If you are struggling with low moods, challenging emotional landscapes, and chronic negative thinking, you’re not alone. We are living in emotionally turbulent times.
In the wake of each tidal wave of change we continue to experience, we are collectively grieving what once was, and many feel the fear of uncertainty about what’s to come.
What we love and want to hold onto is slipping through our fingers. We love stability; we love feeling a sense of solid ground to stand on. We love to know what’s going on so we can wrap our minds around it, and make sense of it.
So it’s no surprise that this new, unfamiliar, and continuously shifting terrain brings emotional upheaval, and now we’re seeing this reflected in the numbers. More than a third of Americans are currently struggling with depression or anxiety. The pandemic has precipitated the most significant mental health crisis in history, and many of us are wrapping our minds around that.
Almost everyone I speak with is expressing some variation of low moods and low energy levels. I can certainly empathize. For more than two months after I got incredibly sick with a flu virus back in March (I still don’t know if it was coronavirus or not), I struggled with chronic fatigue that spiraled me into depression.
That surely wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve come to know those darker landscapes quite intimately over my lifetime. And even though I have amassed an array of tools to help me through, it can still be challenging to navigate the rough emotional terrain. And without a doubt, the path through the darkness becomes infinitely easier when you know which tools, teachings and techniques to reach for to help make the situation more workable.
One of the most pervasive problems in our culture is that we’re not taught how to effectively “be with” challenging emotions.
I believe that psychedelics and sacred plant medicines have offered me (and countless others) what I consider to be an accelerated training ground to learn how to make peace with, and befriend, the full range of hard-to-face emotional places. The message I keep getting from ayahuasca is that it’s actually imperative, even urgent, that we learn to get comfortable in these emotionally turbulent and scary places.
Why? Because we can’t step out and shine our light to help others until we’ve personally become intimately familiar and comfortable with sitting alone in the darkness–without totally losing our shit.
So in this sense, these challenging inner experiences can be the perfect catalyst for the outer transformation that we seek.
Learning to lean in rather than move away from how we feel can shape us into more resilient, humble, and compassionate change-makers and leaders. Think of this emotional terrain as the perfect training ground for aspiring Bodhisattvas on the path, people who want to wake up, to help the awakening of humanity.
These experiences can make us stronger so we can then reach a hand out and support the many others who are also struggling during these chaotic times of change.
We can learn the tools and techniques to help us surf these tidal waves of changes, or we can keep getting pummeled by them. The choice is ours.
I’d like to share some of the methods that have helped me immensely through depression, drawing upon research in positive psychology, resilience, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and the wisdom traditions, and my own intuitive experience.
This isn’t about “managing” or “getting over” it–although that’s, of course, helpful– but it’s about being willing to go deeper and connect to the wisdom, and even the beauty contained within these darker inner realms. Only by opening to my experience in this way have I been able to receive the gift and the medicine that these challenging experiences have been able to offer me. And I know, I am stronger because of it.
Getting Out From Under Shame
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of shaming ourselves for feeling “bad,” especially when we live in a culture immersed in the endless pursuit of happiness. This narrative encourages us to mask the underlying issues and just “be positive” or take a pill. (I’m certainly not judging anyone who does want or need to take a pill to help the situation.)
I’d love to see the narrative shift around these emotions being “negative”–this just adds to our shame of feeling them.
I don’t think constantly telling people to just “be positive” is helpful either. I think this makes people afraid to be honest and vulnerable about what they are really going through.
I’m actually surprised at how much shame I experienced during the time I felt low moods and depression.
I felt ashamed of being seen like this. I didn’t want to be perceived as “negative.” I felt shame because I know I’m in a much better situation than most people struggling around the world right now. I felt shame around burdening my friends and family by asking for support.
Shaming ourselves doesn’t help anything. In fact, it’s a surefire way to make matters worse. Shame is like attaching a hundred-pound dead weight to your feet when you’re already struggling to stay afloat.
It’s okay to feel how you feel and to give yourself space to feel it. No matter what your life situation, you’re human. We all go through it, and you’re not alone. What about all those smiling faces you see on social media? Many of those people are struggling too.
Shaming yourself for feeling bad can perpetuate that feeling of being cut off and disconnected, which prevents you from reaching for the kind of support that is so crucial during difficult times.
Having support and asking someone to witness you in your process can be so helpful. You can say something like:
“Hey, are you open to holding space for me as I process these feelings without judging me or creating the story that this is who I am?”
“Are you open to holding me while I just sob like a mess, is that okay with you?”
Create a safe space to be held here. And create a safe space to hold yourself through the thick of it. You got this, and you don’t need to feel bad about it.
Understanding The Thinking-Feeling Loop
It can be super helpful to realize how much your thoughts affect your experience of reality, primarily by directly influencing how you feel.
