When was the last time you really lost your temper? Not the "Gee, I'm kind of upset" kind of losing your temper, but the kind when you're screaming, crying, ranting, or raving. The kind where you think back about what you said and how you acted and are embarrassed beyond words that you let your emotions get so out of control.
How did your body feel inside? Was your heart racing? Did your face feel hot, like it was probably turning beet red? Did your entire body feel hot, like an electric blanket had been wrapped around it and set on superhot? Were you sweating, and having trouble breathing at a regular, calm pace? That's what used to happen to me when my emotions ran away with me.
Used to. Those are the key words. That's what used to happen. No longer. Not since mindfulness became a consistent part of my life.
I say became a consistent part of my life because the change wasn't automatic for me. Emotional reactivity had become a habit. A really bad habit, and one that took a good long while to break and then replace with a new, improved type of response to the upsets that came my way.
- First, I had to get used to looking for any emotion that was going to light my fire. It was like I was spying on myself from the inside out. What would I notice first? Heart racing? Burst of hot energy? Sweating? A rush of tears to my eyes? Not always occurring in the same order, I looked for any sign that my emotions were getting ready to flare up.
- Once I noticed how the emotions were making my body feel, I immediately started mindful breathing or mindfulness of sound. For mindful breathing, I would count each breath. Sometimes I counted how long it took me for each inhale and each exhale; sometimes I counted the number of breaths I was taking. When I was focusing on mindfulness of sound, I would simply list each sound I heard, getting more specific as I went along. Just listing "music" turned into "piano... guitar... drums... lead singer...harmony...words." I didn't listen to the message of the song, never the exact words, but each of the components. Whether I was counting breaths or listing sounds, it became impossible for me to think about the story of the original upset. The situation didn't disappear or change; my reaction to it was changing.
- When I found myself in a calm state, then I would return to whatever had set me off. Was this real, or was I turning it into a bigger deal than it really was? Was my reaction to something that was happening right now, or was I actually linking the event to something that had happened in the past, or something I was worried about that might take place in the future?
- If I started to get upset again, I would send myself right back to mindful breathing or mindfulness of sound. Once I became calm, I would return, again, to what had occurred. This could happen two, three, four, or more times. Sometimes it would take me multiple days to return to that place of calm for a long enough period of time to digest what had happened, break apart the pieces of the event, and begin to understand what had upset me, how my body had physically reacted to the emotions I was feeling, and, finally, think of how I could react the next time. And there would always be a next time.
At long last, my emotional reactivity is more of a memory than a daily presence. Do I ever get upset now? Of course. Are my reactions sometimes unreasonable? Absolutely. But the difference is that now I NOTICE what I am feeling inside my body and have a plan that lets me respond instead of simply reacting.
I have broken a really bad habit, and replaced it, mindfully, with a plan that allows me to avoid the inappropriate and irrational and, instead, be thoughtful, calm, and reasonable.
At this point, I really don't know who's happier about this new, improved version of my response to emotions and upsets. Me? My family and friends?
It doesn't matter. The mindful way is an improvement for us all.
Maybe you should give it a try. It's almost the start of 2015; try a little mindfulness to begin your year with positive behaviors that will benefit your life.
Dr. Wolbe can be reached via her website at www.drsusiewolbe.com.