How to deal with negative emotions

Everyone has moments in life that are hard, painful, scary and really difficult to endure. There are times when we feel grief, embarrassment, stress, remorse, sadness or other difficult emotions.

As human beings, our first instinct when these unpleasant emotions arrive is often to struggle with them in some way. This may take the form of either trying to suppress them, escape them, drown them out or resist them in some way. Other times we lose ourselves in the emotion, becoming reactive, overwhelmed or debilitated.

While these responses to difficult emotions are understandable, they simply are not helpful as our main coping strategy over the long term. And the problem with these reactions is that if we do them continuously, they tend to actually prolong negative feelings and make them bigger. 

But there is another path. We can face these charged emotions and move through them in a healthy and life-affirming way.  

This is where the RAIN practice comes in. First developed by meditation instructor Michelle McDonald over 20 years ago and popularized by mindfulness teacher, Tara Brach, RAIN is an acronym for a 4-step mindfulness practice for working through intense and difficult emotions.

Keep reading to find out more about RAIN, or press ‘play’ to listen to the podcast episode below:

Here are the steps:

R – is for Recognize 

In this first step, you take a moment to recognize that a strong emotion is present and gently turn towards what you’re experiencing in an open and non-judgmental way.

Tune in to the direct, present moment experience of what is happening in your body. The sensations of the emotion – is it a buzzing, tingling, or heaviness? – just take a moment to be with it.

It can be helpful to mentally name it, for example, “I am feeling stressed” or “I am feeling overwhelmed.” Research shows that naming an emotion like this can reduce its intensity by up to 50%. 

This recognition of what you’re feeling opens up mental space so you are no longer so caught up in the emotion – you’re taking one step back and viewing it with awareness.

A – is for Allow

This means letting the feelings or sensations you have be acknowledged and simply be – without trying to fix, avoid or fight against them.

You might even mentally say to yourself something like, “It’s OK for this to be here.”

Allowing doesn’t mean we have to like the situation. It just means we are aiming to soften our mental resistance to what is happening.

The reason this is so important is because we often have the unconscious impulse to push away, suppress or ignore difficult emotions. When we engage in an inner struggle in these ways, we unknowingly create more suffering and tension.

In fact, research shows that the more we struggle with difficult emotions, the more we tend to prolong the feelings and make them bigger.

Why? Because, in this unconscious struggle with emotions, we get caught up in our thoughts and emotions.

When you allow strong emotions to be there, notice an almost immediate sense of softening and ease around the emotion.

I – is for Investigate

In this step, you’re bringing a gentle curiosity to your emotion and enquiring into what you might learn from or understand from it. 

You may not always feel you need the “I” step as sometimes recognition and acceptance are enough. At other times, you may feel naturally drawn to using this step in the process.

So, to investigate you can mentally enquire with questions like:

  • If this emotion had a voice, what would it say?  
  • Why do I feel the way I do?
  • Was there an event ahead of the emotion that might have influenced it?
  • What do I need right now?

Or you can enquire with whatever questions feel right for you personally.

Emotions often hold a lot of wisdom and valuable information if we just stop and listen to them. They are trying to show us that we have an unfulfilled need, or perhaps point us towards greater wisdom and healing. 

These inquiry questions can help us come into wiser relationships with our emotions, and find out if we need to take action to look after ourselves.

N – is for Nurture with Self-Compassion

In this final step, the goal is to bring a compassionate and kindly awareness to the sensations of the emotion, whether it’s fear, frustration, sadness, or anger.

Place a hand on the part of your body where you feel the sensations the most, or just tune in with your awareness and say to yourself, “May I be kind to myself in this moment.”

You can bring kindness to yourself and the emotion in the same way you would be kind to a loved one who was hurting.

Sense what the hurt, frightened or tender place inside you needs most. Does it need acceptance? Does it need love? Does it need forgiveness? Does it just need rest?

See if there is something you can do to meet those needs. Perhaps you need to take a nap, run a bath, call a friend for support, or simply offer yourself some words of kindness, such as, “I forgive you. I love you just as you are. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. It’s OK.”

When we learn to meet our difficulties with compassion, wisdom, and presence, it can be incredibly transformational and empowering. It galvanizes our inner strength, nurtures our wounds, and grows insight and self-awareness.

The next time you are feeling a strong or challenging emotion, try these four steps.

 To recap:

Rrecognize the emotion, for example, “Right now, I’m feeling stressed.”

Aallow it by acknowledging, “It’s OK for this to be here.”

Iinvestigate it by asking, “If this emotion had a voice, what would it say?” 

Nnurture with self-compassion by asking, “May I be kind to myself in this moment?”

If you would like to have a little more support with this practice, I have a free meditation of this 4-step process you can use.

If you ever find yourself overwhelmed and can’t think of these steps, simply remember not to run from difficult emotions, but rather meet them and investigate them with a kindly, curious, compassionate awareness.

I hope this is helpful for you and I wish you a wonderful week ahead. Take care and stay strong.

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