As soon as you have an anxious thought, it triggers an anxious feeling, which also activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response.
This anxious feeling and activation of your nervous system then feeds into more anxious thoughts, creating a momentous feedback loop. From this perspective, it’s easy to see how our mental situation can spiral out of control into catastrophic thinking, fear, and despair.
It’s also important to understand that the fight, flight, or freeze response is a deeply ingrained biological response that has developed over hundreds of thousands of years to ensure our species’ survival. Things have changed enormously since our hunter-gatherer days. Generally speaking, most people no longer have to physically fight for our survival, yet this same biological response is activated all the time. Not by immediate life-threatening situations, but by our thoughts, and worrying about what might happen or what has happened.
Just the thought of being evicted from your home is powerful enough to activate this stress response and hurl you into fight or flight mode. Understandably, the emotions that accompany this stress response are fear, worry, and anxiety.
Once you understand this powerful thinking-feeling loop: thoughts influence emotions, and emotions feedback to influence thoughts, you can start implementing a few useful strategies to help slowly reverse the powerful momentum of this downward spiral. You can interrupt this cycle by either shifting gears at the level of your thoughts (mind), or by consciously creating a shift in your emotions (body) to create a new, more uplifting spiral.
Let’s start by exploring ways to interrupt our thought patterns by working with our minds and then explore a few feeling-based techniques.
When we get stuck in a downward spiral of challenging emotions, it can be hard to step back and take a different perspective. Instead, we often feel hooked or trapped in the loop. We feel saturated in this emotion, and it can feel difficult or challenging to gain some objectivity.
One of the quickest ways to insert some distance from the experience is by learning how to apply the mindset of curiosity. Getting curious about your situation is like picking up an entirely new perceptual lens that allows you to look at, and experience, the situation very differently.
If you’re experiencing an uncomfortable emotion, explore it as if you were a child experiencing it for the first time, exploring with a non-judgment attitude.
One visualization you can use is to sit down and imagine wrapping yourself in a large blanket of self-compassion and loving-kindness. Take a deep breath and bring a lot of understanding and gentleness to the moment.
As if you were a child experiencing this emotion for the first time, get curious and ask:
- What are you here to show me?
- If I were to embrace this feeling, what would that feel like?
- What is the source of this feeling?
- In what part of my body does this feeling exist?
- What is this feeling trying to tell me?
Cultivate An Open Welcome Attitude to Whatever Arises
During this process of curious exploration, see if you can maintain a sense of openness to whatever arises; an open heart, an open mind, and an open, welcoming attitude.
The Buddha taught that the root cause of all of our problems is our chronic tendency to cling to pleasure and avoid pain. We have spent our entire lives strengthening the habit of moving away from what we don’t want to feel. It becomes a knee-jerk reaction that largely remains unconscious, so we don’t see that this is what we’re doing.
It’s counterintuitive, to lean into the discomfort, rather than run away from it, that’s why it requires training. It’s human nature to want to push away what we don’t want to feel, and we’ve spent our entire lives strengthening that habit.
The training then, is to learn how to be okay with whatever arises, while holding a sense of equilibrium. When emotional turbulence wants to knock us off our seat, we just stay, right there in the middle of it, through thick and thin. If it feels uncomfortable, see if you can welcome it in, leaning into it further, rather than moving away from it.
In this process, we’re urging ourselves to continue to make direct contact with the present moment. If you’ve spent even five minutes in meditation, you already know this can be remarkably more challenging than it sounds. But the more we practice, the easier it gets.
You can keep practicing by consciously bringing your awareness back to your breath. This is one of the ways we can train the mind to be more present. The mind wanders, simply notice it, and then gently bring it back. Practicing with a sense of compassion will help immensely in this process of working with your “wild mind.” Just remember that everyone else is dealing with their own wild mind, just like you are.
When you cultivate an open, welcoming attitude to whatever arises, it’s also easier to remember that some of your most challenging emotional landscapes can also be your most significant opportunities for transformation.
The Story I’m Telling Myself Is…
We all tend to forget that who we think we are–our sense of identity– is one enormous made-up story. Everything about how we experience life is driven by the stories we tell ourselves.
Because of our natural tendency to get caught in thinking loops and our absurd tendency to believe what we think, we completely self-identify with the stories we are telling ourselves and accept them as truth.
This is how our fear-based stories can spiral out of control, wreaking havoc on our lives.
You can use a simple cognitive technique to remind yourself that your thoughts are just made-up stories about reality by using the one simple phrase:
“The story I’m telling myself is….”
This allows you to insert some objectivity and allow some breathing room, so your stories don’t suffocate you.
- The story I’m telling myself is…that I’m never going to find another job after coronavirus.
- The story I’m telling myself is…the US is becoming unsafe.
- The story I’m telling myself is… I’m going to have to struggle financially.
