Food for Thought: Don't Feed Negative Emotions

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I believe that things happen in life for a reason. The people we meet, the experiences we have, the books we read, they all teach us something, if we're willing to pause and take notice.

While on vacation, I finished reading a book that had a tremendous effect on me: "Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears," by Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun and spiritual teacher.

Each of the 10 chapters was a poignant lesson for me, and I can and will write more about how these simple yet profound words affected me. This book was exactly what I needed to read at exactly the appropriate time. Today, I want to share with you a quick lesson that has been infinitely useful to me even in the few days since I read it.

Citing Jill Bolte Taylor's "My Stroke of Insight" (another excellent read), Chodron says:

"A person does something that brings up unwanted feelings, and what happens? Do we open or close? Usually we involuntarily shut down, yet without a storyline to escalate our discomfort we still have easy access to our genuine heart. Right at this point we can recognize that we are closing, allow a gap, and leave room for change to happen. In Jill Bolte Taylor's book 'My Stroke of Insight,' she points to scientific evidence showing that the life span of any particular emotion is only one and a half minutes. After that we have to revive the emotions and get it going again.

Our usual process is that we automatically do revive it by feeding it with an internal conversation
about how another person is the source of our discomfort. Maybe we strike out at them or at someone else--all because we don't want to go near the unpleasantness of what we're feeling."

Though Chodron is referring to dealing with people, I have found this approach is most effective in dealing with the emotions I bring on myself. I've taken that "90-second lifespan" fact and combined it with another lesson gleaned from the book to help myself move past rough patches of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt:

  1. Acknowledge that I'm having a feeling, such as anxiety when my to-do list is growing ever longer.

  2. Take three deep, long, slow breaths, sometimes closing my eyes. Rather than putting life on hold, I allow myself to "loosen" that feeling, and feel its effect on my body. I don't react, I just feel.

  3. I relax and move on.

Usually this works. Sometimes it doesn't. If three breaths aren't enough time, I stay longer. I visualize the stress leaving my body. I imagine it coming out of my body as I exhale, never to return. Using the breath in tandem with the mind is a powerful practice.

Yesterday, a friend wrote that she couldn't stop thinking about bingeing. It was consuming her thoughts, and it was stressing her out. The more she fought the thoughts, the stronger they felt.

I offered her this advice, telling her to remember that 90-second rule with emotions. It helped. The tightness loosened, she resisted the binge, and eventually the urge dwindled away.

I used the same tactic when panic reared up in me during travel. I closed my eyes, breathed, and felt the tentacles that had wrapped around my body and soul loosen. I chose to focus on breathing, on loosening panic's grip on me, on cutting off its food supply--my negative thoughts. Soon, the feeling dissipated.

Emotions and feelings are strong and powerful, and we can feel helpless when they enter our minds. This simple exercise is just one way that I assert control when I'm feeling something that shakes my core. I hope it helps you, too, and allows you to find a moment of peace amid a chaotic life.

How do you free yourself from negative feelings?

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Great blog! I'm going to try it. Report
Thanks so much for posting this. I am going to try and use the 90 second rule. I am also going to try and track down the books from my library Report
Timley blog for me to read. I hope to adopt and apply the 90 second rule to negative emotions (especially those resulting in panic) and breathe through them. Thank you! Report
This is exactly what I've been talking about in the last month! I'm receiving a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), and a BA in Psychology next semester. It's all about introspection on behaviors and problem behaviors, emotional eating, coping and relaxation techniques. Great blog!
Pema Chödrön is a favorite author of mine ever since I listened to "When Things Fall Apart". (Great book on CD for a long drive by the way.) The concept of shenpa has proven to be very powerful to me.

Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to reading much more in the future. Report
Thank you for this recommendation. I have valued Pema Chodron's wise teaching since reading "When Things Fall Apart." I will definitely get this book. I need help staying with uncomfortable feelings, leaning into them. Instead, I tend to use a variety of ways to escape (food, exercise, talking, getting into my head, etc.) This sounds like something that would give me some insight and help me discover the courage I have to stay with those feelings...and give them time to pass. Again, thanks! Report
I guess I'd be interested in what defines the beginnng and end of an emotion.

