Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

How to manage difficult emotions


Sometimes the intensity of our thoughts and emotions can be difficult to manage, especially during stressful times like these. To cope, it can be helpful to recognize, allow, and reflect on our feelings.

Due to the pandemic, most of us are spending more time at home—alone or with a few others—than ever before. During the pre-pandemic “normal” hustle-and-bustle of life, social interactions were sometimes a distraction from our emotions. Being by ourselves for long periods of time can be particularly uncomfortable if we’re not familiar with solitude. Rather than distracting ourselves from ourselves, we can instead view the present reality as an opportunity to know ourselves better and hone our ability to handle difficult sensations.




A mindfulness practice that can help us cope with intrusive thoughts and feelings is called RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nonidentify). Here’s an example of how RAIN has helped me—on some days doing virtual classes at home, I think, “I’m so lonely.” My body responds with a heavy feeling in my chest, and I might start to feel downcast.



First, simply recognize what’s happening. As the mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “When you’re in the shower, be in the shower.” This sounds funny at first, because if I’m taking a shower, of course I’m in the shower! The point Kabat-Zinn is making, though, is that while my body may be there, my mind is not. Instead, I’m thinking about a thousand other things outside of what is presently occurring.



Similarly, with the emergence of a feeling of sadness, I can be tempted to distract myself from my emotions with other thoughts, watching Netflix, or scrolling through Instagram. Since the present reality is distasteful (showering is boring, sadness is unpleasant), I want to distract myself so that I don’t have to acknowledge those feelings. But when I try to ignore or push away the feelings, it’s almost always futile. So instead, I pause. I notice that I’m sad, and I gently greet the sadness in my mind by naming it what it is.



Second, I allow the sadness to be there without resisting it. This is probably the step that takes the most practice. When I’m sad, my instinct is to try to make it go away. Fighting with or running from it, though, almost always aggravates it. Another temptation is to pile on more negative thoughts, which are then accompanied by worsening sensations in my chest and perhaps new physical manifestations, like a sinking stomach. Allowing the sadness to be there means simply sitting with it rather than trying to change it. An analogy called the Lazy River has helped—if my negative thoughts and feelings are like boats and rafts floating down a river, I imagine myself observing them as they float downstream without jumping into any of them. That way, I can calmly watch what is happening without getting carried away by the river.



Next, I investigate the sadness. I curiously “peruse” the feelings and thoughts as if I were watching an interesting movie for the first time. I try to take on a posture of mindfulness called “beginner’s mind,” which means examining the experience of the present moment (in this case, sadness), as if it were my first time ever experiencing it. This way of looking at my sadness not only disempowers it, but allows me to get to know its features as I ask myself honest questions, like, “Is this sadness warranted? What can I do about it? Am I really alone?” Usually this helps me recognize that the negative thoughts I have about my sadness need not paralyze me.



Finally, I practice nonidentifying with the sadness, which means not allowing the sadness to define me. Before learning how to do this, during stressful times I believed that the stress was a part of me. Likewise, when sadness arose, I felt like in that moment I was the sadness. Nonidentification allows me to make the switch from “I am sad” to “I am experiencing a sensation of sadness.” This subtle change in wording makes a profound impact on my relationship to the thoughts and feelings associated with sadness. It allows me to view the sadness as if I were a detached observer, which lessens its intensity because I no longer take the emotion personally. In one part of a guided meditation I’ve enjoyed, Michael Sealey says to “watch my own state of watching.” To nonidentify with sadness when I’m feeling lonely, I picture in my mind that I—the “first person” me—am watching myself—the “third person” me—experience sadness. This is what I mean by being a detached observer, which is the essence of nonidentification.



This four-step process to deal with difficult sensations was challenging when I first learned it. But what began as a sustained effort to systematically go through each step is now a habit that provides peaceful moments for me as I journey through this unprecedented time. It also allows me to be more engaged with my virtual learning and all of my work from home. If you’re interested in and new to RAIN, I recommend starting with the below guided meditation by renowned meditation teacher and psychologist Dr. Tara Brach: