A friend with whom I sit for meditation said something very interesting the other day as we commiserated about practicing mindfulness during COVID-19. She shared that she felt as though all of her emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, had been heightened. Almost as though the volume had been turned up on life. We reflected upon how this vividness of our moment-to-moment experiences felt almost like walking out into the sunshine after being inside all day — a bit jarring, a bit enlightening, and mostly just intense.

Maybe you have had this experience, too. A heightened sense of irritability or frustration with your loved ones. Intense gratitude over the smallest kindnesses of others. Louder noises, deeper aches and pains, greater joy. Such is the way when stillness sets in, when the dust settles like night falling, and in the backdrop only the chirps of the night frogs and the distant sounds of the world fading to black. It is in these times of stillness that even the slightest movement or sound reverberates loudly in our consciousness.

This sense of heightened awareness may to be true for you right now, or you may move in and out of it over time. Part of me wants to note that this may be due to hyperarousal, a term suggesting movement outside of our window of tolerance of stress. If this IS what is happening, you may also notice other experiences like increased heart rate or shallow breathing, reactive behaviors like arguing with others, or difficulty with sleep. If these are present too, it may be a good idea to turn away from the feelings for a time, and towards another facet of the present moment — like into thought or the body. Noticing your present moment multi-sensory experience (the 54321 method — 5 things you see, 4 things you hear and so on), or tuning into the sensation of your feet on the earth as you take a slow intentional walk, can bring you back inside the window of tolerance and make your experience of emotions more manageable.

The other part of me, though, thinks that some of us may be experiencing things and having feelings that have been here all along, but that we never noticed in our usual state of autopilot. In this stillness, without the distractions of day-to-day life, what is often overlooked becomes clear. If this feels true for you, and if experiencing more intense emotions feels safe for you, then I say lean in. Allow yourself to grieve losses more deeply, celebrate successes from deep down in your bones. Linger awhile in your feelings, even asking them what guidance or insights they may be here to tell you. Savor all that is here, and as Rumi says “welcome and entertain them all.”

It may seem I’m pointing you in both directions, and in some ways this is true. While emotions are of value to all of us, and are worth exploring with curiosity and openness, sometimes they can be overwhelming, too. Only you know if this is a moment to tune in intently, or if it would be most effective to shift attention away. Either way, choosing with intention and honoring yourself is always where to begin.

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  1. Thank you for this Nicole! I love the idea of using 54321 to bring me back inside the window of tolerance and make my experience of emotions more manageable. I can use that for myself, my son and my students.

    1. Love this. Illuminating. Wise. Food for thought. Or…leaning in and letting go. Thanks for sharing Nikki!!!

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