Mindfulness as a tool to regulate your emotions

Author: Cecilia Clementi, Ph.D., Psych.D

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Have you ever experienced feeling emotionally overwhelmed? Or that your emotions felt out of control or beyond your window of tolerance?

Have you ever used food or substances (alcohol, drugs) or other compulsive behaviors to regulate your emotions?

If you have answered YES to at least one of these questions, welcome to the club! 

As human beings, dealing with our emotions can be challenging and we can easily move from being too rational or detached  (e.g., “I don’t feel anything'') to being over-emotional (“I feel completely overwhelmed by this”). Emotional regulation, therefore, represents an important coping skill for our daily life. Moreover, emotional regulation has been found to be fundamental for mental health and it constitutes one of the main targets in psychotherapy. 



What are emotions for? 

  1. Emotions give us information about what is going on inside of ourselves. Sometimes emotions communicate through “gut feeling” or intuition. But it is important to remember that emotions are not facts!
  2. Emotions can be helpful in communicating with, and influencing others. Body language (facial expression, body posture, tone of voice) says a lot about how you feel, and as a consequence, can influence how other people respond to you.
  3. Emotions motivate and prepare us for action. The action urge connected to specific emotions is often part of a survival mechanism. Emotions save time in getting us to act in important situations. For example, experiencing fear of a threat automatically activates the fight/flight or freeze response. 


What is the window of tolerance? 

The term “window of tolerance” has been described by Daniel Siegel as the zone of arousal in which you are able to function most effectively. This means that you can readily receive, process, and integrate information and respond to the demands of everyday life without many difficulties. 


On the other hand, during times of extreme stress, you can often experience either hyper- or hypo-arousal. Hyper-arousal is the fight/flight response characterized by hypervigilance and feelings of anxiety and/or panic and racing thoughts. The hypo-arousal or freeze response may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis. In both the hyper- and hypo-arousal states, the frontal cortex of our brain shuts down and this is why we are unable to think rationally.


Each of us has a different window of tolerance. If you have a narrow window of tolerance you may often experience emotions as intense and difficult to manage. So the more we expand our window of tolerance, the more we are able to regulate emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations. Therefore, a wider window of tolerance is associated with resilience and psychological well-being. 


What is the role of mindfulness in emotion regulation?

Mindfulness is defined as “paying attention to the moment by moment experience intentionally and without judgment (Kabatt-Zinn, 2005). In other words, it means to be present to whatever we experience with curiosity, openness, acceptance, kindness, and without judgment.


Many scientific studies have proven the effectiveness of mindfulness-based programs (e.g., MBSR, MBCT) in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and improving well-being (Gu et al, 2015; Hofmann & Gomez, 2017, Elbeith &Seildman, 2012). Moreover, mindfulness has been found to be an effective tool for emotional regulation (Guendelman et al, 2017).


Neuroscientific studies suggest that mindfulness meditation provides beneficial effects on attention, memory, executive functioning, and cognitive flexibility, associated with changes in different brain regions (Fox et al, 2014). In addition, mindfulness-based interventions (MBI) influence changes both in the bottom-up and top-down processes of the brain. For instance, mindful awareness switches on our prefrontal cortex (PFC). In contrast with hyper- or hypo-arousal states, where the PFC is shut down, having the PFC on is necessary for making choices with awareness, instead of reacting on autopilot. This has strong implications for emotional regulation as well.


Guendelmann et al (2017) proposed an embodied perspective of emotional regulation, based on the distinction between mindfulness-based top-down emotional regulation strategies which take into account the qualities of attention and acceptance, vs. mindfulness-based bottom-up strategies, which focus on bodily representations of emotional states. 


Tips to increase positive emotions and navigate emotional vulnerability

  • Focus on positive experiences.
  • Be mindful in your daily life.
  • Increase your skills for dealing with challenging situations.
  • Take care of your physical health.
  • Eat mindfully.
  • Balance your sleep.
  • Have an active lifestyle.
  • Avoid using food, alcohol, or drugs to regulate your emotions.


Mindfulness tips to handle difficult emotions in 7 steps:

FINDING AN ANCHOR IN THE PRESENT MOMENT. Whatever is going on in your emotional experience, focus your attention on what helps you to be grounded (e.g., feet flat on the floor, hands touching your knees, a sound, or looking at what is in front of you).

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

RECOGNIZING what is going on in the present moment experience with openness and curiosity. What is predominant in your experience? Are there any sensations in your body? How intense are they from 0 to 10?

Are there any emotions? Are they pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Can you name them? (e.g., anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, boredom, etc.). How intense are they from 0 to 10? Are there any thoughts, images, or memories associated with them?

VALIDATE AND ACCEPT your emotional states, instead of pushing them away. To accept your emotions for what they are, you can notice your resistance in doing that  and validate yourself by saying, “it is difficult” or “it hurts.” You can also intentionally create a space to hold these emotions, for example as a loving mother who is taking care of her baby mirroring their feelings. 

EXPAND YOUR AWARENESS. Allow your awareness to be inclusive of any aspects of your experience (your body position, your breath, your sensations, emotions, thoughts, sound) without getting identified with any of them. Remember you are not your emotions, sensations or thoughts, even though you are experiencing them all.

CONGRATULATE YOURSELF because you are giving yourself the chance to stay with your emotions moment by moment, responding to them with awareness instead of reacting on auto-pilot. As a surfer runs through waves using a surfboard, you can use your breath to go through your emotions, noticing how they can change in terms of intensity. Remember that emotions are like waves, they may increase in intensity but when they get to the peak, they naturally fall. They do not last forever!

SOOTHE YOURSELF. Nourish yourself with care and kindness, using your senses, or imagery, gestures (hugging yourself or placing a hand on your heart), sending encouraging words or good wishes toward yourself (e.g., “I will make it,” “Spring always comes after winter,” “I can take care of myself!”, “May I be free from this suffering”).

CHOSE A SKILLFUL ACTION to respond to the situation.



More Resources

Upcoming Live Event:

Emotional regulation skills for Mindful Eating
Presented by Cecilia Clementi, Ph.D., Psych.D,
Monday, May 23, 2022
12:00-1:00 PM ET
Or register to receive the Recording Only if you are unable to attend live.



About the Author


Cecilia Clementi, Ph.D., Psych.D, a clinical and health psychologist, EMDR, CBT, and DBT psychotherapist, and certified mindfulness and mindful eating teacher. She works in her private clinic and at San Nicola Addiction rehabilitation Center in Italy. Her areas of expertise are eating disorders, addiction and trauma. Cecilia has been a TCME Board member since 2015.

You can reach her at cclementi@tcme.org or on Facebook: Mindful eating Italia




References

Elberth, J., and Sedlmeier, P. (2012). The effects of mindfulness meditation: a meta-analysis. Mindfulness  3, 174–189. 

Fox, K. C. et al. (2014). Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 43, 48–73

 Gu, J., Strauss, C., Bond, R., and Cavanagh, K. (2015). How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clin. Psychol. Rev. 37, 1–12. 

Guendelman, S., Medeiros S., Rampes, H. (2017) Mindfulness, and emotion regulation: Insight from neurobiological, psychological and clinical studies. Frontiers in Psychology

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness Fifteenth Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

Hofmann, S., T. and Gomez, A., F. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression. Psychiatric Clinic of North America, 40, 4, 739-749