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How to Loosen Painful Emotional Knots

Unhappy patterns in your life can be transformed more easily than you think.

Key points

  • "Emotional knots" signify emotional entanglement, compulsion, or habitual reaction of anxiety, jealousy, greed, frustration, or dissatisfaction.
  • Try mindfulness strategies like pausing and breathing, naming your emotion, accepting it as temporary, and releasing it.
  • Mindfulness distances one from negativity and cravings by engaging curiosity and acceptance.
Alberto Gasco/unsplash
Alberto Gasco/unsplash

To be human is to carry (or drag) a load of "emotional knots." Each signifies an emotional entanglement, an unhealthy compulsion, or a habitual reaction of anxiety, jealousy, envy, greed, frustration, or dissatisfaction.

Everyone has some sticky knots in their life. It could be the way you react negatively to an event or another person. Maybe it's how you always seem to attract the same unhealthy things (relationships, food, attitudes, substances) into your life—and it drives you crazy that you can't seem to change them. To make things worse, sometimes even our knots have knots! How can we ever fathom to begin untying this mess?

The thing about a knot is that when you pull on it or try to resist it, the knot only becomes tighter, and the accumulation of knots over a lifetime can leave us reactive, exhausted, and missing out on joy.

This is not to say you must jump in and remove all those knots right now; there's a time and place for everything—even working with your knots. If you pass up a knot today, you'll likely have a chance to work with it at some point in the future.

How Mindfulness Can Release the Knots

Since those knots are sticky and hard to untie, we need to have a method for removing them. Fortunately, mindfulness has been shown to help through the process of observing and accepting the knots. This process helps us distance from and interrupt the cycle of reactivity that keeps the knot in place.

A study published in the journal Appetite examined how mindfully noticing a craving helped persons cope better with it. In particular, it helped them get curious about the craving and realize that it was a temporary experience. In addition, it helped them step back and pause rather than simply react in a conditioned, habitual way. They could accept the moment instead of trying to push it away in an unhealthy way—that could create even more distress and "knots." This is how mindful awareness can disengage and free us from old, emotional life knots.

The following four-part mindfulness technique for undoing emotional knots, as found in the book Clearing Emotional Clutter, is easy to use and can be used for most kinds of emotional knots and cravings.

Four-Step Untying Knots Practice and Handout

This portable practice can be used anywhere and anytime when you notice feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, craving, or any other emotional knot in your life. Remember to take your time. After all, these knots didn't develop overnight, so be kind and patient with yourself as you slowly start to unwind any knot.

In addition, it might be helpful to journal your experience each time you notice the knot and use this practice. Over time, rate how tightly the knot feels to you, such as on a 1-10 scale (1=low and 10=high).

  1. Pause and take a breath. When you recognize the emotional knot or reactivity—stop to take a slow, mindful breath. This helps you regulate emotionally in the moment and gives you some separation from the "knot" you are experiencing.
  2. Observe and name your emotion. Get curious about the knot. What emotions are linked to this knot? If you're caught in traffic, that knot may be anger, frustration, or impatience. By naming the emotion, you take charge out of the knot and create a safe distance from it. You might even reflect inwardly on when and how this knot began to take shape in your life.
  3. Accept the knot and emotion as temporary. By accepting the knot, you've changed your relationship with it! Acceptance means that you aren't trying to resist or fight it but that you can see how it's temporary and transitory. This knot-producing situation will pass. And acceptance is a more open response to the knot—something you can choose.
  4. Release the knot and let It be. Releasing the knot means you are ready to move forward. By letting it be, you are free to participate more fully in the present moment with joy.

You can even reflect inward and ask yourself: When did my knot first get tied? You have started untying those sticky knots even if you don't get an answer. Congratulations on starting the process.

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