A 4-Step Formula to Ease the Pain of Difficult Feelings

A 4-Step Formula to Ease the Pain of Difficult Feelings

Feelings are not facts. Believing, acting on, and making decisions based solely on your feelings will get you in trouble almost every time. Now, before I totally alienate the whole “Think with your heart” camp, let me explain.

I’m not saying feelings aren’t important and should be ignored. Absolutely not.

Feelings provide vital information and need to be a consideration guiding your behavior and decisions. You’ll want to learn to accept and allow your feelings. Then, try to figure out what’s behind them and what they are telling you. Then, make decisions and go forward acting with conscious intent.

What Are Feelings?

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of your brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjectively influenced by your personal experiences, beliefs, and memories. A feeling is a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to an emotion. Feelings happen after having an emotion, involve cognitive input – usually subconscious, and cannot be measured precisely.

Antonio D’Amasio, professor of neuroscience at The University of California and author of several books on the subject, explains it as:

Feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions, themselves physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli. (The order of such events is: I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror.)

What Are Emotions?

Feelings and emotions are two different things. Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortices of your brain. Brain activity triggers biochemical reactions in your body. At the core of any emotion is a complex series of changes in your body. These changes prepare your body to take action.

Initially, emotions were an evolutionary advantage which helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threats and rewards in their environments. Emotional reactions are coded in our genes and vary slightly individually and depending on the circumstances. However, they’re universally similar across all humans and even other species.

Emotions precede feelings and are physical and instinctual. They can be objectively measured by blood flow, brain activity, facial micro-expressions, and body language because they’re physical. Feelings cannot.Emotions are physical. Feelings are mental.

Emotions, Feelings, and Thoughts

Feelings are generated by emotions and colored by thoughts, memories, and beliefs that have become subconsciously linked with that particular emotion for you. It works the other way around too. For example, just remembering an unpleasant occurrence or thinking about something threatening can trigger an emotional response in your body. While individual emotions are temporary, the feelings they evoke can persist and grow over time, resulting in ongoing conditions, like depression or anxiety. Because emotions cause subconscious feelings which, in turn, initiate more emotions and thoughts, your life can become a never-ending cycle of painful and confusing emotions. These emotions then produce negative feelings which can result in more negative thoughts and emotions and the cycle continues. You can end up anxious or depressed all the time without ever really knowing why. 

A 4-Step Formula to Ease the Pain of Difficult Feelings

While basic emotions are instinctual and common to all humans, the meanings they take on and the feelings they prompt differ depending on your individual programming and environment, past and present.  A person’s beliefs, temperament, and experiences shape their feelings.  So, feelings vary greatly from person to person and even among situations in the same person.

A Four-Step Plan for Accepting Your Feelings

Your emotions and feelings largely determine how you experience and interact with the world because they are the driving force behind your actions and behaviors. It’s possible that you are still being guided by emotions and the feelings they evoke stemming from beliefs learned in childhood from caretakers, school, and religious institutions, for example, that don’t really fit you anymore. Living life, making decisions, and acting according to out-dated feelings based on your childhood can lead to an unhappy, fear-based life.

Awareness of your feelings and getting your self-reflective brain involved, mindfulness, can help you interrupt this cycle. Brian Tracy, motivational speaker and self-development author, says:

Ninety-five percent of your emotions are determined by how you interpret events to yourself.” 

In his book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris offers a four-step formula for working with and through your feelings. The plan asks you to pause and shift your awareness to your observing self and pay attention to feelings and what’s happening in your body. This activates different parts of your brain and calms down the emotional partsRuss calls his process the “Four Steps of Expansion.”

When practicing expansion, you’re not trying to get rid of or alter a feeling. You are trying to accept it and give up any struggle with or resistance you have against it.  The goal is to make peace with a feeling even though you may not like it or want it. You can practice expansion with one specific feeling or in a general manner. Here’s how to do it:

Step One: Observe

Observe the sensations in your body. Take a few seconds and scan yourself head to toe. As you do this, you will probably notice several uncomfortable sensations. Look for the one that bothers you the most. for example, it may be a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, or a teary feeling in your eyes. (If your entire body feels uncomfortable, then just pick one area that bothers you the most.) Now, focus your attention on that sensation. Observe it with curiosity, like a scientist.

Step Two: Breathe

Breathe into and around the sensation. Begin with a few deep, slow breaths, making sure you fully empty your lungs as you breathe out. Slow, deep breathing activates your vagus nerve and calms your brain and body.  It won’t get rid of your feelings, but it will provide a center of calm within you. It will hold you steady until the emotional storm passes.  Breathe slowly and deeply and imagine your breath flowing into and around the sensation.

Step Three: Create Space

As your breath flows into and around the feeling, it’s as if you are somehow creating space within your body. You open up and create a space around the sensation, giving it plenty of room to move. (And if it gets bigger, you give it even more space.)

Step Four: Allow

Allow the sensation to just be there, even though you don’t like it or want it.  In other words, “let it be.”  You don’t have to fight with your feelings, make them go away, or do anything with them at all.  Just let them be. Allow them, and don’t give them any more of your attention than necessary. Mindfully observe the feelings and realize they are not facts.

As you practice the expansion technique, either your feelings will change or they won’t. Either is OK. This practice is not about changing your feelings. It’s about becoming aware of and accepting them. Once you do this, they become less troubling and painful for you, and you can guide your behavior and life consciously towards your goals and happiness.

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