Saturday, January 29, 2022

Rethinking How to Deal With Painful Emotions



In my last column I introduced Rethink as a line of defense against stress. Rethink works by helping you manage the troubling thoughts and painful emotions that are linked to your potential stressors. Remember, what your mind tells you about potential stressors, and your ability to cope with them, determines whether or not they trigger a stress response. In this column I want to introduce you to a new way of dealing with painful emotions. 

Emotions are impulses to act. They force you to stop, assess any potential threat, and then act, all within a split second. Some of the stronger emotions like fear and anger are very threatening and can trigger the fight or flight response all by themselves. One of the cornerstones of my work with students and clients is using Japanese psychology techniques drawn from Naikan and Morita therapy. These two forms of Japanese psychology incorporate a uniquely Eastern approach to understanding and managing emotions that is influenced by Buddhism. The following five principles are derived from the work of David K. Reynolds, the person most responsible for bringing Morita therapy to the United States. They are taken from his 2002 book, “Constructive Living.”

Principle # 1. Your feelings are not controllable by your will.

While you can learn how to identify what you are feeling, and even understand how it relates to your stress, you can’t switch feelings on and off with your willpower. Feelings arise on their own, they come and go. You cannot will yourself to feel something you don’t feel. You cannot directly control them by your sheer will power alone.

Principle # 2. You must recognize and accept your feelings for what they are.

Since feelings come and go on their own, and they are beyond your ability to control, it doesn’t make sense to feel responsible for them and feel guilty about being unable to control them. Rather than feel guilty or responsible for your feelings it is better to simply note what you are feeling, accept this, and move on.

Principle # 3. Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses.

Even though you cannot control your feelings, you can use them as a catalyst for action. Acknowledging that you are feeling guilty, for instance, can motivate you to avoid doing something that will compromise your values or morals. Realizing that a situation makes you feel afraid can motivate you to take action and seek a safe place.

Principle # 4. Your feelings will fade in time unless you re-stimulate them.

Feelings, both positive and negative, will fade over time. Unless you do something to re-stimulate them, like constantly analyze them, your negative feelings will start to fade. “Working on” your feelings by trying to control, avoid, or eliminate them only makes them last longer.

Principle # 5. Your feelings are influenced by your behavior.

Feelings change in response to behavior. While you can’t control your feelings, you can control your behavior. You can control the way you act in response to your feelings. For example, you don’t have to lash out at a loved one just because you are angry at someone else. You also can stimulate positive emotions by doing something that you know will trigger them. For example, when I am sad I go for a run on the beach, something that always makes me happy.

Morita Therapy, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) found that since you cannot control or understand the origin of your emotions, working on trying to control them is a colossal waste of time and energy. It is better to acknowledge them, accept them for what they are, and shift your focus off of them and onto what you can control, your behavior.

The following exercise, Six Step Action Plan for Coexisting With Your Feelings, is taken from my “Rethink” home study course. It is designed to teach you a simple technique for recognizing, accepting, and coexisting with your painful emotions. It incorporates principles and practices from both ACT and Morita therapy.


1. Pay attention to the stressful emotions you experienced this week. You can use your stressor journal (discussed in an earlier column) to help you keep track of them.

2. Pick a situation where your emotions got the best of you and contributed to your stress.

3. Use the following six steps to help you manage them:

Step 1. Identify the feeling – pay close attention to exactly how the emotion feels in your body and make note of it in the following non-judgmental manner (using giving a group presentation as an example):

“Isn’t this interesting, I am getting anxious again. I notice that whenever I have to give a group presentation, I feel this way. My neck muscles start to tighten, my hands get clammy, and I start to breathe more rapidly and in a shallow fashion.”

Step 2. Accept the feeling – you don’t want to feel this way but you accept it and tell yourself the following:

“I am definitely feeling anxious. I don’t like it and would rather not feel this way. I guess it is normal to feel like this when I have to stand up in front of a work group and give a presentation.”

Step 3. Tell yourself that you can co-exist with these feelings and still take action – your feelings do not have to control your behavior. Move forward by telling yourself:

“I can give this presentation despite my tight neck muscles, clammy hands, and rapid breathing. I’ll just slow down, take a drink of water to settle myself, and give my presentation. I won’t enjoy it but there are lots of things I do that are less than enjoyable but need to get done.”

Step 4. Redirect your focus – rather than focus on your emotions, redirect your focus to behaviors you can engage in. For instance, in this example you can make sure that you improve your notes and know your subject inside and out. You can practice your talk in front of a mirror or a couple of friends. You can develop audiovisual aids and other props that take some of the focus off of you as you speak. Lastly, you can bring back-up materials just in case your primary audiovisual aids fail.

Step 5. Get physical – rather than ruminate over your painful emotions, do something physical. If you are home, be sure to get in some vigorous physical activity. If you are at work, take a break and walk a few flights of stairs. If your worksite has a fitness facility, get in a workout.

Step 6. Reinforce your ability to co-exist – remind yourself that you can give a productive presentation despite being anxious. Your feelings do not have to control your behavior. Repeat what you told yourself in step 3. In time, becoming more mindful of your painful feelings and practicing co-existing with them will become part of your daily routine. This will probably not eliminate the troubling feelings but will reinforce your ability to be productive despite them.

In the meantime remember to Stress Less and Live More.

Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more.

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