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Managing strong emotions

Posted 08 Sep '16 by Gill Wier

Emotions are a universal human experience and they serve a useful function by indicating what is important to us and what we need to do to stay safe and healthy.  For example, happiness tells us our needs are being met, anger can help us to know where our boundaries are, sadness tells us that we have lost something or someone of value.  We often try to suppress or avoid painful emotions but this can have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing as we become disconnected from ourselves and emotions can instead manifest as physical symptoms such as headaches.

If you have been through a very difficult experience such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or a traumatic event, the strength of your emotions may feel hard to cope with.  We often look to others for support and comfort when distressed, however all of us find ourselves on our own at times so here are some ideas for coping with emotions when you are alone with them.

1. Become curious about your emotions.  Access your “observing self” by stepping back and noticing what you are feeling.    You could try imagining your emotions on a TV screen – what would they look like? Notice how the emotion feels in your body – in which area of your body is it located? Is it stronger in the middle or around the edges?  This exercise helps you realise that although you are feeling strong emotions you are more than your emotions.

2. Welcome your emotions.  Pause and notice what you are feeling. Then speak to the emotion saying “welcome fear” or “welcome grief”. Naming emotions helps them seem less scary. Allow yourself to sit with the feeling for a while.  Don’t try to make it stronger, just let it be as it is.  Allow yourself to express it in whatever way feels natural – perhaps through tears or through your posture. This willingness to accept difficult emotions will enable you to experience and express the emotion so that it passes more quickly.  If you do the opposite and try to fight or suppress the emotion it is likely to last for longer and drain your energy.

3. Reassure yourself.  When we are feeling very anxious or fearful or upset what we often need is some comfort or reassurance. As children we seek this from adults, as adults we can learn how to reassure our “inner child”.  It might help to imagine your fearful self as a small child and think what you would do if a small child needed your reassurance. Try saying something reassuring to yourself like “you will be OK, I’m going to look after you”. 

4. Don’t judge your emotion.  Emotions are neither good or bad, they are just a normal part of human experience and painful emotions are just as valid as happy emotions. When we are feeling upset that is already difficult enough – try not to add another layer of distress by telling yourself “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”. Avoid speaking harshly to yourself, instead try to be gentle with yourself.  Try not to pay attention to unhelpful things that others may say to you like “get on with it…painful should be over it by now…” as everyone’s emotional life is unique. 

I hope that these ideas will help you to feel less overwhelmed and to trust that you can cope with strong emotions.