surroundings and sensations, you ready yourself to act from a place grounded in reality, not clouded by biased or judgemental thinking.
From there, one can engage in therapeutic techniques– like thought challenging, behavioral activation, distress tolerance, and problem solving– that can improve your mood. You also reduce the risk of inadvertently begetting additional problems or emotional suffering.
Awareness is useful in moments of non-emotional intensity as well. When I’m doing a puzzle with my children but then start scrolling through emails on my phone, I’m actually losing out on the potential joy of being wholeheartedly present with my kids. By inviting my mind to return to being aware of my child trying out each puzzle piece, or the smile lingering on my face as I observe, I leverage my opportunity for joy. Indeed, one will reap more joy from pleasurable activities the more they are wholistically aware of them.
Clearly, simply being aware of an emotional state, action urge, or thought doesn’t in and of itself solve the problem. Rather, I am suggesting that being mindfully aware creates a window of opportunity to utilize psychotherapeutic skills that support life goals, while also reducing the odds of emotional suffering. The process of helping yourself begins with being mindful.