Being Mindful With Emotional Discomfort

In my recent series of articles on the sacramental imagination I have been exploring how it’s possible to recognize God’s presence in all of life. I have been urging my readers to begin seeing all of life—from when we get out of bed in the morning to when we brush our teeth at night—as occasions for communion with God. I have suggested that we can begin to great all our experiences—from a baby’s laugh to a splash of rain on our cheek—as occasions of wonder and grace. It is possible to learn to hear God’s voice, not just in times of prayer, but in a stranger reaching out to us in need, or even in our own heartbeat and silent breathing. Even by simply being physical we can participate in the life of God, for as David Fagerberg beautifully puts it, “the Incarnation was a sanctification of our bodies as well as our souls, and the supernatural settles, as a dewfall, upon every natural thing.”

If you are new to this blog and haven’t been keeping up on this series, here are links to the main articles in this series on the sacramental imagination.

In the present article, I want to take things in a new direction and apply some of these principles to the issue of pain and emotional discomfort. I will be suggesting that the invitation to be fully present in whatever we are experiencing (a point I developed in ‘Eating and Breathing Sacramentally‘) is something we can apply to times of pain no less than experiences of joy.

I’d like to begin by asking two questions, aimed at challenging how you think about pain. By “pain” I mean both physical pain as well as emotional discomfort, as both activate the same regions of the brain.

The first question is this: if you could choose between not having any pain at all vs. increasing your pain threshold (that is, your capacity for bearing with pain), what would you choose?

Secondly, what would you rather experience: a lot of pain that you are able patiently to bear vs. a little pain that sends you out of control?

Keep those questions in your mind because we will return to them in a minute.

Leaning Into Pain

The sixth-century Christian leader, St. Dorotheos of Gaza (also known as St. Dorotheus of Palestine or Egypt) had occasion to mentor members of the desert community where he served. Some of the young men he mentored had a tendency, upon getting distressed, to begin “seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves.”

Does that sound familiar? How many times do we respond to emotional troubles by being annoyed at ourselves, or trying to analyze all the reasons why we feel like we do, but only tormenting ourselves in the process?

What is even more interesting is the advice St. Dorotheos offered to someone who finds himself in this position. He taught that sometimes it is necessary to lean into, and be present with, our pain instead of trying to escape from it. He compared this to an experienced swimmer who is confronted with a threatening wave. If the swimmer embraces the wave by ducking under it, then the wave will eventually pass over and he will emerge unharmed. If, however, the man sets himself against each threatening wave, he will merely be pushed back and prevented from making headway. In a similar way, St. Dorotheos explained, when we find that temptations and painful experiences are crowding in upon us, we should not let ourselves become disturbed by what is happening, nor should we try to make ourselves feel better through over-analyzing it. Instead, we should be like the swimmer who leans into the difficulties and continues struggling forward. (Read the saint’s entire quotation here.)

St. Dorotheos’ wisdom can apply to a wide range of experiences, including intense emotional pain. And this gets us back to the two questions I asked earlier. Often when we find ourselves facing external and internal difficulties, our first reaction is to try to do something to lessen the intensity of our discomfort and make us feel better. An alternative approach is that instead of trying various means to lessen our discomfort, we can instead focus on increasing our ability to bear with that discomfort. To do that, however, we need to be able to lean into and be present with our pain.

Leaning into emotional pain often requires us to first change how we think about pain. When we suppress uncomfortable feelings this is often because we have assumed that they represent a threat to our ultimate well-being, a parenthesis in God’s plan for us. Being able to lean into our pain involves learning to recognize that all things, including suffering, are part of God’s good purpose for our lives. As Paul reminded the Christians in Corinth, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

There are many ways a person might go about suppressing painful emotions, including defense mechanisms like morbid introspection, control, criticism, denial, distraction, comfort eating and substance abuse. Sometimes we suppress our pain by converting it into another emotion, such as anger or resentment. But suppressing painful emotions only makes them stronger. Dr. Shilagh Mirgain from UW Health compares suppressing emotions to a beach ball we are trying to keep under water. Eventually, the pressure of all the air in the ball will cause it to shoot up to the surface even higher than before. As Dr. Mirgain explains, “what we suppress persists.” Instead, Dr. Mirgain recommends we treat painful emotions like a friend who is upset.

