Breathe Easier with Emotional Awareness

Emotional expression is as important to life as breathing. So when we suffocate our emotions, they inevitably arise in some form. Unacknowledged emotions can build up and burst from us like a desperate gasp for breath— often in a way that is misdirected, over-reactive, or self-destructive.

See if any of these unintended emotional eruptions sound familiar to you: lashing out at a friend; excessive use of food, sex, or alcohol; and stress-related illnesses like depression or high blood pressure. These conditions and behaviors may feel involuntary or beyond our control, but with practice we can learn to manage them more effectively.

We Learn Emotional Awareness

The first step in this process is emotional awareness. If your family openly expressed emotion, then as an adult emotional awareness probably comes naturally to you; you easily identify and articulate your emotions. However, if your family sent mixed or negative messages about how to handle emotion, you may struggle to detect, label, and communicate your feelings.

I fall into the latter category; my tendency is to push emotions aside. As a child, it was to my advantage to appear calm and happy—to comply and “be good” even when I felt upset or unsure. It felt safer to suppress fear and sadness.

As a teenager and adult, I continued this pattern of obedience, self-control, and perfectionism. Rather than fully experience emotion and appear vulnerable, I denied the discomfort of sadness, insecurity, or hurt. Yet they always popped up somehow, taking me off-guard with unwanted outward (angry outbursts) or inward (depressed mood) expressions.

Acceptance and Emotional Management

Nobody likes to be surprised by these emotional eruptions, but we can interpret them as signals that our emotions need some breathing room. If you listen closely, the information you gain through emotional awareness allows you to respond in a balanced—rather than impulsive or reactive—way to your emotional needs.

For example: do you ever have one of those days when you feel overwhelmed and off-kilter? I had a day like that last week, and I tried to ignore my emotions and be “productive.” That didn’t work for long. I had to tune into the emotional cause of my distress in order to regain control. Fortunately, once I became aware of the fear that caused my anxiety—and let myself feel it—I was able to focus on my work again. Emotional awareness led to emotional relief.

Becoming Aware

Emotional awareness involves the ability to sense, identify, and accept your feelings. On a personal level, these skills breed contentment and increased self-esteem. In relationships, they lead to more authentic interactions. An understanding of your own motivations, preferences, and desires leads you to live with integrity and make choices based on your values rather than on impulse.

To assess your emotional awareness:

Examine your underlying beliefs about emotions.

  • Were you discouraged from showing feelings? Were you taught to hide or deny them?
  • Did you learn that emotions are dangerous and should be feared or controlled?
  • Do you think that certain emotions are “good” and others are “bad” or shameful?
  • Are your beliefs productive or counterproductive to your mental health?

    Tune in to emotional signals.
  • Do you experience nausea or stomach upset? What about headaches, chronic pain, high blood pressure, panic attacks, or frequent colds?
  • Do these symptoms worsen during times when you feel anxious, sad, lonely, or fearful?
  • What about when you are around a certain person or group or in particular situations?
  • Do you use food, alcohol, or sex in a compulsive way?
  • Could unhealthy patterns in your life represent unmet emotional needs?
  • Do you make any solitary, quiet time in your schedule when you allow your emotions to come to the surface?

    Here are some tips to help you develop your emotional awareness:

    Accept feelings as a natural part of life. The way you feel is always okay; it’s just how you express yourself that might need some adjustment! Try to accept your feelings without judgment.

    Have an “emotion session.” If you find that a powerful emotion interferes with your productivity or concentration, try setting aside half an hour per day to let that emotion flow freely. By dedicating a time slot for freeing that emotion, you regain some control over the rest of your time and diffuse its subconscious power. When the time slot rolls around, let it all out!

    Identify the source emotion. Joy, hurt, anger, and fear underlie almost every other emotion. When you feel upset, try to determine what the underlying emotions may be. Sometimes we choose a more culturally accepted emotion to disguise vulnerability, such as when someone criticizes others (trying to appear powerful through anger) to disguise fear of rejection or hurt.

    Build your emotional vocabulary. Consult a thesaurus, talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, or use the link below to refer to an "Emotions Chart." Try to label your emotions as precisely as possible. Just giving a feeling a name can bring some relief. If you can’t name the feeling, that’s okay, too. The important thing is to be aware.

    Keep a daily journal. Even when you aren’t sure what you feel, writing can express your emotions in a way that thinking and talking about them cannot. If you let yourself be honest, you may discover things about yourself as you write that surprise you.

    Exercise and eat right. Your physical health and emotional health are inseparable. Exercise is a great way to release tension when you are angry, and it can elevate your mood when you are sad or hurt. Also, repetitive exercises like swimming or walking are opportunities to reflect on or process emotions.

    Practice mindfulness, meditation, and conscious breathing. As you learn to be in the moment, you grow more aware of your body and emotions. I frequently use the Emotional Ease guided meditation from Meditation Oasis (link below). It helps me to get in touch with vague or uncomfortable emotions and to let go of my resistance to certain feelings. And don't forget to breathe! That will keep you calm and ready to process any emotional signals.

