Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Letting Go of Unpleasant Emotions with Relaxation and Mindfulness

In previous posts, I have discussed the subjects of relaxation and mindfulness. In this post, I want to explain how relaxation and mindfulness work together to help you let go of unpleasant emotions that arise from cognitive processes (emotions that arise from organic causes are a different matter and are outside the scope of this article).

Relaxation activates the body's parasympathetic nervous system and deactivates the sympathetic nervous system. This turns off the stress response in the body. When you are completely relaxed and the stress response is off, you are not experiencing any unpleasant emotions.

Mindfulness deactivates the default mode network in the brain. The default mode network is active when the mind is wandering and thinking about the past or future etc. And when the default mode network is active, emotions can get out of control and feed on themselves amplifying their effect. However when the default mode network is inactive, emotions are not amplified, they are reduced to faint shadows that hardly cause any trouble.

Relaxation and mindfulness work well together. It is easier to be mindful if you are relaxed. It is easier to stay relaxed if you are mindful.

One aspect of the stress response is to become fixated on the source of stress. When the source of stress is emotional, this tendency toward fixation draws you into the default mode network where emotions become amplified. Relaxation helps break the fixation caused by stress and makes it easier to keep the default mode network inactive.

Mindfulness deactivates the default mode network which keeps emotions from amplifying, producing emotional pain, and causing a stress reaction.

There are various ways to practice relaxation and mindfulness together.

  • Do relaxation exercises. The attention needed to do relaxation exercises is a form of mindfulness.

  • Focus your attention on the pleasant feeling of relaxation while you breathe in a relaxing way. You can do this as a form of meditation or while you are doing other activities. Notice if your mind wanders, or if you feel stronger emotions, or if you feel stress, and when you do, try to restore relaxation and focus.

  • Try to relax while doing mindfulness exercises. To relax, breathe in a relaxing way, notice the pleasant feeling of relaxation as you inhale and exhale, and move in a relaxed way if you are active. Mindfulness exercises can be as simple as being aware of what you are doing as you are doing it, or noticing all the sensations that come into your awareness, or focusing you attention on your surroundings. You can do mindfulness exercises as a form of meditation or while you are doing other activities such as taking a walk or washing the dishes.

This article is about letting go of unpleasant emotions. There are also times when it is helpful to let out emotions, ie. to explore their source.

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