Did you know that anxiety is linked to unresolved and ignored emotions?
We are so good at ignoring emotions. Even those of us who research mental health and should know better do it. I do. That’s why I’m so grateful to be writing this article. It made me take a deeper look into how emotional acceptance can improve your mental health.
Writing for a personal growth blog has been humbling for me because in my lifelong search for meaning and finding my way through the mental toll life can take on a person, I can see even more clearly.
I thought I had a grip on this mental health thing. Facing these subjects directly through this work has taught me that I have so much more work to do. It has also taught me that this is okay. I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Life should always be a constant stream of learning.
Emotional acceptance is not only important for our mental health but also for every facet of our lives. It helps our physical health. It helps us with our goals. It’s the cornerstone of everything that makes up a healthy and balanced emotional existence.
Emotions are inevitable, both good and bad. We have to accept all of them to function at our best.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how emotional acceptance can improve your mental health.
The Monsters in Our Emotional Closet
Fear, sadness, embarrassment, anger; negative emotions are painful and uncomfortable. It's no wonder we avoid them. Our instinct is to chase pleasure and happiness. Of course it is. The last thing we want is pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, that’s part of being human and pretending that bad emotions don’t exist or don’t affect us can be detrimental to our mental health.
The good news is that there are ways to cope with all of this but it requires you to acknowledge the emotion and to observe it. That’s the problem. These emotions have been built up into scary monsters that we would rather avoid.
There Is No Escape
Unchecked negative emotions don’t go anywhere. You’re not fooling anybody by ignoring them, least of all yourself.
They stay in us, waiting to be heard. If we push them to the side or run from them, they fester and manifest in ways that are toxic to both our physical and mental health.
Running from our emotional monsters actually makes them bigger and stronger. Emotional resistance is what causes an increase in stress, anxiety, self-sabotaging behaviors and physical ailments. The longer we avoid them, the worse it gets.
If we don’t want to keep running from the monsters, we have to face them.
Emotions Serve a Purpose
Think about your negative emotions as a tool. They actually have a purpose. They are trying to steer is in a purposeful direction. Fear, anger and guilt; those are our mind’s way of telling us that we need to shift our behaviors, patterns or focus. If we ignore that, we risk going down a dark path where our monsters follow us as they grow and become giant shadows that overwhelm us.
The reason we resist these emotions is that our mind sees any negative feeling as a threat and it triggers the fight or flight response. Many of us choose to take flight and avoid or resist. It’s a survival instinct gone wrong.
If we acknowledge this and work towards facing the discomfort and pain rather than running from it, we free ourselves because our emotions are no longer monsters that inspire fear.
Our Beliefs About Emotions
Happiness is great. It starts to become a problem, though, when it is the only emotion we will accept. The pursuit of happiness can become a trap. When we feel it, we expect it to stay forever. When it doesn’t, it feels like a betrayal.
We look at negative emotions as an interruption to our happiness. That’s an unhealthy myth. Like all emotions, happiness is fleeting and temporary. If we can accept that, we can see that negative emotions are also part of the human experience.
This is a much healthier view than seeing them as an interloper or an interruption to happiness, which was supposed to be temporary anyway.
Obviously, our goal is to feel as little negative emotion as possible. It’s not fun. But here is the good news! When we accept the negative emotions and even welcome them the same way we do positive emotions, they are easier to release and they don’t come off like the invaders we usually see them as.
Our beliefs about emotion have stifled us but it’s not our fault. This has been influenced by societal norms. However, it is up to us to change those beliefs for ourselves.
Allow Yourself to Feel It
When you resist or push emotions aside, you are not deactivating them. They remain with you and find themselves a comfortable spot somewhere in your psyche. This cannot be repeated enough.
It’s okay to feel bad. There is not something wrong with you if you feel sadness. You are not broken if you feel shame or guilt. Feeling negative emotions is a necessary part of the human experience.
Both joy and suffering are inevitable. Putting suffering off is like handing it the keys to your life as you give it the power to control you.
The Power of Mindfulness
Mindful meditation and practicing mindful breathing are both effective practices to incorporate into your day and one of the best ways to find emotional acceptance.
Mindfulness helps us do two things with our negative emotions. It helps us recognize and acknowledge the emotion without judgment or trying to change it. That emotional recognition leads us to find compassion and forgiveness for both the emotion and ourselves. This is the formula for emotional acceptance.
