Maybe you started yoga for exercise. Then, your mind shifts. Your stress lifts. You’re nicer for no particular reason. If only you could be on your sticky mat 24/7. That yoga glow never lasts long enough. There’s a pink slip at work, red ink on your child’s homework, or a blue mood you just can’t kick. In her new book Wise Mind Living: Master Your Emotions, Transform Your Life, Erin Olivo, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Columbia University, delivers mindful, off-the-mat strategies for facing emotions head-on.
Wait, weren’t we talking about stress? Yep, Olivo says all stress boils down to emotion. People seek therapy for overeating, relationship conflicts, money woes, and career crisis, but Olivo shows them those are not the root issues at all. They’re simply manifestations of, you guessed it, emotions—usually misunderstood, stifled, or suppressed ones at that. And like yoga, mastering your emotions is an inside job.
The Good News: Confronting Feelings Affects Real Change
The good news is when you confront your feelings, you can affect a top-to-bottom change in every aspect of life. “A lot of people say I can’t help how I feel. Emotions just happen to me,” Olivo says. “It’s not about suppressing emotion or not feeling things, but I do think we have control over it. We can be active participants in the experience.”
Here are five strategies Olivo recommends for taking charge of feelings in everyday situations.
Your child is acting out at school.
That’s the triggering event. Identifying emotions behind it, Olivo says, is your first step. In Wise Mind Living there are really only eight core categories to choose from: Love, happiness, fear, anger, sadness, shame, jealousy, disgust. (Hint: Frustration, irritability, or hostility would fall under anger. Defeat, loneliness, or hurt would fall under sadness.)
Olivo says just identifying the root emotion starts to diffuse it. Feel into your emotional landscape and label the predominant emotion inside you. In this case, maybe it’s fear, anger, or shame.
Sit With Your Emotions Meditation
Oftentimes we run from uncomfortable feelings or push them away. So the best medicine can be to simply sit and experience them fully. This can spontaneously happen in our yoga practice. Or Olivo suggests taking a few minutes for a simple seated meditation with a focus on the emotions you’ve just identified. Cultivating a more intimate experience with emotions can discharge them, uniting you with the yogi within, both on and off the mat.
Your co-worker constantly pawns work off on you.
Olivo says the emotion you’re likely to feel is anger, a natural response to being mistreated. But there’s an evolutionary disconnect. As humans we’re hardwired to attack when we feel angry. “You’re not going to go hit your co-worker!” Olivo explains. “We’re more refined than that. But you might send a nasty email or you might tell your boss. That’s not necessarily going to go well for you.”
Olivo isn’t proposing you become a doormat. To the contrary, allowing emotions to settle before acting strengthens your position. “Gently avoid that person for a little bit and avoid making a choice about how you’re going to handle the situation,” she says. “It might sound crazy, but I suggest you do the work and do it really, really well. Then afterward, problem-solve how to handle it.”
To take the recommended breather, try this meditation before you act. Sit with a straight spine and take some cleansing breaths. On the inhale say to yourself, “it is,” and on the exhale, “what it is.” Experiment with your own language, perhaps a Sanskrit mantra that soothes you. Instead of strong-arming the situation, allow it to be, then respond with a clear head.
The time and money demands of the holiday season are looming.
When you have anxious or fearful thoughts that pop repeatedly in your mind like popcorn at the movie theatre, they need focused attention. Olivo suggests actually scheduling time to worry in a productive way. “Clearly this keeps coming up and is making me feel anxious,” Olivo says. “It’s a big challenge that I don’t have the capability of meeting. So I am feeling fear. I’m going to set aside some time to think about and problem-solve this.”
The first step is to make an appointment with the most important person in your life: yourself. Hash out the details of what you can realistically afford and accomplish. Then, if the thoughts still pop up outside the allocated time, practice the following meditation.
Thought Diffusion Meditation
Allow anxious ruminations to float on by with one of these scenes, or another of your choosing.
- Imagine your thoughts like clouds in the sky, drifting by above you.
- Visualize a stream, with each thought a leaf sailing downstream.
- Picture yourself driving down a roadway, whizzing past billboards emblazoned with your worries.
Your spouse forgot to take out the trash again, leaving it for the dog to devour.
“In no other place do emotions hit such a peak level as in relationships,” Olivo says. “If you’re having a fight with your partner, you may get to a place you cannot even think straight.”
Tunnel vision, scrambled brain, gloom and doom? We’ve all been there. Drastic feelings require drastic action (excluding dumping the trash on your beloved’s head.) It may entail dunking your own head in cold water, though. Seriously. This esteemed Columbia University psychologist is recommending we take advantage of our physiological dive reflex. Adopted from animals such as otters and beavers that need to conserve energy when underwater, it actually stops the flight-or-fight response in its tracks. As card-carrying mammals, we humans have this reflex as well, and it can come in handy when we’re emotionally overwrought or overwhelmed. Research shows the dive reflex slows our heart rate and calms the nervous system.
Dive Reflex Meditation
Here’s how: The idea is to dip your face in cool liquid, while holding your breath as long as you comfortably can. Olivo suggests filling a sink with cold water and dunking your face in it for a count of 30. If you don’t have a basin handy or that’s a bit drastic for you, use an ice pack, a bag of frozen peas or a wet washcloth on your forehead and nose. Inhale, hold, and feel the stress melt away.
You injured yourself and can’t take your favorite vinyasa classes anymore.
This is a time to practice self-compassion. Be gentle. Love yourself. “There are a lot of things in life that are painful realities that we can’t change,” Olivo says. “An injury is a perfect example of that. It hurts and you can’t engage in things that help you feel better even.”
Be Kind To Yourself Meditation
Acknowledge your suffering. Get centered and focus on feeling compassion for yourself, as you might a needy child. Connect to your breath and send yourself soothing messages: I am experiencing pain right now and I can handle this. I am strong. This shall pass. Fortify trust in yourself and in life. You could end with a wish. Let me accept this and allow my body to heal. Let me let go of this suffering. Let me find peace.