Meditation and Mental Health – Part 2

Hi, everyone. I’m back for the second installment of this five-article series I’ve developed to uncover some of the most valuable ways that meditation can support our mental health. In the last installment, I described how meditation supports the way we relate to our thoughts. (If you missed that article, you can check it out here.) Next, I’ll explore the unique relationship between meditation and emotional health.

As it turns out, meditation and mindfulness can valuably aid us in developing an enhanced relationship with our emotions. They do this in two particular ways. First, they help us learn how to identify rather than identify with our emotions. Second, they help us more effectively regulate our emotions and self-soothe. These are critical skills that, when practiced regularly, can have a meaningful—even life-changing—impact on our emotional health. And it all starts with the fine-tuned awareness that mindfulness and meditation help us cultivate.

As I’ve already mentioned, meditation and mindfulness help us learn how to identify our emotions, rather than identifying with them. This happens as a function of our ability to notice what we’re experiencing in the moment. When we practice meditation and mindfulness, we connect to our experience in the here-and-now, noticing what’s bubbling up within us. We experience our emotions in real time, witnessing their arrival and watching them move through us. This turns out to be a really useful skill—one that can change the way we relate to emotionally charged experiences. You see, research shows that people who can identify their emotions are more capable of coping with them than people who aren’t aware of what they’re feeling. The more understanding we have of our emotional experience, the more effectively we can manage it. When we know what we’re feeling, we’re more capable of being with that feeling and responding to it in ways that support our mental health.

This experience of identifying our emotions is quite different from the experience of identifying with our emotions—something that’s painfully familiar to most of us. Let me use an example to clarify the distinction. Imagine that you’re driving along the highway on your way to work, and another vehicle cuts in front of you unexpectedly. You have to slam on your brakes to avoid a collision, and your treasured morning coffee takes a spill as a result. Instinctively and immediately, anger arises within you. It courses through your body and stirs up a stream of anger-inspired thoughts. You become angry. You are angry. There’s no distinction between the anger and you; you’re identified with the emotion, and it’s taken over your experience. In that moment, your identification with anger might have you react in particular ways. You might curse loudly, scream obscenities, decide that your day is now ruined, or even attempt to seek revenge against the offending driver. With anger in the driver’s seat of your experience, you might say or do a number of things that you might later regret.

When we’re identified with and consumed by an emotion, our thinking is clouded and our actions are limited. We’re in full-on reaction mode, without much consideration for consequences. This is where identifying with our emotions can get dicey—dangerous, even. Where meditation and mindfulness step in and support us is by allowing us to experience our emotions without becoming consumed by them. When we’re present to our in-the-moment experience (a skill we develop through committed and consistent practice), we can lengthen the space between action and reaction. We can deliberately respond to our experiences with a sense of clarity, instead of emotionally reacting based on impulse. When we learn to identify our emotions through meditation and mindfulness, we can notice what we’re feeling, let ourselves experience it, and then intentionally settle ourselves before responding. This challenging practice is remarkably empowering; it can allow us to more masterfully navigate through our lives and manage everything that comes at us.

Meditation and mindfulness have another significant impact on our emotional health: they improve our capacity to manage and regulate what we’re feeling. There’s a common phrase among therapists that you’ve got to feel it to heal it, and there’s a lot of wisdom in that. Denying, resisting, and suppressing emotions is a recipe for disaster. When we refuse to face our emotions, we wreak havoc on our mental, emotional, and physical health. But as I stated earlier, allowing our emotions to consume us is equally unproductive and unhealthy. So how do develop a relationship with our emotions that allows us to feel them without becoming attached to them? Well, that’s where mindfulness and meditation come in. You see, these practices expand our ability to manage our emotions, regulate their expression, and soothe ourselves when we become distressed. But how do they do it?

When we practice meditation and mindfulness, we get present to our experience in the moment. We notice our emotions as they’re coming up, and we allow ourselves to feel them without impulsively reacting to them. We get familiar with the sensations in our bodies associated with certain emotions, and we learn to sit with the discomfort of feeling what we’d rather not feel. This is a remarkably useful practice—one that allows us to more capably manage our emotions. The capacity to self-soothe—in other words, to work through our own difficult emotions and calm ourselves down instead of relying on outside sources (other people, food, substances, etc.) to do it for us—is an important marker of mental health. The more we practice it, the better we become at it; and the better we are at self-soothing, the more capable we are of managing ourselves under even the most difficult of circumstances.

We humans are extraordinarily complex emotional creatures, and our ability to understand what we’re feeling is one of our most adaptive and advantageous features. As you journey through your own meditation and mindfulness practice, consider how you can increase your emotional attunement, thus improving your ability to identify your emotions and self-soothe. Though practice may never make perfect, in this case, it will most certainly boost your mental health and allow you to move through life with more mastery and grace.

I’ll be back soon with the next installment of this five-part series. Be well until then!

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