Although I can go with 90 seconds on something that made you angry or startled, I'm thinking 90 seconds when dealing with the death of a loved one is probably a little skimpy on the time. But, again, I don't know how they define the beginning/end of an emotion. Report
I pray and surrender it to God. But I didn't realize how short-lived our negative emotions can actually be. So from now on, I have all the more reason to take things IMMEDIATELY to God in prayer! What a great article! Thank you! : ) Report
Thank you for an insightful blog. I'm going to check the library for the titles mentioned, also. Report
Terrific blog. I usually try slow breathing too. If that doesn't work, exercise does. Especially if I'm having a panic attack.......a walk, run or workout can help me manage the feelings like nothing else! Report
I free myself from negative emotions by remembering that everything in existance was put there by God for man's enjoyment. By being negative I am saying that I am not satisfied with all of God's blessings in my life. So focus is the answer for me. To focus on thankfulness and gratitude for the good God has given, and not to focus on what seems bad - because even the bad has wonderful lessons and growth opportunities for us. Report
The 90 sec rule does in fact work! Report
Thank you. Just.....thank you. Report
Thank you for the blog and i will try and practice the 90-sec rule when dealing with my emotions and the tendency to binge, especially when things are out of control. Report
sounds like a good read; thanks for sharing especially the 90 second rule Report
Thank you, controlling my breathing is my number one strategy. Report
Love the blog..we all do have negative feelings from time to time, but I stop them in their tracks, by exercising, calling a diet buddy, or getting busy doing chores, outdoors if possible. Report
I really like this blog thanks for sharing!! Report
I just take deep breaths and say to myself this is only temporary, do not own it! Report
This was something I really needed to read today. I have been "reviving" an ongoing internal conversation with a friend about her problems. It is consuming too much of my emotional energies since she is the one who refuses to make any changes to alleviate them. I can't change that or her so I need to let it go. I have enough concerns of my own right now! Report
I try to close my eyes and breathe when I'm feeling anxious, but it doesn't always work. I'm trying though! Report
I'm new to this. I can't find the "like" button, but I wish I could. I'm putting a sticky note on my desk at work that reads "90 seconds." I really liked this blog. Report
Wow, good blog. I will definitely try to keep this in mind next time I am in the grip of a powerful and negative emotion. Sometimes I get worked up, anxious and depressed about things and allow myself to get into a mood which lasts a lot longer than the initial beginning emotion. I will print out this blog to remind me to take a moment and release an emotion's control. Report
Thanks. This is something I have to work on almost daily. Report
Thanks for the insights and the book recommendations. Report
Thanks you so much for this. The 90 second rule will really help me. Report
I think everyone should read My Stroke of Inisight. It's not only about surviving a stroke (although that part is something I wish doctors and rehab centers would read!) but it's also a story about a scientist changing values in her life. Negative can kill you - this blog has some great ideas in the constant battle against negativity. Report
Thanks for the blog, I have done that on my own somewhat but will start doing it more when things happen. Report
Timely reminder Stepfanie, thank you!
As I thought about my to do list I felt my blood pressure rising, my breath grew shallow, I felt panic, anxious.
It melted away as I went with the flow of a concious deep breath, really feeling the anxiety and allowing that feeling to pass. Now I am ready for anything! Report
I have yet to succeed in stopping negative emotions once they have started. However, I have far fewer of them when I get enough exercise, so I've been biking my way out of my hole, one day at a time. I started commuting by bicycle on May 20. Today was day 8. So far, so good. I also bought two courses from The Teaching Company: Conflict Management, and The Art of Communication. I bought the audio download when they were on sale, to save money. I've listened to them both in their entirety, and they are full of great insights. In Chapter 11 of The Art of Communication, the professor talks about a technique for staying in control of your emotions when you are about to have an "amygdala hijack" by forcing yourself to think about something that involves the frontal cortex. It's very interesting stuff.
J Report
I turn to God for help. Report
I read Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of NOW" and don't let myself go back into the "pain body." NOW is all the time we have. Report
Nice blog.. it hits home for me big time! I will have to visualize the stress/anxiety leaving my body and leaving me happy!! Report
Thank you for sharing, I am new to sparkpeople and am learning my way around the site. Everyone who comments has something that I connect with on this journey. Report
I am really glad that doing those things help you. I hope you have success with everything which comes your way. You asked how I free myself with negative feelings. well, I tell you I have gone through almost completely losing my eye sight, to having shots in my eye balls while being awake, to many other horrible things I have dealt with in my life. Each of these things have blessed my life in the process. (read my page) Through all of life’s tragedies I was full of peace, and fulfillment, and grace. You see I have a relationship with God and He fills me with HIs peace every time I pray for help. He wipes my tears away; He gives me hope, and empowerment. Nothing can come my way I can not handle because God fulfills my every need. As I walk through life God is there without a prayer being said, He runs ahead to protect me, and is behind me as He covers me. I tell you the truth- the is no other perfect fail proof thing available to us. However, we are all different, and I respect anyone's choice, or opinion. Stating what I replied is the only way I know how to answer your question. Good luck in all that you do, you can do it! Report
This blog is really helpful. Whenever I am faced with a new situation I tighten up so this was great advice. Report
Thanks for sharing! I think this can really help me. I now have a go-to to stop a binge (since I have a problem with bingeing like your friend.) Thank you so much! Report
Talk about timely. Not 20 min. b/f I found your blog I discovered that some info. I had put into my iPad was lost due to an app malfunction. Granted, it was not life saving info., but it had taken me about a couple of hours yesterday to accumulate it. Time lost; I was very frustrated, to say the least. I went into the kitchen to grab something to eat, but remembered it was an emotional not physical need to eat. So, I went to SP to check on something else and found your blog.

After reading it, I took time to recognize my feelings, even saying them out loud. (Well, maybe saying them louder than necessary since I scared the dog.) Then, I reminded myself that it wasn't my fault and that the feelings of frustration & helpless were real. After that, it was like kind of talking myself down or out of the frustration & into a frame of mind of doing something to make it better.
Thank you for sharing this. It definately helped & I plan to try & use this more often. Report
Yes! This is so true for me too. If I have the mind to remember, I can stop myself from reaching for food when I'm feeling [insert feeling here]! Sometimes it's just a matter of acknowledging that I'm feeling something negative - anxiety, annoyance - whatever it is that I'm feeling is making me reach for food. If I stop and tell myself that it's okay to feel what I'm feeling - give myself the permission to feel that way, then I realize that I don't need to "eat the feeling away." It's a powerful behavior when I remember to do it. I've realized that I don't even have to fully analyze the entire situaton or have an answer to the feeling or the situation. Sometimes just acknowledging that I have a feeling and allowing myself to feel it is enough. Report
Thank you for this timely blog and for the book suggestions. You have given me a couple of things to ponder. Report
Nice blog, Stepfanie. I liked the idea of the lifespan of negative emotions. For me, as soon as I realize that I am in the claws of a negative feeling, I immediately, get busy doing something to distract me. I am out of work for the last few months, and when I get started beating myself on the topic, I look for something else to do. My room has never been cleaner (grin), but I usually end up on Sparkpeople looking (and finding) lots of encouragement. Then I can get going doing the job search. Report
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