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Healthy Minds in Practice: Working with Difficult Emotions during the Holidays

Illustration courtesy iStock

The 2020 holiday season is upon us, and you may find yourself experiencing a variety of emotions. Feeling sad, stressed or anxious this time of year is a normal experience, but sometimes these emotions can be overwhelming. This eight-minute practice explores the inner world of our emotions through the lens of curiosity, transforming overwhelming feelings into something that feels more balanced and workable.

Stephanie Wagner

Working with Difficult Emotions during the Holidays

Led by Stephanie Wagner

Hey everybody, this is Stephanie Wagner. I’m a trainer with the Healthy Minds Program and I’m here to lead you in a meditation to help you work with difficult emotions during the holidays.

As we are heading into the holiday season, you may find yourself experiencing a variety of feelings. For the first time in our lives, we are celebrating the holidays during a pandemic. The holidays are different this year, even challenging - leaving many people feeling depressed, lonely and even anxious. Maybe you can’t be with your family or are having political conflicts with your family that you don’t want to face. Maybe you’re even grieving for someone or the life that you wish you could lead right now.

Today we are going to explore the inner world of our emotions, to get curious about them and then begin to transform experiences of being overwhelmed into one that feels more workable and balanced. And just to be clear, we’re not aiming to get rid of the emotions. Feeling stress during this time is normal. They will most likely still be there, but we are going to develop a different relationship with them.

So, let’s get started.

Go ahead and get comfortable. Close your eyes if you like, and take a few slow, deep breaths. This is one of the simplest ways to let the body settle down a bit.

Now, bring to mind a challenging situation that you have encountered or will encounter this holiday. It might be related to your family or something else - something that brings up a difficult emotion. Try and choose a situation that feels workable to practice with but feels workable.

As you bring the situation to mind, notice how you feel as you think about it. What emotions are present? It might be anxiety or anger, or maybe it’s hard to identify. Whatever is happening, see if you can come up with a word or phrase that describes the feeling as you think about that situation.

Now look beyond the label. Labels make feelings sound like they are one thing, but there are so many parts that come together to form emotions.

First, notice what physical sensations are present. What does the emotion feel like in your body? You can use words here to label the sensations if it’s helpful, or simply feel the sensations move through your body. 

As you are doing this you might get lost in thought. When you notice your mind has wandered, return to observing the physical sensations.

Next, notice any thoughts in the mind. Perhaps there is some kind of belief or expectation. Do these thoughts contain images or words? Take a few moments to explore this. If there are no thoughts, you simply allow the mind to rest until something arises.

The objective here is to stay connected to your inner experience with a sense of curiosity and openness and if at any time it feels like it is too much, allow the mind to rest.

Is there an inner tone or attitude that accompanies that emotion? Is it harsh? Kind? Critical? See if you can notice that.

Great. Let go of the inner exploration for a few moments and allow the mind to rest. You can drop all of the doing and simply be.

Go ahead and open your eyes now if they’ve been closed. Notice some of the details of this moment. Take it all in with a sense of appreciation.

As you emerge from your practice, take note of how that was for you and think about how you might be able to use the skill of curiosity when those difficult emotions arise. I’ll give you just a moment to do that now.  

These types of practices are often not easy, but can be really useful in working with life's challenges.

I encourage you to see if you can bring your practice into those moments when those difficult emotions come up, and to get curious. You can notice the complexity of the emotion, the physical sensations, thoughts, the beliefs and the tone of the emotion without trying to get rid of it. Simply see what happens. By applying curiosity, you may develop a very different relationship with what is happening this holiday season. 

Thanks so much for joining me today. I’ll see you here soon for another practice. 

Awareness. Connection. Insight. Purpose. We consider these to be four ingredients of a healthy mind. You can train yourself to improve these skills, just like you can develop any habit. This audio practice is provided by Healthy Minds Innovations (HMI), an external, affiliated nonprofit dedicated to supporting the mission of the Center for Healthy Minds. Want more practices? Try the Healthy Minds Program App.

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