Here's a possible domino effect of reactive thoughts that might show up for you:
- Event occurs
- Your body stiffens, clenches
- You think, "I can't believe this!" / "They are so wrong!" / "This shouldn't be!"
- You feel, "I am angry / sad / frustrated / humiliated / etc."
- Your body stiffens and clenches even more
- You decide, "I'm going to let them have it!"
And now, naming the emotion right AFTER the body first stiffens, surges, or in some way alerts you that upset is here:
- You think, "My body is telling me I'm angry, sad, etc." (deep, slow breath in)
- You recognize, "I'm having thoughts that this is upsetting." (slow exhale out)
- You feel, "Anger . . . anger . . . anger . . ." (deep, slow breath in)
- Your body slows down (slow exhale out)
- You feel, "Sad . . . sad . . . sad . . ." (deep, slow breath in)
what do you notice?
You may notice a "distance" that develops as you label your thoughts and emotions after the initial event. Instead of reacting and either lashing out or shutting down, you (in a matter of seconds) can ignite your frontal lobe, slow your body and mind, and choose your response. You can connect with your experience, as well as the possibilities around you. Instead of digging a deeper hole, you can climb out of the episode.
Practice this labeling whenever you can. Don't be discouraged when you find yourself swept away in emotional currents. Our emotional reflexes run deep (inside the brain), and change comes only with significant practice and patience. The practice is awareness: to get better at catching yourself. Labeling an emotion helps you create distance from it. From there, we can choose how to respond instead of being led by our triggers.
I still argue with my wife about who should go pick up my crying kids. I catch my rigid, "she's so out of line" thinking more than before, and I put it out at arm's length. More than ever before, I can choose to do something that binds us together instead of blasting us apart. And if mindful labeling doesn't work, as a husband, I've learned to simply stop talking and go clean something.