How to process emotions

Last week I wrote that the first step to processing difficult emotions is to notice them and name them.

And then what?

Before I tell you one of my favorite strategies for processing feelings, I want to make an important distinction – the difference between addressing a situation, and processing the emotions that arise from it.

The first one we do with our minds. We problem solve. This could look like having a difficult conversation, making a decision, setting boundaries, or leaving a situation. 

Most of us stop here. 

Yet just because we have dealt with a situation, it doesn’t mean that the emotions will automatically go away. 

We might know intellectually that things are ok, but we don’t feel that way.

That’s because emotions are in the body, and so we have to process them in the body. That’s how we can complete them and actually digest them. 

So here is one of my preferred strategies.

Once I notice and name what I am feeling, I find an appropriate time and place to sit and pause for a few minutes. 

I focus on my body. I notice how the emotion feels, I get to know it. I describe the sensations, the experience of it. I breathe into it with long and slow belly breaths. I pay attention to the sensations again and keep going there. It can be uncomfortable, and yet I stay there a while longer. If I notice myself starting to think about the situation again, I bring back my attention to the body. Shifting from mind to body. 

Many times, I experience a shift in my feelings after a few minutes. But even more importantly, I regain the needed perspective and distance to then act in the best way possible.

Only then, I decide if there is anything else I want to do about the situation that triggered my feeling. Or if I need additional help to process this feeling fully, when it feels too big to address alone. Or if I need to reframe the situation in a useful way. And if the answer is yes to any of those, I plan the next step with intention and from a centered and calm place.

Of course I still react sometimes. And I probably always will. But I don’t let emotions accumulate unseen, I don’t look away, I address them. I choose consciously what to do with them.

It’s not perfect. It’s a practice and it will probably always be messy. But it is still powerful.