Stop and ask yourself how you would respond to a friend who comes to you in pain. I’m assuming you wouldn’t respond to your friend by saying, “stop feeling that!” Nor would you try to numb away your friend’s feelings by encouraging her to keep busy and distracted. Instead, you would make yourself completely present to your friend and her experience. You would receive your friend’s difficult feelings with an open heart. What if we had the same hospitality towards ourselves when we struggle with difficult emotions? What would it be like if we responded to our own pain by offering the hospitality of our total presence? To take this approach with ourselves means learning to simply sit with uncomfortable feelings without judgment. It means learning to observe painful emotions instead of trying to prematurely foreclose on them through defense mechanisms like morbid introspection. It means letting go of blame and criticism against those who may have contributed to our pain. It means learning to observe our present-moment experience with loving attention, recognizing that even suffering is occurring within the context of God’s providential care for us (Romans 5:3-5).

As you lean into your painful feelings, you could ask questions such as the following:

  • What am I feeling right now? Examples of common emotions include sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, shame. Sometimes we don’t know what we are feeling, and that’s okay too.
  • How are these emotions impacting my thoughts? By noticing how your emotions are impacting your thoughts, you can begin to treat those thoughts as something outside yourself and to let them go. Just because a thought pops into your head doesn’t mean you have to believe it. Common thoughts associated with painful emotions include things like “How long is this going to last? How are these feelings going to impact the quality of my life?”
  • Can I receive even these difficult emotions with love and self-compassion? Remember, try to treat your painful feelings with the same hospitality you would show to a friend who came to you with her painful emotions.
  • How are these emotions impacting my body? Once you’ve noticed how an emotion is impacting your body, focus on that part of your body with loving attention.

This last point requires further elaboration.

The Power of Simply Noticing

In an earlier post I shared how all emotions correlate with certain physiological states. Painful emotions are no exception to this. Sometimes painful emotions are expressed with a sensation of adrenaline in the chest, a feeling of emptiness in the gut or heart, a tensing of the muscles in the neck, and so on. Once you recognize how your emotions are impacting your body, you can respond with hospitality to these difficult feelings by offering your attention to these physical sensations they produce.

It might be easier to understand what this type of attention looks like if we take an example of pure physical pain. Suppose I asked you to squeeze your hand over an ice cube and to see how long you can hold it before having to let go. (You can actually try this if you want, or you can simply imagine it as a thought experiment.) Even people with a high pain threshold will have to let go of the ice cube once the pain becomes overwhelming. This is a natural response since pain-avoidance is a basic human instinct. But now let’s suppose that on another day I asked you to grab an ice cube while adopting a mindful attitude towards the pain. Relax into the painful feeling and just be present with it. Observe the painful qualities as they begin to overwhelm your system. Notice the cold in your hand. Pretty soon, instead of merely feeling pain, the pain will be broken down into parts: a burning sensation in your hand, a feeling of numbness in your arm, a dizziness throughout your entire system, and so forth. Objectively observe this sensations in a non-reactive way. Also objectively observe your mental and emotional reactions to the pain, including any feelings of resistance like “This is so intense I can’t take this any longer!”. As you observe these reactions, respond with understanding and compassion but without judgment (examples of judgment would be “this is a terrible experience!” or “I’m so bad at enduring pain” or “this is going to permanently harm me”).

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, people who do this experiment find that by being mindfully present with pain they can persevere much longer with it. A similar approach has had success in helping people suffering from chronic pain. When sufferers are able to transition from a catastrophizing mentality to an approach of acceptance, their level of functioning has been shown to greatly improve.

This same principle applies to emotional pain. Associate professor of psychology David Cresswell has been using his lab at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study how people interact with unpleasant experiences. It was recently reported in Time Magazine that Cresswell’s findings are showing that “learning how to sit with unpleasant experiences and thoughts and just explore them with acceptance, interest and nonjudgement may be the key to reducing stress and improving health.”

Other research confirms that helping people embrace their emotional state is correlated with areas of the brain associated with greater long-term wellbeing and happiness.

These findings have been leading researchers to rethink their understanding of mindfulness. Ever since Jon Kabat-Zinn began his successful course of mindfulness-based-stress-reduction in the late 70’s, researchers have been wondering if mindfulness could yield similar results as an intervention for depression. But the evidence has been mixed. In a September 2018 edition of Time Magazine, journalist Kate Rope reported a recent study from Zindel Segal showing that there was no relationship between mindfulness meditation and a decrease in depression. But Rope went onto report that when Segal and his team taught depressed patients the skills of observing their feelings without being sucked into the content, there was a significant decrease in depressive symptoms.

