This article describes how emotions and feelings work, and introduces a flexible strategy for addressing intense feelings when they begin to overwhelm you.
Want to know why I first saw a therapist? Like many young adults entering university, I had been launched into independence only to discover that I had almost no understanding of myself or the world around me. My response? Intense anxiety, sadness, and shame. And I had no idea what to do with these feelings, though I was desperate to get them under control.
The emotional struggle is real
One of the most prevalent reasons why people seek mental health support from counsellors and psychiatrists is because they’re experiencing unmanageable emotional distress, and they want to find ways of alleviating their strong unpleasant feelings.
The fact that so many people seek professional help for dealing with emotions might have something to do with the lack of education around feelings. We’re rarely (if ever) directly taught about emotions in school or other institutions. At home, most of us grew up with parents who may not have had the time, education or resources to effectively demonstrate or teach us how to deal with difficult feelings.
The point is, we never learned what emotions are and how they work. Now, when our feelings start to get intense, we don’t know what to do.
Feeling out the basics
It’s important to understand some details of how feelings operate so that we know how to work with them, rather than against them.
Most of us use feeling and emotion interchangeably, as I do in this article, but there are some key differences between them. There’s a huge amount of research behind these ideas, but I’ll simplify it down to the main concepts:
Emotions are automatic physical processes that happen in the brain and the rest of the body in response to an external stimulus.
We are often unconscious of emotions. They are observable by indicators such as facial expression, body position, eye contact, heart rate, sweating or shaking.
Emotions are the starting point for feelings. When we notice the sensations of an emotion, we unconsciously interpret a meaning behind the emotion to understand it as a feeling.
Feelings often seem complex or confusing because our minds are bringing a lot of elements together to create an overall experience. Feelings are made up of our emotions, thoughts, behaviours, and our interpretation of the context in which they all take place.
One of the big takeaways here is that feelings are rooted in the body and combined with psychological processes. This means that we can address difficult feelings through a few different channels, giving us some options for addressing them. Many approaches to emotional regulation are effective, but the rest of this article will focus on strategies specific to very strong feelings.
Responding to intense feelings
When we find ourselves in a state of intense emotional distress, it can feel like we’re losing control of our feelings. It might feel like a downward spiral of overwhelm, and it can be truly frightening. In this state, it might seem like our thoughts are running around in circles, or just out of touch completely. This kind of distress can happen with anxiety, grief, fear, and anger.
I teach the following structure to my clients to help them address their intense emotions in an effective, healthy way. The aim isn’t to get rid of the emotion entirely – that might not be a realistic goal depending on your situation. What these steps provide is a strategy to get out of the downward spiral and reduce the intensity of the unpleasant feelings.
During emotional distress
These 4 steps combine physical strategies with thinking strategies. If you’re ever too worked up to engage with the thinking strategies, focus on the physical strategies until you calm down further.
Take yourself through this process when you find yourself emotionally distressed:
Notice the feeling – Feelings are a complex mix of physiological sensations with thoughts and beliefs about ourselves. Try to separate the physical sensations from the emotion by locating them in the body. There might be a lump in the stomach, hot ears and face, tightness in the throat, or a slight headache. You can label the intensity of the feeling on a scale of 1 to 10. Getting to know these sensations will help you learn how to identify what you’re feeling.
Name the feeling – You might be able to easily identify which emotion is happening in you, but sometimes it’s helpful to look at a list of emotions if you’re unclear about which you’re experiencing. If you’re not sure how to label your feelings, you can give them symbolic names like ‘cloud’ or ‘red’. Try to avoid judgmental works like ‘horrible’ or ‘wrong’ to keep your stance on the feeling neutral.
Accept the feeling – Some of the intensity behind the feeling might come from our resistance to the unpleasant emotion. After noticing and naming the feeling, you can relieve some tension by letting go of any resistance to the feeling and accepting that it’s happening. This might sound like, “I’m feeling really angry, and that’s ok”. Remind yourself that all feelings are temporary and that you won’t feel this way forever.
De-intensify the feeling – Many activities can help you calm down from strong emotions, and you can try out tools to find ones that work for you. These tools are known as grounding activities because they bring your agitated physiological systems down from a heightened state of activity towards homeostasis (i.e. calm). You may still feel the emotion after your grounding activity, but the idea is to get your body out of a state of emergency. Once grounded, you’ll be more capable of thinking clearly and making decisions.
After emotional distress
Following a period of emotional distress, it’s important to rest and reflect on the experience once you have the time, space and energy:
Reflect on the feelings – Ask yourself questions to try and make sense of your feelings. When did the feelings start? Where did they come from? Are you reacting to something in the present or in the past? Did the intensity of your reaction match the nature of the event you reacted to?
Normalise the feelings – Remind yourself that your emotions are natural physiological processes that tell you important information about yourself in the world. There is nothing inherently ‘bad’ about your feelings, even if they are unpleasant to sit with. They are a part of the human experience – if you asked enough people, you’d find someone who felt similar at some point in their life.
Putting in the effort to understand the story behind strong feelings is a crucial part of emotional regulation. With an understanding of why the feeling is happening, even an incomplete one, we can more easily accept the feeling. With this acceptance, we’re less likely to beat ourselves up for reacting strongly in the first place. Treating all your emotions as ‘normal’ will help you calm down in the immediate, but also improve your relationship with emotions in the long run.
You can read more about how to relate to your emotions to promote effective emotional regulation in my next blog post.
A practice worth practicing
As I said, you might be left with some remnants of the unpleasant feelings even after going through this regulation process. It’s true that identifying your feelings and going for a run won’t take away all the sadness from a breakup, or the anxiety about an upcoming presentation. But de-escalating those difficult feelings is the first step to making them more tolerable and allowing yourself to process whatever experience initiated those emotions in the first place.
Like everything we do, this strategy becomes more natural and intuitive the more we use it. The first time might feel clunky. The third time, you might realise that switching the order of the steps works better for you. By the twentieth time, you might not even recognise that there’s a process happening because it’s now second nature to you.
Although emotional regulation requires effort and patience, it’s a key skill that we all need to develop so that we can take care of ourselves when unpleasant feelings start taking off.