Can meditation help me manage my emotions?
You’ve probably heard that meditation can help you with a whole list of challenges – anxiety, stress, sleep, focus – but what about managing your emotions? Can meditation really make you less reactive, and more responsive, when you run into difficult situations? We sat down with WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp to find out.
Q: What’s the link between practicing meditation, and becoming less reactive?
A: Let’s talk specifically about mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is all about paying attention to what’s actually happening, right now, without judgment. You can practice mindfulness while you’re doing anything - when you’re driving, or walking, or having conversations - any activity can be done mindfully. But when you meditate, there’s no other activity involved: you’re doing nothing else but bringing your attention back to the present moment, over and over again.
Mindfulness meditation isn’t a magic pill. You don’t start meditating one day, and then are never reactive again. That said, when you practice it over time, you notice a difference in how quickly you go into reaction mode.
You’re much more likely to catch yourself in the act of get swept away by big emotions, like anger. Then, you can choose how you want to respond to the situation, rather than just being run by those emotions.
Practicing mindfulness meditation shifts your mindset when you’re out the world, allowing you to see what’s happening in any given moment from a new place, one that’s much more helpful and compassionate to yourself and to other people.
Q: How does practicing mindfulness meditation help you be less angry, less often?
A: Anger starts from fear. Fear is all about imagining that you are going to lose something – an actual physical thing, your life, a relationship, a job. It’s about projecting into the future that a situation is going to happen that you don’t want to have happen.
When you practice mindfulness, you keep turning your attention away from that imagined future, and back to what’s actually happening in the present moment. That present moment isn’t necessarily pleasant – it could be uncomfortable, or not what you want it to be – but it’s just what’s happening. You sit with that present moment, witnessing it and watching it shift and change of its own accord.
Q: What happens when you pay attention in that way, that helps you deal with strong emotions?
A: You come face to face with the simple fact that your thoughts are not the same as what’s happening in the present moment. Your thoughts are about what might happen, or what did happen, or what your opinion is – but they aren’t what’s actually transpiring in the present moment.
As you begin to see your thoughts in that light, you begin to unhook from them.
If you realize that your thoughts aren’t what’s actually happening, then you get to choose whether or not you follow where your thoughts are going – you don’t have to be dragged along into whatever projected fear they are conjuring up. And that’s the beginning of not getting swept away by strong emotions, like anger.
Q: What does that look like, in real life?
A: Say you’re driving, and somebody pulls their car right in front of yours. You hit the brakes, feeling your temperature rise. Your first instinct is to curse at the other driver for cutting you off. Who do they think they are? You could have gotten killed!
If you aren’t practicing mindfulness, you’re likely to keep going with that train of thought, stewing in what a terrible person that other driver must be and what a virtuous person you are avoiding the accident they almost caused, maybe even spinning out into how many awful drivers there are the road, they ought to be punished, where’s the highway patrol when you need it?
If you’re practicing mindfulness, you would still feel that same physical sensation – your temperature rising as you hit the breaks – and the instinct to curse the other driver. But because you have some practice noticing that your thoughts are just thoughts, you would notice that you were heading into a negative downward spiral, and pause.
Q: That pause seems to be the vital part of breaking the reaction cycle. But then what? In this scenario, what would happen once you paused?
A: You might consciously shift your thoughts to a more compassionate place: I wonder what’s so important for them that they need to go that fast? Maybe they’re late to a really important meeting, or about to miss a flight, or there’s a pregnant mother in the car who’s about to give birth.
You might consciously shift your thoughts to gratitude: I’m so glad I was able to hit the breaks in time to avoid an accident.
You might just laugh at yourself for having the angry reaction, dispelling the tension with humor.
No matter what, you would let go of the need to follow those angry thoughts into more anger, physical tension, and fear.
Q: All of those options seem like they disperse the strong emotion, without stuffing it down. Is that what you mean by managing your emotions?
A: Yes. You feel everything, but you don’t make the emotions bigger by the way you think about what’s happening. You consciously choose how you want to respond, instead. That’s managing your emotions.
Mindfulness is ultimately all about choice. When you become aware that your thoughts are just thoughts, you have a lot more agency than when you follow your thoughts unquestioningly wherever they happen to lead you. You still have all of the physical and emotional reactions to situations that you would if you didn’t practice mindfulness – like your temperature rising when the car cuts in front of you – but you can diffuse that reaction much more quickly, and return to your natural state of openness and calm.
Hannah loves helping new students explore meditation and mindfulness, and build their practice. She teaches at WITHIN on Mondays, and leads guided meditation sessions and workshops in workplaces all over the Bay Area.