Sometimes, life can feel unfair—not just mildly inconvenient but, like, really unfair. We’ve all been there. Maybe your offer for an apartment didn’t get accepted. Or you got rejected from the job you really wanted. Or months of diet and exercise are “undone” by an unexpected injury or week of stress-eating. If several of these events happen close together, the unfairness of it all can feel overwhelming. You tried so hard! You prepared for so long! Even if you consider yourself an easy-going person adept at “not sweating the small stuff,” it can be hard to shake off feelings of distress when something truly dispiriting happens.
Have you ever wondered why “letting go” of these emotions is so difficult? If you’re like most people, your brain probably automatically reassures you that it’s perfectly reasonable to get upset. The internal narrative may sound something like: “you should be upset! Did you forget about how unfair that was? Let me get rid of any lingering doubt by replaying the situation for you again. And again. And once more for good measure.” Sound familiar?
The following are signs that you may be ruminating over something you need to let go:
- Excessively dwelling on a specific incident
- Repeatedly asking yourself questions that are unanswerable
- Seeking a desired “answer”
- Feeling persistent frustration about the situation
- Engaging in unnecessary rationalization
Listen, it’s totally okay to acknowledge your emotions and feel angry, or sad, or irritated. However, rumination isn’t helpful; replaying an event over and over again is just the brain’s way of giving you the perception of control over a situation of which you ultimately have none. The more tightly you hold on to these feelings, the tighter their grip becomes on you. This can leave you feeling constantly overworked and overwhelmed by anxiety, despair, distress and frustration. Who’s really in control now?
What is mindfulness?
Put simply, mindfulness is the conscious and deliberate effort to maintain awareness of one’s immediate environment. Instead of rehashing past events or worrying about the future, mindfulness means that you are only focusing on what is happening in the moment. By being mindful, we become more attended to our thoughts, sensations and emotions. And while it may feel more effective to act quickly and get things done as fast as possible, the truth is that we are most powerful and effective when we are in control of our intentions.
Here are some simple tips on how to practice mindfulness
- The next time you feel anxious or frustrated, use that as your cue to take a “time out” by focusing on your immediate environment. Remember that it’s not about “quieting” your thoughts, but rather as a way to bring yourself back to the present moment.
- Use your senses to become more attended to your surroundings. Identify specific things you can hear, see, smell and feel. When your mind begins to wander back to ruminating thoughts, use this exercise to bring yourself back to the present.
- Do not worry if you have trouble focusing on the present moment—that will just cause more stress. Accept that your mind is wandering and take deep breaths to direct your attention back to your physical self.
What is acceptance?
To cope effectively with any unpleasant situation, we must let go of any ideas about the way we wished things could be and instead accept the way that we are in the present moment. Once we accept our reality without judgement, we are better able to see things for what they are. It is then that we can begin to look at all the pieces of the puzzle, determine what we have control over and identify potential action steps.
Acceptance involves acknowledging and allowing your thoughts, emotions, and circumstances to be as they are, without trying to resist or change them. Acceptance is not about liking an experience. It’s about not letting it govern you.
Put distance between the situation and your anxious thoughts or feelings
- Take a step back and acknowledge the circumstance from a neutral point of view by simply telling yourself “I’m getting myself worked up because I wish this particular thing wasn’t happening. This anxiety isn’t serving any purpose.”
Accept what is happening instead of wishing for a different circumstance
- Acknowledge that you are feeling frustrated, guilty or regretful and that these feelings are an inherent part of life. Along with this, remind yourself that nobody is able to predict how future events will unfold. Whatever decision you made in the past made sense in the moment with the knowledge you had at the time. Worrying about “what ifs” will not change the past or future for the worse or better, it will only diminish your emotional capacity to cope with whatever does happen.
To better handle frustration and stress, change your perception
- Think of difficulties as challenges or opportunities instead of threats. “This happened because I took a risk instead of staying in my comfort zone. The outcome wasn’t ideal but I might have felt even worse if I had never tried at all.”
Change what you can in the moment
- Don’t just hope that the situation ends and that your feelings eventually go away. When you decide not to ruminate, you free up mental energy that can be spent focusing on action steps. Try to identify one step you can take in the moment to improve your situation. Or, ask yourself the question: “what can I do right now to not make things worse for myself?”
By incorporating mindfulness and acceptance into your life, you can develop a greater sense of self-awareness, reduce reactivity, and cultivate a more compassionate and balanced approach to dealing with overwhelming feelings. Remember, these are skills that can be developed with practice over time.
Seeking Mental Health Support
If you find yourself struggling with the ups and downs of life and are unable to cope effectively, consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center. Our therapists can provide guidance, support, and strategies tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!