Facing Emotional Turmoil
Yoga and science explore skillful ways to navigate the turbulent after effects of a broken heart.
By Angela Wilson
I’m sitting in the Kripalu dining hall for early morning silent breakfast. I have just had the last of my kitchari and am about to dive into my walnut-maple scone when I see them: my ex and a woman who is obviously his new love interest, sitting there together across the dining room—he gazing starry-eyed at her long dark hair, she sending flirtatious glances across the table to him. They seem to be on a silent second date. Immediately my heart starts to pound. Adrenaline shoots through my veins like tiny rushing rivers; my mind races. Everything else seems to have stopped.
Miraculously amid this whirlwind, I remember to practice. I somehow manage to find the observing ego (what we call “the witness”) in this yoga romance gone awry. I notice that my mouth is dry, and my hands are beginning to shake. My breath seems to stop altogether. My vision has become tunnel-like. I am aware that even though I should probably pull my attention away from the pair, pick up my tray, and leave the room, I seem anchored to the chair as if made of cement. All I can do is continue to shift my focus between them and my plate and back again. My heart continues to beat so loudly I wonder, for a moment, if I might have a heart attack. I think I might cry. Or scream. Or hurl my scone at them like a hockey puck.
I’m apparently in the throes of what researchers call an emotionally dysregulated state, a classic example of what emotion regulation expert James Gross, PhD, from Stanford University’s Psychology Department defines as the inability to “influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express them.”
Yoga has long been interested in skillful ways to navigate the emotional realm, a topic Western science has been a bit slower to explore. But given the undisputed evidence of emotional dysfunction in our culture—19 million Americans suffer from depression; another 40 million from anxiety; 23 million abuse substances; and 93 million are obese—researchers no longer feel they can ignore the topic. They now argue that most of our major mental, physical, political, and cultural problems stem (at least in part) from our inability to get a handle on our emotions. In the midst of our modern high-speed external world, we seem to have lost the ability to regulate our internal one.
While scientists have studied at least 10 different ways we typically regulate our emotions, they gravitate toward three in particular: suppression, distraction, and reappraisal, each of which can move us toward health and insight or toward disease and more suffering. As I went through my own experience, I became achingly familiar with each of these strategies as I tried to manage the feelings engendered by my ex falling in love with someone else.
One month later. I walk toward the dining hall eager to pile my lunch plate with kale and mung dahl. As I enter the dining hall, I look up. Oh no, there they are! My heart starts to race and I can’t tear my gaze from them. For a moment they look at me as well, and all three of us do the uncomfortable foot shuffle. I try to breathe (where is my breath?) but my belly is so tight, I can barely manage it. They turn away, and as they do, my ex softly places his hand on his new lover’s shoulder, and they continue to walk down the lunch line.
Instantly a wave of rage floods my system. I am shocked that I can actually feel this much energy all at once—shocked that a simple gesture can have such a powerful impact. My whole body feels like someone just pumped it with a high voltage electrical charger. I want to scream, throw my tray up in the air, and run out of the dining hall. I’m astonished by these feelings. I am also aware that, as a yoga teacher, a mental health counselor, and a usually kind human being, this is probably not the most skillful action.
I don’t know what to do with emotion this intense. So I shut it down. I can almost feel myself stuffing the feelings back into whatever box they erupted from. The result seems better. I can no longer feel the intensity of the anger. But I can’t quite say I feel at ease or comfortable either. I feel a bit like I just took a huge bite of steak, didn’t chew it well enough, and swallowed it whole. This feeling of undigested food is the feeling of suppression, of not digesting experience.
When it comes to studying emotional regulation, scientists most often choose to investigate suppression, not because it’s the most effective tool—in fact, it’s quite detrimental to one’s physical and mental health—but because so many people use it as their primary strategy. Denying your feelings and disowning them become synonymous with managing your emotions. I’m not upset. No really, I’m fine. The problem is—and famed dancer-choreographer Martha Graham said it best—“the body never lies.” We might succeed in pushing a feeling out of our minds, but we cannot push it out of our bodies. Our bodies know whether or not we have truly processed an experience.
Iris Mauss, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, and Dr. Gross contend that “if emotions are denied expression, they will leak out elsewhere—for example, as increased physiological response.” To test this idea, Mauss and Gross ran a study investigating how people handle their emotions when faced with something unpleasant.
They invited a group of participants to watch a “disgusting” video (imagine a graphic, bloody, organ-exposing operation). Half of the group was asked to suppress their feelings (not show any outward signs of disgust) and the other half was asked to feel and express their emotions as usual. The result? Those who suppressed their emotions reported feeling less disgusted than the other group, but their sympathetic response increased. Translation? While suppressors said they felt fine, their bodies disagreed and signaled a stress response. Researchers went on to replicate this finding not only with difficult emotions, such as disgust, but also with pleasant emotions, such as joy. The results are clear. Whatever we suppress (bad or good) taxes our nervous system and actually makes things worse.