This is a simple yet incredibly powerful technique. Researcher and best selling author Brené Brown discovered that people who score much higher on a trait known as resilience use this line on a daily basis.
Once you identify the story, ask yourself:
“Is this story helping or hurting me?”
You can also use the first line from Byron Katie’s “The Work” and ask yourself:
“Is this absolutely true?” Then look for evidence for why it might, in fact, not be accurate.
See if you can notice and identify the labels or the stories you’re creating about an emotional experience. Are you calling it “bad” or “wrong”? See if you can be with what you’re feeling without labeling it at all, and notice how that might change your experience.
Ironically, by stepping back and observing what’s unfolding without controlling or labeling, you may notice the uncomfortable experience starts to morph and transmute into something much more workable.
Reframing & Refocusing
You can also use two powerful cognitive techniques called reframing and refocusing. How can you reframe this story that supports you?
“I don’t really know what will happen, but I know I’ll be okay, and here’s why…”
What evidence can you use to support your new narrative? Use your emotions as your guide. What new narrative feels good, or at least better, in your body?
Refocusing means you become more aware of where you are placing your attention. Is watching the news or spending time on social media fueling the stories that aren’t helping you? How can you shift your attention to focus on something else that can help support your new narrative?
Can you refocus your attention by sharing with someone what you feel grateful for in your life? Can you refocus by going outside for a walk? Or calling a family member or friend to tell them how much you love them?
Thinking Bigger: Asking Higher Reaching Questions
For those of you who have struggled with depression, you know what I’m talking about when I say it feels like the whole world is closing in on you. Sometimes it can feel like being stuck in a small, dark room with nowhere to move.
All of these challenging emotions, like anger, grief, frustration, sadness, and depression, can lead to a severe narrowing of our perspective. This is part of getting caught in the thinking-feeling loop where we go around and around with the same thoughts over and over again, until all of a sudden it feels like our worldview has narrowed to the size of an almond.
One way to break this cycle is by encouraging ourselves to think bigger. We can do this by asking what I call “higher reaching questions” that force us to stretch our minds and open our hearts.
Here are some examples of powerful questions that can drastically open up your perspective and encourage you to move from that narrow perspective, to a more open way of thinking and perceiving:
- What else is possible in this situation?
- How else can I look at this situation?
- What would allow me to feel better right now?
- What kind of support would help me through this?
- If I was to imagine a solution, what could that look like?
- If I was to imagine feeling good in my body right now, what could that feel like?
Drop the Storyline, Connect With the Underlying Energy
If you are mentally spiraling in a way that’s triggering fear, anxiety, or just an overall shitty feeling, see if you can get curious about the physical sensations going on in your body.
Pema Chödrön, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, describes this as “drop the storyline and connect with the underlying energy.”
This means moving out of your mind and into your body. For this practice, curiosity and compassion are yet again, your best allies. Can you drop the story you’re telling yourself about what you’re feeling and directly connect to the underlying energy or emotion you feel in your body? See if you can close your eyes and explore your body from the inside-out. Can you sense the energy moving through your body? What does that energy feel like?
This is such a powerful way to start witnessing the influence your thoughts have over your body and emotional experience.
I have witnessed the transformative power of this practice first hand, on more than one occasion. Once, when I was in the middle of an ayahuasca ceremony, something triggered an intense feeling of jealousy. But because I was in ceremony, there was nowhere to run, and definitely nowhere to react, so I had to just sit with it, like I was sitting in the middle of a raging fire. My thoughts were a swirling mix of rage and blame, and the story I was telling myself was, “I’m not good enough.”
Then I put this practice into action. When I dropped the storyline around it and directly tuned into my body, I realized that underneath the storyline of jealousy was an enormous amount of energy coursing through my body. For the first time, I noticed it as pure, raw life-force. Not good or bad, just energy to work with.
The most amazing part of this experience was that the medicine was directly showing me how my thoughts were affecting me. My mind would drift back to the story and bam; I kicked the wheel of suffering that accompanied the label of jealousy. But when my mind remained focused on the underlying energy, that’s all it was, just energy.
What’s more, when I slightly tweaked the storyline, I could influence the energy to transmute from jealousy into arousal–all based on what was happening in my mind! Now that’s a powerful practice to draw upon.
Reach For the Feeling
Sometimes when we’re stuck in fear, depression, grief or anxiety, it can be challenging to “think our way” out of it, or reach for a reframe that feels genuine.
If this is the case, start by noticing how your thoughts are making you feel. When you tell yourself that everything is hopeless, and nothing is worth the effort (these were some of the thoughts I was having), see how this makes you feel. Chances are, not great.
From there, ask yourself what would feel better? It’s essential that it feels genuine and authentic for you.
