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Holding Suffering without Getting Swamped by It

Written by MJ Ryan, SheEO Development Guide

Yesterday on our SheEO team call, one of our teammates said, “There is so much to mourn.” She was referring to the horrific discoveries at the residential schools as well as to the multitude of other losses due to cultural and social injustice that we at SheEO have pledged to face so that we can help transform the systems that create them.

Her remark resonated strongly with me because I’ve been thinking recently about the very same thing. There is so much suffering in the world. How do we live not in denial but in such a way that we hold it all without being overwhelmed by it? How do we keep our hearts open and allow ourselves to be touched and transformed? It’s a question I will be exploring this month in a variety of ways.

Today, I want to offer a practice that helps us tolerate distress, whether it’s created by something that has happened to us personally or through touching into someone else’s suffering. I’ve seen various versions. This particular one was created by Dan Mager, MSW and comes from a blog on Psychology Today’s website. It can be done in just a minute or two and uses aspects of emotional regulation, distress tolerance, self-compassion, and self-acceptance.

Mager calls it N.O.A.H.S.: Notice and Name the feeling(s) > Observe it > Allow it > Hold it > put Space around it. I will let him describe the steps:

“1) Notice and Name

The first is to notice, to become consciously aware, that you are experiencing an uncomfortable emotion. Although initially, you may not know specifically what the emotion is, it is important to definitively notice and acknowledge that you are experiencing an emotion….

“The next step is actually an extension of noticing the feeling, and that is to identify the particular emotion, to name it. A fundamental part of discerning specific emotions from a mass of intense or vague feelings is to put them into words and give them a name. Say to yourself, I feel anxious, or I feel angry, or I feel sad, depressed, guilty, lonely, afraid. Sometimes we feel more than one emotion at a time: I feel frustrated and disappointed.

“If you struggle to identify and name your emotions, start by making the connection between different emotions and where you feel them in your body. Learning how you register different emotions in your body in terms of their location (where you feel them) and sensation (what they feel like) will help you to identify them more quickly and accurately. For example, anger may be felt as tightness in your shoulders, sadness as aching in your chest, fear as a knot in your stomach, and joy as warmth in your heart.

“Research shows that just naming a difficult emotion can reduce its hold on us and improve emotional intelligence. A study at UCLA found that subjects who put feelings into words make sadness, anger, and pain less intense. In terms of brain activation, when we experience fear and anger, the survival-focused amygdala shows increased activity. By naming these emotions, activity shifts from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that inhibits irrationality and helps us make better and healthier decisions.

“2) Observe

“Observe the emotion. Greet it along the lines of, this is anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, and so forth. Gently rest your awareness on it. View it with openhearted interest.

“3) Allow

“Allow the emotion (whatever it may be) to simply be. Let yourself feel it without needing to fight against it, run from it, or cling to it. Make space for it. This act of allowing takes us out of reactivity and into a more accepting and open mind-state.

4) Hold

“Hold the emotion. Breathe into it, be present with it, coexist with it, and begin to make peace with it. In a manner of speaking, have tea with it.

“5) Space

Release the emotion by putting space around it. Visualize it floating off or put some sort of perimeter or border around it.”

I do the last step by noticing that I am larger than the feeling. That the feeling is in me, but is not all of me. I visualize a tiny bird’s nest in my center and place it there and reconnect to the rest of my larger body/mind/spirit. More on expanding around the feeling next week.

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