    With practice, emotional awareness enriches self-knowledge and integrity. As comfort with emotional identification and expression grows, so does our ability to regulate emotion and live more authentically.

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    Click to view an Emotion Chart

    Visit Meditation Oasis to purchase the “Emotional Ease” meditation on CD (or listen for free by clicking the podcast link on the home page).

    Or, you can download the free Emotional Ease podcast at iTunes - Meditation Oasis


    Faking It: Smile Therapy?

    Don't throw those antidepressants out just yet-- smiling obviously won't cure clinical depression or solve the world's problems. But don't discount it entirely, either, because research shows that a smile can make things look a little sunnier.

    At first, acting happy to feel happy might seem a strange reversal of the common belief that actions are driven by thoughts or feelings. But it’s true—clinical research studies show that just as happy emotions drive happy behaviors like smiling, happy behaviors foster happy feelings. The message highway between your brain and body runs in both directions.

    Acting happy to elicit positive emotions is a lot like the counseling intervention of “acting as if.” “Acting as if” rests on the assumption that people act in accordance to their values and beliefs. The idea is that by choosing to act on less prominent (but more positive) beliefs about yourself and the world, you can learn to feel more comfortable with these positive behaviors and beliefs.

    It’s a little like the “fake it ‘til you make it” cliché. Even though your smile may feel contrived and artificial at first, positive intention and practice gradually melt into a more genuine sense of awareness and appreciation.

    Where the Body Leads, the Emotions Follow

    One recent study demonstrated that facial expression and posture provoked related emotions. That tells us that if you smile, lift your chin, and stand upright, you’ll feel happy and confident. If you frown, shrug, or slump, you’ll feel sad or angry.

    Not everyone is susceptible to this effect, but I can attest to its validity in my life. In high school, I tested a psychology teacher’s assertion that lifting one’s chin two inches would inspire confidence. While it took practice to overhaul my slouchy, angst-ridden teen posture, that slight adjustment profoundly impacted my posture and self-esteem. Even now, on days when I need a confidence boost I remember to keep my chin up. Literally.

    Expression Overhaul

    For years, I wore a serious, almost frowning expression by default. I didn’t like that people constantly asked me what was wrong, and I often heard comments about how “intimidating” I was. Even worse were the occasions when someone cheerfully urged me to “smile!” Those well-meaning remarks pushed my peeve button every time.

    So, driven in part by a desire to avoid irritation, I attended more closely to my expression. I reminded myself to lift the edges of my mouth to a more neutral position, and I tried to smile as often as I could. Over time, people stopped seeing me as intimidating and didn’t ask me what was wrong as often. I was surprised to find that the transition happened internally as well—I even felt more tolerant and accepting of others. While I didn’t undergo a complete transformation, I was less angry and more hopeful. All from smiling a little more.

    Smile Therapy

    A character on the Ally McBeal television series engaged in what he called “smile therapy” when he felt especially distraught or uptight. When things went wrong, he pasted on a broad, toothy smile. The effect was comedic, but he was on to something.

    Putting your smile muscles to work during times of stress changes your outlook for a couple of reasons. First, the brain interprets this muscle movement to mean that you’re happy or contented. Even holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth is enough to approximate a smile, as far as your brain is concerned.

    Second, your mood and perceptions of neutral events grow more positive simply from “acting” happy. Happy behavior isn’t likely to erase the trauma of a crisis, but it will encourage you to view mundane events from a more generous perspective. An upbeat posture and expression primes your brain to give others the benefit of the doubt or to see the “lighter side.”

    Besides these advantages, the sheer absurdity of smiling in moments of duress breaks the problem-centered mindset of anxiety and anger. When you take yourself less seriously, you can be a little gentler with everyone else, too.

    You Get What You Give

    Smiling signifies contentment to your brain, but it also reminds us to be aware of the signals we send to the world. If you project a scowl or frown as I once did, what kind of response do you expect to get?

    In settings ranging from bedroom to boardroom, a smile is the best starting point for any interaction. Smiles project positive energy, confidence, and acceptance. A pleasant expression invites openness and collaboration. It’s a small gift that you can offer someone who might be caught up in a difficult day or a bad mood. And far from being a selfless act, it will improve your attitude as well.

    Grin and Bear It

    Life is full of disappointments and setbacks. Things go wrong every day. But it’s important to acknowledge that things also go right. When we smile, we train ourselves to interpret the world in a more positive way—or at least remind ourselves that life is easier if we accept things the way they are. I keep a smiling Buddha sculpture in my meditation corner as an example. When I find myself resisting the flow of life’s ups and downs, I follow his lead and let my face relax into an accepting smile.

    In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.”

    Peaceful, positive actions lead to peaceful, positive feelings. For me, smiling and standing tall inspires me to see the world as a better, friendlier place even as I contribute to making it so. It enables me to laugh more readily at life and at myself. Try it and see what a posture makeover, expression overhaul, or smile therapy does for you.

    Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite role models for happiness. Read excerpts from or buy Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life on Amazon.com.

    Source: Schnall, S., & Laird, J. D. (2003). Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and postures on emotional experience. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 787-797.