The process of mindfulness is, simply put, to pay attention to everything. Pay attention to the thoughts going through your mind. Pay attention to any parts of the body that feels painful or uncomfortable. Pay attention to your breathing. Pay attention to how you’re responding to your environment, sights, sounds, and/or smells. Everything around you and inside of you becomes part of your experience.
Many studies have found that mindfulness offers a lot of benefits. As it helps you find emotional acceptance and improves your mental health, it impacts everything else associated with it like memory, concentration, anxiety and even sleep.
How to Incorporate Mindfulness With Emotions
Acknowledge Your Emotions
Identify the emotion and figure out where it’s coming from. Often, that’s easier said than done. The following practice will help. You can choose to see it as a meditation or a mental health exercise. Don’t let the label of it distract you. Mindfulness is choosing to experience everything around you, that’s the most important part to remember.
Find a quiet spot and close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply as you try to slow down your thoughts. Focus on your breath and how it fills your lungs.
Scan through and check in with the different parts of your body. Do you feel anything there? Is anything tight or aching? Pain or discomfort in your body is often an indicator of unresolved emotions.
Are there any stimuli around you? Are there sounds, colors, objects or smells that inspire any kind of reaction? Sit with this for a minute and see if you can identify any triggers within your mind and body.
Once you’ve identified your emotion, be an objective observer to it. This means, don’t judge it as negative or bad. Check in with yourself to see how it’s making you feel. Once you name it and find the source, this could bring up a lot more discomfort, you must ride through it instead of run from it.
Let yourself emote if you can. Any kind of release helps soften the emotion. Screaming, stretching, crying, sobbing; anything you can do that takes away the power of the emotion will be helpful and allow you to proceed.
The Part Your Breath Plays
We touched on breath a bit in the last section but let’s take a deeper look into how the breath affects our emotions. The slower and deeper the breath, the easier it is to calm yourself in the face of negative emotions like anger or fear.
A study done in 2012 found that slow-breathing exercises actually helped musicians with performance-related anxiety. These findings sparked more interest and have been widely cited in other studies exploring how slow-breathing greatly affects anxiety.
Paying attention to your breath is important as many of us have gotten into the habit of short, rapid breaths and that can actually make negative emotions feel bigger and intimidating as our stress response reacts to the short breaths.
Mindful breathing is one of the best things you can do for yourself in this situation. It’s hard to stay mindful 24 hours of the day but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes and the easier it is to handle any challenge that comes up. Sometimes just handling life as it comes is all you need to find peace.
Forgive and Say Thank You
Self-compassion is one of the most important parts of this process. If you don’t leave this experience with a feeling of self-forgiveness and self-love, you are still holding onto the negative emotion.
Recognize that this emotion is a powerful evolutionary instinct that is trying to send you a message. Feeling gratitude and forgiveness for the emotion is a powerful way to dissolve it. Once you’ve done that, move on to forgive yourself. Recognize that you’re human and no human is perfect.
Once you’ve finished this process see if you feel lighter and ready to face the world again. Repeat this meditation or practice—you decide how you want to see it—every day and soon you’ll find that your emotions no longer have control over you.
Remind Yourself It's All Temporary
All of it. Every single emotion is temporary. Even the good ones. Recognizing this will not only help you as you let the bad ones pass through but it will help you not rely so much on the good ones.
Peace, satisfaction, calm and fulfillment are the more attainable emotions we should strive for. Those are the emotions that have the most longevity because, with practice, you can tune into them whether you are feeling sorrow or joy.
Going from Happiness to sorrow without any in between is a long and hard fall. It does us all a disservice to continually do that zigzag between those two intense emotions as we often do.
Reminding ourselves that it's all temporary helps us find peace and calm much faster.
If I Can Still Breathe, I'm Fine
If you remember one thing, remember this. If I can still breathe, I’m fine. Say this to yourself whenever possible. Count each breath, remind yourself that you’re alive and you’re safe.
Remind yourself that you are reacting to your brain’s fight or flight survival instinct to negative feelings and environmental influences.
Pay attention to the emotion, acknowledge it and talk to it. All of those things help you in the long run but reminding yourself that you’re okay and you will be okay, even in the face of these tough emotions is the most powerful thing you can do for yourself.
Not only will you develop healthier coping mechanisms for these tough emotions but you’ll also know yourself better. You’ll know when these emotions are showing themselves instead of questioning why you are experiencing anxiety that seems to come from nowhere.
You’ll be able to tackle negative emotions head-on as soon as they show up. That’s huge. That’s a life changer. That’s how emotional acceptance can improve your mental health.