One technique you can use is: “I love the idea of…”
Write this at the top of the page or just say it aloud and then let yourself go on a “I love the idea of…” rampage.
Write or say as many things that come to mind. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it makes you feel better.
I love the idea of:
- Waking up in front of the ocean
- Eating a nice meal with my friends
- Relaxing with a good book
- Going for a walk in nature
You can also nudge yourself up higher on the feeling scale by connecting to something you genuinely feel grateful for.
This can also calm your nervous system. This isn’t about suppressing what’s coming up, or pushing away thoughts. You can, however, focus your thoughts in a way that’s supportive in that moment.
We all have something or someone in our lives that we feel deeply grateful for. I know it can be hard to find those things when we’re working through challenging emotional landscapes, but the more you train your mind to start paying attention to them, the more you’ll start noticing them.
Mindful Awareness of Breath
I know it sounds so simple, almost too good to be true, but learning how to drop the storylines of the future and the past and bringing your attention to the present moment by using your breath as an anchor point is incredibly helpful.
One breathing technique called “box breathing” or “four square breathing” is so effective for calming the fight-or-flight stress response, it’s taught to Navy SEALs. This technique puts the breaks on the sympathetic nervous system and helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for relaxation.
Get comfortable sitting or lying down, and feel free to close your eyes or keep them open.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose while counting to four. Focus on feeling the air through your nose and into your lungs.
- Now hold your breath while counting to four.
- Then slowly exhale for four.
- Then repeat, ideally, at least 4-6 times.
Connecting to Our Common Humanity
I’ll never forget the moment, back in my early twenties, while I was listening to Pema Chödrön talk about how to work with the challenging emotional places that are often so hard for us to face.
I was going through such a challenging time in my life, and I can remember feeling on the edge of my seat waiting for her to offer advice as she talked about some of the very first steps we need to be willing to take. I was thinking to myself: “Tell me! I’ll do anything not to feel this way!”
Then she started talking about the necessity of reaching out from the “cocoon” as she called it–that small dark place we get caught in–and learn how to reach out and connect with our fellow human beings. I remember thinking to myself: “Really? That’s it? That’s what I should do to help me?” It was the last thing I felt doing.
But the more I have explored this over the last fifteen years, the more I see the wisdom in this. I know firsthand just how strong the tendency is to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and disconnect further. It has been so transformative for me to recognize that my healing is a dynamic process that unfolds in relation to other people. We are all connected, and realizing this is not only helpful, but crucial to our healing.
Isn’t this what the pandemic has also taught us? It’s shown us the core necessity we all have for human love, affection and connection.
We already know that cultivating strong relationships is one of the best ways to strengthen resilience. Staying connected to those we love directly contributes to our emotional and mental health and well-being.
Sometimes, we might not feel ready to pick up the phone and call a friend or let someone into our situation. That’s okay.
There are styles of meditation that encourage us to connect to this shared sense of our common humanity through the portal of our mind and heart. These practices soften us. They allow us to drop our defenses and connect to the tenderness that lives within each of us.
Maitri is one of these practices. It’s a loving-kindness meditation that is so helpful in a wide variety of situations.
To connect to this sense of Maitri, think about someone you love whom you’re grateful for in your life. Someone who immediately warms your heart. Picture their face in your mind’s eye. I always think about my mother or my cat, whom I adore.
See if you can genuinely connect to the feeling of gratitude and appreciation for this person (or pet) and even consciously send them love. You may even want to take a moment to express your gratitude for them internally or out loud.
You can send them an aspiration, anything that feels genuine:
“May you feel free from suffering and pain. May you feel peace, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy and loved.”
Then direc that loving-kindness that you just generated and direct towards yourself, offering yourself the same aspiration for healing, health and love.
When working with really challenging emotions, there’s another variation you may want to try.
Let’s say you’re working with fear. See if you can connect to that feeling while imagining yourself wrapped up in a big blanket, like loving arms holding you in a gentle embrace.
Imagine all the people all over the world who might also be feeling fear. As you rest there, see if you can connect to a genuine heartfelt aspiration that all beings be free from the fear you’re currently experiencing.
You know how scary or challenging it can be to work with fear. So you hold the aspiration that everyone be free from this kind of suffering.
On the inhale: “May all beings everywhere be free from fear, and all the suffering that fear often brings with it.”
On the exhale: “May all beings everywhere come to know inner peace and inner calm.”
Often, we can discover deep levels of healing by connecting to our shared, common humanity, and recognizing we’re all in this together. We are all human. Depression or fear doesn’t care what nationality or race you are or how much money you do or don’t have in your bank account. These are emotions that all humans experience, and recognizing this can also help dissolve the illusion of separation that is currently fueling out of control.
No matter what your situation, remember that this moment in time will pass. You are strong and resilient enough to make it through these emotionally turbulent times.