My experience in the dining hall bore this out. I felt no anger or sorrow, but plenty of numbness and disconnection. My digestion became weak and I didn’t sleep well. Stuffing down feelings ultimately drains life force and diminishes well-being.
Two months later. I am still riding some pretty serious waves as I watch my ex and his girlfriend in the halls together. So I switch tactics and decide to find something to distract me from my emotions. Instead of looking at the starry-eyed couple when they pass by, I become fascinated with how many chairs are in the café (33, as it turns out), counting them as I go. The feelings still arise—I’m not trying to suppress what comes up—but I shift my attention to other aspects of experience, such as the color of the wallpaper, for instance. It’s a speckled brown.
Surprisingly, this works. I don’t feel quite as triggered when I see them, and I’m not left feeling as emotionally undigested. But still, each time our paths cross, I experience the same discomfort, and I remain ever vigilant to the possibility of running into them.
Apparently this distraction trick I’ve been using is what emotion regulation researchers call attentional deployment, which Gross defines as “how individuals direct their attention within a given situation in order to influence their emotions.” Studies, which include subsequent brain scans of participants, attest to the fact that focusing attention away from the unpleasant diminishes its intensity. For me, that meant less attention on the happy couple and more attention on the colors in the carpet.
It is easy to see why mainstream culture favors this particular technique. In our media-saturated environment, we need not go far to find something else to pay attention to other than the pain. Lonely? Jump on Facebook. Sad? Twitter away. Anxious? Turn on the TV. Countless ways exist to distract ourselves.
In certain cases, such as physical pain, many psychologists argue that this can be a skillful technique. Neuroscientific research has demonstrated that distraction diminishes limbic (primitive and emotional) responding more than other forms of regulation, making it a beneficial treatment for trauma victims. Trauma therapists encourage their clients to focus not on the intense physical sensations of a flashback but on the minutia of their immediate environment: they may ask them to look around, for example, and name all the green objects in the room.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to see the limitations of this method. At some point we run out of Facebook postings to read, and we can only blog and tweet so much. Eventually we have to turn the computer or the TV off and come face-to-face with whatever feelings drove us to distraction in the first place—and then what? We’re up the proverbial emotional creek without a paddle.
Yogis have long been aware of this distraction technique, but they use it differently. Their instructions: focus on the breath to the exclusion of other stimuli. In the purest sense, this is attentional distraction as well as the foundational first step toward liberation. The main difference between the Western approach and the yogic one lies in the object itself. In order to gain the most benefit from this method, the object needs to diminish disturbance, not create more of it. As Satya Narayana Dasa, founder of the Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies, writes: “Remove disturbance, then there is peace; peace is always present and can’t be created. We can only remove disturbance; then the mind is naturally peaceful.”
Intentionally choosing a peaceful object of focus will help foster mental and physical stability, calm the nervous system, and produce greater ease. In The Wisdom of Yoga, Stephen Cope explains that “as attention holds the object, it becomes very one-pointed. Distracting thoughts are blocked out by the one-pointedness, and mental restlessness abates. This [process] produces a slowing of the brain waves, a calming of the nervous system and the breath, and often the sense of bliss, well-being, and happiness.”
Yogis usually view this technique as a beginning, not as the end result. Yoga teaches us to develop concentration through the breath so that we can then turn this cultivated attention to the mind itself. Instead of using distraction to move away from the pain, yoga encourages us to turn toward it—to see it, feel it fully, and ultimately, to understand it. In doing so, we learn we no longer have to fear pain or push it away. Yoga gives us the tools to manage the experience on its own terms. >>
Three months later. I enter a vigorous yoga class ready to practice. With mat set up, I settle in and wait for class to start. As I come into my first down dog I notice the dreaded girlfriend behind me. My body tightens, and I want to flee. Then I remember the words of many of my own yoga teachers: “Just stay with experience. Watch and observe. Do not identify with the story but embrace the sensation.” I begin to let go of control and just feel. Immediately I’m flooded with a huge wave of grief. I suddenly want to cry. A deep sense of inadequacy mixed with shame arises. My belly feels hot and tight.
I commit to allowing the feelings to happen, but not wanting to disrupt the group, I leave the class and go into the bathroom. Tears erupt, sobs, shaking. My mind races, but I simply notice the thoughts as thoughts, not real. I whisper yes to what arises. I no longer fear it. My torso is pulsing; my whole body feels like it’s on fire.