In a 2014 talk for TEDx, Segal explained about the framework behind this ground-breaking treatment. Whereas other treatments for depression usually aim at eliminating sadness, Segal and his team tried to change people’s relationship to their sadness. (Recall the opening two questions I posed.) “We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness,” he explained. “We weren’t interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was to help people develop a different relationship to their sadness…. How can people work with sadness, not by eliminating it, but by having a different relationship to it?”

In practice, what this involved was helping depressed people lean into their pain instead of judging and reacting to uncomfortable emotions. Segal compares this to the way we can make ourselves fully present to physical sensations. For example, we can become fully present to having a foot by observing our foot, feeling it, noticing the sensations that arise from wiggling our toes, mindfully observing the foot without judgment, and so forth. In the same way, we can also make ourselves fully present to uncomfortable emotions like sadness. This involves attending to our present-moment emotions and the sensations those emotions produce, leaning into them without judgment or reaction. The aim of this intervention is not to decrease the pain, but rather to increase a person’s capacity for being present with discomfort.

An fMRI scanner measures blood flow to different parts of the brain

The really intriguing part of Segal’s research emerged when participants who were taught this technique—known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy—were put in an fMRI scanner measuring brain activity. Once each participant was inside the fMRI scanner, a state of mild sadness was induced. These results were then compared to the brains of people who had not been taught to lean into their pain, but who had also been induced to feel sad while in the fMRI scanner.

For the group of participants who had not been taught to be mindfully present with their emotions, the brain’s executive control network showed significant activation. This is the part of the brain that reacts to sadness by evaluating and problem-solving. The executive control network leads us to ask questions like, “What do I need to do about these feelings? Is this sadness a threat? How is this sadness affecting me? What else does this sadness bring to mind?” Significantly, this increase in the executive control network was associated with a decrease in the insula—the neuropathway associated with present moment awareness and perception. This would be like thinking about your foot instead of simply noticing and experiencing it. The fMRI results shows that these patients had showed very little awareness of how the sadness was impacting their body. This is a normal way of reacting to pain and it is rooted in our survival systems.

By contrast, when those who had been taught to be mindfully present with uncomfortable emotions were put in the fMRI scanner, there was greater balance between these two neuro-networks. When the state of mild sadness was induced, activity in the executive control networks went down and activity in the insula went up. The insula, remember, is the channel for present moment perception, the part of the brain that allows us to work with the sensations we experience. These patients were able simply to be present with the sensations of sadness instead of trying immediately to eliminate them. As a result, they were able to exercise greater control over their reactions to the emotions and had a wider space for selecting appropriate cognitive responses to their pain.

This was not just an isolated study. The mindfulness-based cognitive approach for dealing with pain has been tested with thousands of people in numerous randomized clinical trials through numerous studies worldwide. It reduces relapse of depression by about 43% and has shown to be just as effective as taking anti-depressants. These findings have contributed to a paradigm shift in mindfulness studies, leading to what is sometimes referred to as “third wave CBT.” But it is really just a rediscovery of what Saint Dorotheos of Gaza taught when he helped monks move into a state of acceptance through leaning into their tribulations like a swimmer embracing the wave.

From Theory to Practice

This may all sound a bit theoretical, and some readers may wonder what the approach of leaning into pain actually looks like in practice. It’s simple: the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with painful emotions, sit somewhere quietly where you can be alone and just start noticing how the feelings are affecting your body, just as in the earlier ice cube experiment. Be present with your pain and all the sensations that come with it. It’s even okay if you need to cry. Don’t judge yourself for what you’re feeling, and don’t make things worse by catastrophizing. Rather, respond to your feelings with understanding and compassion just like you would receive a friend in pain. None of this will make the pain go away. In fact, sometimes the pain will get worse because you will no longer be suppressing it. But you may find your attitude towards the pain beginning to change. As with the ice cube experiment, you may find your pain transforming: anger may dissolve into sadness; worry and anxiety may dissolve into fear of rejection; pride and defensiveness may dissolve into vulnerability; possessiveness and control may dissolve into fear of abandonment. Or maybe the emotions will simply stay the same, but by approaching the pain with mindfulness instead of suppression, you will be enabling them to run their course and increasing your ability to be present with pain.

