How to Deal With Strong Emotions

Stop running away from intense feelings. Avoid emotional outbursts with these helpful techniques

Two women journaling and having a discussion

Updated on August 1, 2023

Ever have this experience? You feel like your luck has finally kicked in, you're practically gliding across the ground until... a pothole knocks you off course and you feel like everything you've carefully planned has come undone. The fears and worries that you carefully hid beneath the surface of your confident veneer start crawling back out.

When emotions like these emerge, you might have an urge to tamp them down or to quickly forget about them in an effort to feel happy again. But if you don’t address the source of your worries, they will continue to return—and you’ll run the risk of breaking down or lashing out at those you love at the worst possible moments. That’s why it’s important to become mindful of your negative thoughts.

“Mindfulness is about changing our relationship to thoughts, emotions, and body sensations rather than trying to get rid of them,” notes Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, head of mental and behavioral health at Sharecare and director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. “If you’re frustrated, angry or anxious, you can’t just tell yourself to stop and think your way into being happy. If you could, we’d all be happy all of the time.”

But how can you work through your thoughts and feelings without completely ignoring them or acting irrationally? Dr. Brewer shares a few mindfulness techniques that can help you during emotional situations.

Be aware of what you’re feeling

You might have a tendency to hide strong emotions or mask them with a smile. The problem is, this doesn’t prevent them from bubbling back up at a later time.

“Instead of trying to conceal or change your emotions, you can try to acknowledge them and even allow them to be there,” says Brewer. “This helps you change your relationship to them instead.”

Figuring out why or when you’re feeling emotional can be overwhelming at first. Brewer compares this experience to a small child learning about a thunderstorm. It may seem scary, but if you break down each portion of the storm and why it occurs, it feels less frightening—and perhaps even logical.

To identify when you feel overwhelmed, start by thinking of the physiological response you may have during emotional times. For example, if you notice that you feel a tightness in your chest as your anxiety rises, this insight can help you be aware the next time you’re careening toward uncontrolled emotions.

“You can identify and become familiar with the component parts of these feelings by naming sensations as they arise in your body,” says Brewer. “You can name heat, tightness, sinking, restlessness, and so on so that you can see that these are simply sensations that come and go.”

H.A.L.T. for a moment

Sometimes emotional outbursts are born out of simple biological needs. Brewer suggests trying a technique called H.A.L.T., which stands for hungry, angry or anxious, lonely, and tired. If you’re experiencing any of these needs or feelings, it may exacerbate any negative emotions.

“If you’re hungry or tired, that’s the time when you’re most likely to snap at a co-worker, your partner, or your own kids,” says Brewer.

By checking in with yourself, you can take care of your basic needs to prevent blowing up in anger, spiraling into anxiety, or experiencing other detrimental emotional responses.

Some tactics to try: Schedule time to eat a healthy meal. Call a loved one each day. Schedule an early bedtime if you’re exhausted. Make sure these basic health needs are still being prioritized during times of stress in order to stay grounded.

Run toward your feelings

It may seem easier to run away from any negative feelings, vowing to address them at another time. But that often isn’t the right strategy.

“Your emotions will look for your first sign of weakness, and come spilling out all at once,” reminds Brewer. “This means that the only way you can move beyond anger flare-ups, anxiety, panic, and the like is to turn toward them so you can see them for what they are: thoughts, emotions, and sensations.”

Try reconciling with your emotions by practicing mindfulness techniques. You might also consider trying a deep breathing exercise or progressive muscle relaxation. This can help you stay calm and examine whether the intensity of your feelings is warranted.

If you can think clearly about your emotions, try writing them down using a practice called “thought records.” Document your current situation and the thoughts and emotions you’re feeling. Then record why your feelings are accurate, followed by why they might not be true. Read these aloud to yourself and decide if your emotional response to the situation was helpful. If not, and if you would do things differently, write down your new thoughts and actions.

Remember when you’ve felt this in the past

“Awareness helps you see how unhelpful old habits can be, so you’re less likely to repeat them in the future,” Brewer notes.

Think about the last time you’ve had a strong emotional response, such as staying up way too late worrying about things you have no control over. It probably was not helpful to your mental or physical well-being.

“They really aren’t rewarding. Awareness helps you see this clearly,” notes Brewer.

Remembering past outcomes will help you develop a plan to manage future emotions and communicate them to others in a calmer way.

If you are able to identify and welcome your feelings—while remembering what happened when you let them go unaddressed in the past—you’ll be less likely to follow the same path in the future.

“Learning how to change your relationship to whatever comes your way also helps you become more resilient in life in general,” says Brewer. “It helps you embrace strong emotions when they come—whether joy, sadness, or anger—and also helps you let go of them rather than trying to hold onto or manufacture the ‘good’ ones and get rid of the ‘bad’ ones.”

If you are having trouble controlling your anxiety during uncertain times, visit Sharecare’s website for more resources. For an immersive, evidence-based mindfulness experience, sign up for Dr. Jud’s Unwinding Anxiety program.

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Richa Bhatia. “Accessing Your Ability for Mindfulness in Times of Stress: Mindfulness at Your Fingertips.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health.” Family Doctor. July 22, 2019.
Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. “Neuroscience. 2nd edition.”
Christopher Willard. “A Simple Strategy for Creating New Habits.” Mindful. January 24, 2017.
“Stress and Coping.” CDC. April 16, 2020.
Susie Musch. “The Magic of Opposite Action.” University of Oregon.
Laura Markham. 10 Tips to Manage Strong Emotions. Psychology Today. October 31, 2017.
“Mindful Breathing.” Greater Good In Action.
“Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation.” University of Michigan. December 15, 2019.
Greg Dubord. “Part 9. Thought records.” Canadian family physician vol. 57,8 (2011): 913-4.
“Putting Your Thoughts on Trial: How to Use CBT Thought Records.” International Bipolar Foundation.
“The Science Of Emotion: Exploring The Basics Of Emotional Psychology.” University of West Alabama. June 27, 2019.

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