Emotions rip through me: loneliness, regret, and sorrow. I sob for what seems like an hour and pray that no one comes in to see the puddles of tears at my feet. Finally, after some time, the waves pass, and a deep sense of quiet fills me. I sit in a kind of stillness I have not felt before. The room itself feels different. I feel different. Steadier. Peaceful. Balanced. And tender in the sweetest way. That night I eat with fervor, and I sleep deeply and soundly.
What contributed to this shift? What is it about this process that is profoundly different from the other two approaches I tried? Two major differences are worth noting. First, I’m able to access the witness—my observing ego—which allows me to experience what arises without preference or judgment and without getting swept away.
I begin to understand that all experiences, even the painful ones, are safe to feel. As Stephen Cope writes in response to his own discovery: “I realized that for the first time I really knew—knew in the deepest part of my mind—that I do not have to bend life to my will. I could let go of the need to dominate things, and watch how they unfold instead.” It is through embracing the experience that emotions begin to regulate themselves.
Science doesn’t say much about this concept of embracing, but the available research is striking. In one study, subjects were asked to watch images of people expressing unpleasant emotions. Researchers wanted to know whether focusing on the emotion would produce more regulated states. They had the subjects look at unpleasant faces (those displaying anger or fear). Part of the group was asked to focus and name the facial emotion; the other group was asked to focus and name the person’s gender. The results? Brain imaging and self-report outcomes showed that gazing directly at and naming the facial emotion, even when unpleasant, diminished reactivity in the subjects; that is, they experienced less distress than the other subjects. While this outcome puzzled scientists, yoga practitioners get it: This is the witness. The witness gazes directly at and names what is present.
Looking back on my experience, aligning with the witness—and not with the ever-changing flow of thoughts, sensations, and emotions—allowed me to embrace a different orientation to life. Everything was, in fact, okay, including this muddy, murky, tornado mess that was swirling inside. This change in view—in my particular case, from experience as unmanageable to experience as fully acceptable—is a process scientists call reappraisal.
Reappraisal means changing the way you understand a situation so that it changes your emotional response to that situation. Without realizing it, I had seen my reaction to my ex as the problem, so I had resisted. I shouldn’t be so attached to this person. I should be more loving to them. I should be happy for them! When that intention crumbled, self-judgment took its place. The frame of “should” had actually kept me locked in struggle.
Finally, I got it. Be present to whatever is arising. Naming mental and physical experiences as part of the natural ebb and flow of being human produced a shift in my orientation to the experience itself. I went from thinking there was something wrong with my experience to understanding that I simply needed to show up and witness what was happening. And that shift helped me regulate my emotions.
Scientists report reappraisal as the most effective regulatory technique because, through practice, it does not take conscious effort to employ. Additionally, it comes with a variety of health benefits, such as improved cognition and heightened immune response, diminished limbic activity (primitive emotional responding), and increased cortical activity (the brain region associated with discernment).
Studies show that the elderly make great reappraisers because they’ve lived long enough to know not to take things personally. They interpret situations through a broader lens instead of a “me-centered” lens. Someone passes you in the hall and doesn’t say hello? You are more likely, as an older adult, to interpret that behavior not as a snub but as a reflection of the busyness of the other person’s life. This shift in viewpoint produces less reactivity.
How do we reap the benefits of reappraisal at any age? Researchers may still puzzle over this question, but yoga is one step ahead of them. Simply put, yoga teaches us to pay attention and to cultivate the ability to observe life exactly as it arises without the need to change it.
The witness mind enables the experience to speak to us—as opposed to us trying to exert our will onto the experience. The process of watching the experience itself produces change. There is nothing we need to do. We simply need to have the courage to notice and allow experience to flow through us. In Yoga for a World out of Balance, Michael Stone writes, “In meditative practice, when the mind becomes still without adding anything to experience and without trying to escape from that particular moment, there is a still and lucid clarity that is nothing other than pure awareness….This is the flow of humanness, where, even momentarily, we wake up to what is real and true in a given moment, by means of stillness.”
I still see my ex’s girlfriend from time to time. And to be honest, I still react. But I no longer think there is something wrong with this experience. Now, I simply just note it—oh yes, you again—and then I move on with my day. I don’t get so caught up in it. Maybe at some point I will be completely free of the unpleasant thoughts and emotions, but maybe not. Perhaps real freedom comes from being totally okay with whatever inner conditions emerge, rather than total freedom from all unpleasant experience. Maybe we are all closer to inner freedom than we imagine.
Read Angela’s companion article, Connect With Your Witness Mind, to learn a simple practice that can help you be present with difficult experiences—even as they get intense.
Angela Wilson, MA, manager of evidence-based curriculum for the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu, holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling from Lesley University, is a 200-hour Kripalu Yoga teacher, and has completed 250 hours of ayurvedic training.