Here we are at the end of the year. Instead of feeling like things are winding down, I’m feeling the pressure of having a lot of things suddenly on my plate. End of year meetings, gift shopping, travel planning, 2020 business planning, personal things (there are always personal things)… it makes me feel very closed in. Tight.
A few years ago I picked up a beautiful practice from Dr. Rick Hanson in a course I was taking. Use the following steps to help manage feelings of stress and overwhelm.
Let Be. Let Go. Let In.
Step 1: Let Be
When you find yourself starting to feel any kind overwhelming emotion (stress, anger, fear, etc.), rather than push against it or attempt to shove it to the background try to find a few moments to take it all in.
Notice how these feelings land in your body. Are they located somewhere specific? Do they have a color, a texture, or even a sound associated with them? What’s it like to let your feelings be as they are without being interfered with?
I know this is counterintuitive, but neuroscience research is showing that when we stop trying to hyper-manage our emotions, their intensity tends to diminish. They lose their bite and just become part of the endless stream of all kinds of feelings that are always coming and going within us.
Buddhists use a lot of ocean metaphors to illustrate this phenomenon.
Imagine that the totality of your experience is like a vast ocean and that these present moment feelings are just single raindrops. The sea is undisturbed by single raindrops.
We can host a wide bandwidth of feelings if we embody the qualities of the ocean.
Step 2: Let Go
Once you’ve diffused the intensity of the feelings by letting them be, see if you can let go of any physical tension in the body that may also be present.
Try to soften around the feelings. Or imagine that you’re giving them a bit more space. Take a few deep breaths, and on the exhalation imagine that any incorrect or unhelpful beliefs about the feelings are leaving your body and being absorbed into the ocean.
Visualizations are potent tools for “hacking” your brain. While parts of our mind understand that visualizations aren’t real, unconscious parts of our brain don’t actually know the difference between something that is happening and what we imagine. This is one of the reasons why stress is so harmful over the long run. Visualizing the release of tension and negative thoughts is a powerful tool for taking command of your inner atmosphere.
Important note: you aren’t trying to dismiss the feeling itself. Instead, you are letting go of the “extra” that we all tend to add in such as: reading more into the situation than is there, assuming the motivations of others involved in the situation, believing the situation is exactly like the last time you felt this way… etc.
Step 3: Let in
In the spaciousness you’ve just created in your mind, invite positive thoughts and feelings to pour in.
Notice things in your actual environment that are pleasing. Look around where you are. Can you feel into a bit of gratitude that you are in a safe space, protected from the elements? Or maybe you notice beauty in the natural environment around you.
You might also try recalling a positive experience. Or create a vision of where you’d like to be.
Once you have connected with something that feels beneficial and nourishing, imagine yourself soaking up the goodness of that experience.
This practice isn’t about sugarcoating or willfully overlooking your struggles or putting on rose-colored glasses. We’re not trying to gloss over real hardships and the feelings associated with them.
Instead, we’re trying to embody the limitlessness of the ocean so that our challenges don’t overwhelm us.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook, Instagram, or www.sati.yoga. I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.