Ron practiced this type of mindfulness after his girlfriend, Julia, broke up with him. After the initial shock of the break-up died down, Ron entered a period of low-level depression. Every time he thought about what had happened his mind raced a hundred miles per hour. He tried to push the distributing thoughts away but this only made things worse. The emotions he was feeling distressed him.

After a week of emotional turbulence, Ron decided to phone up his youth pastor, Alex, to share some of his struggles. The next morning Ron and Alex met for breakfast at Denny’s. During the course of the conversation, Alex suggested that Ron adopt a mindful approach to his emotions. Alex had been reading Tara Bennett-Goleman’s 2001 book Emotional Alchemy and had brought the book with him to the restaurant.

“Let me share a passage with you from this book,” Alex said. “I brought this book with me this morning because I thought something from it might be able to help. Although it isn’t a Christian book, it really gets to the heart of what Christians mean when they talk about exercising hospitality towards difficult emotions.”

Here’s the passage Alex read out to Ron.

“By becoming mindful we can drop the compulsion to try to make disturbing thoughts go away, to agitate ourselves by worrying, or to try to make things better or in any way different. We can be with life just as it is, observing completely what happens, without immediately trying to change it. This is not a detached observation but an intimate connection with what we are experiencing inside. Simply being, without reacting, is in itself calming, and we can bring this inner attitude to whatever comes up in our lives…. When we look directly at intense or painful emotions, we develop a kind of courage and acceptance of how things are naturally unfolding in our experience. At such moments, we’re not driven by hope or fear, not likely to repress the pain, to distract ourselves to avoid it, or to hope for something to happen so we won’t have to feel what we fear. Instead, when we face the fear directly, we see that we’re probably more afraid of our concept about how distressed we will be than the actual experience of feeling it. Confidence and patience grow from this bold, challenging awareness.”

As Alex read this passage, Ron sipped his coffee, taking it all in. After breakfast was over Ron had to go to work, but he determined that when he got off work that evening he would try to put this advice into practice. He had taken a picture of the quotation with his iPhone and read it again a couple times at work.

Throughout the day, Ron continued to struggle with depressed feelings and the negative ruminations they triggered. He was relieved when work finally ended and he was able to return to his apartment. After turning off his phone, Ron sat comfortably, just breathing deeply and being present with his painful feelings. As soon as his mind stopped racing, he found himself holding back tears. Instead of fighting against how he was feeling, however, he continued to just be present with his emotions. A few minutes that he finally realized what he had been feeling for the last few weeks. The break-up with Julia proved he was unlovable! Once Ron realized this is what he had been feeling, he began arguing against his feelings and criticizing Julia in his mind. But remembering what Alex had shared with him, Ron let go of these scripts and returned to just being present with his emotions without reacting to them. He noticed where the emotions could be felt in his body and focused his attention on those sensations without judgment.

Over the next few days Ron was able to work through how he was feeling and to bring objectivity and self-compassion into his thought-life. The next evening Ron practiced this type of mindfulness again, but this time he had a remarkable experience. After sitting still for about five minutes, he felt as if Jesus was there going through the pain with him. In Ron mind’s eye he could see Jesus there, putting his arms around him and assuring him of His love.

Places of Loveliness and Hope

When I think about leaning into pain—whether physical pain or the pain of emotional discomfort—I always think about my friend, Ruth van den Broek. As I’ve mentioned before, Ruth has been struggling with a debilitating terminal disease. Through her daily suffering, Ruth has learned to receive all the experiences God sends her—from the mundane to overwhelmingly painful—as permeated with God’s sacramental presence.  In a March 2018 interview for Woman Alive, Ruth was asked about being a Christian with a degenerative disease. She explained that by being fully present with her pain and brokenness, God is able to transform it and make Himself known to her.

“My life is filled with mundane tasks and bodily brokenness, and it’s easy to think that there is nothing of value here. But, as one of my favourite quotes says, ‘God comes to us disguised as our life’ [Paula D’Arcy] and that transforms everything. God is here making himself known to me in the long hours of physiotherapy, the tears of pain and confusion, and the dark nights of the soul which can seem unending. The fact that God is here doesn’t take away the reality of the mundane, the brokenness or the darkness, but it means that they are places I can know God and that fact brings beauty, loveliness and hope to them.”

Further Reading