Have you ever opened an email at work late on a Friday afternoon that made you feel annoyed and angry? There was no point in replying to the email, as the issue needed to be resolved face-to-face. Feelings and thoughts about the message interfered with your evening and you were still feeling annoyed and having angry thoughts on a Sunday afternoon walk.
Why is it that some emotions, especially negative ones, tend to hang around for such a long time after the event? There’s a saying that positive emotions are like Teflon and negative ones are like Velcro, replaying like a stuck record, extending our suffering for hours, days, and sometimes much longer. Velcro was inspired by the Burdock plant, which has burrs that catch on animal fur and clothing to distribute its seeds. Teflon, one of the slipperiest substances on the planet, is the subject of a controversial industrial cover-up portrayed in the 2019 film Dark Waters.
Emotions are difficult to pin down, as they’re not just one thing. An emotion is a bundle of things that includes feelings, physical sensations, thoughts, and behaviours, like posture and facial expressions. Also, we can experience different blends of emotions at the same time, for instance, a mix of anger and sadness.
Imagine you’ve found yourself waiting in the wrong queue in a supermarket, which is something most of us have experienced at some point. Chances are you’ll start to feel frustrated, a little stressed, hotter around your neck or chest. Maybe you’re starting to frown and having thoughts like, “Why does this always happen to me?” In case you’re wondering if it’s best to change queues, recent research found that people in the last place tended to switch queues and then waited longer. The tendency to switch is motivated by what the researchers call, “last place aversion’, where we feel socially uncomfortable when we’re last in a line.
When left to their natural course, most emotions follow a cycle like a wave: arising, playing out, and dissolving. If only this was how we normally experience emotions. An important area of the brain, called the amygdala, brings together sensory and other inputs that trigger emotional states. One of the surprising things about the amygdala is that it can’t differentiate between a real event in the world, and one triggered by thoughts. This could be because the amygdala, which sits just above the brainstem, is much older in evolution than the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain. When we get stuck in emotions, the amygdala re-energizes the emotional state every time we have another thought about the event. And many unintentional, automatic thoughts are driven by emotions. So, given this evolutionary flaw of the amygdala and our tendency to drift off in thought, it’s no wonder that we sometimes suffer for longer than necessary. As far as we know, humans are the only animals that do this. Apart from serious trauma, when a normal emotion is triggered in an animal, it takes its natural course and is not re-energized after the event.
Many of us have a bit of a blind spot with emotions and from an early age learned to avoid painful emotions. By allowing ourselves to be with emotions as they arise, we’re more able to allow them to dissolve in their own time. The key to managing emotions healthily is to notice emotions as they arise, acknowledging and allowing whatever arises to be just as it is, without avoiding, resisting, or grasping. Turning towards emotions takes awareness and trust. Listening to what the emotion is telling us, trusting that by acknowledging and embracing the emotion, it has done its job and will melt away in its own time. It’s also useful to notice that emotions come and go; emotions are not who we are.
Back to our check-out queue example, adopting a mindful approach means firstly noticing what’s happening, maybe aware of some physical bracing or tightening, noticing any impulse to react, and acknowledging feelings and thoughts that arise. Maybe saying to yourself, “oh, there’s some frustration” and allowing yourself to really connect with the tension with kindness and curiosity. Maybe extending your compassion to the rest of the people in the queue, including the person on the check-out. Remembering to practise patience and acceptance. Also noticing the gap between the emotion and who we are. Most people in the queue are probably also feeling a bit frustrated. You don’t have to take it personally or be defined or limited by this feeling. You notice the tension releasing and begin to feel more relaxed and open. Maybe you even have a little laugh at yourself, at how you were just about to get really frustrated and pleased that taking this more skilful approach made a real difference to your well-being in that moment.
Suggested weekly practice
- Watch your emotions, especially in mundane situations like waiting in a queue in the supermarket.
- Use curiosity to notice sticky emotions, as well as what makes them hang around for longer than necessary.
- As well as noticing feelings, also be aware of and acknowledge thoughts that arise when you experience sticky emotions.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore sticky emotions.