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How To Deal With Strong Emotions

How To Deal With Strong Emotions

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

Updated April 30, 2020, 9:30 pm

With each passing day of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s likely that you’re feeling a slew of emotions at varying intensities. There are frustrations over working from home and obstacles to keeping children engaged while they’re learning remotely. You may miss spending time with your friends and family. And days may be filled with worries about when our normal routines will return—and whether we will even feel comfortable embracing them when they do.

When strong emotions build up, there is an urge to tamp them down or to quickly forget about them in an effort to feel happy. 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, and co-founder of MindSciences, Inc. “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
There could be the tendency to hide strong emotions or mask them with a smile. Problem is, this doesn’t prevent them from bubbling back up at a later time.

“Instead of trying to closet 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. Brewer compares this experience to a small child learning about a thunderstorm. It may seem scary at first, but if you break down each portion of the storm and why it occurs, it feels less frightening—and 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.”

HALT for a moment
Sometimes emotional outbursts are born out of simple biological needs. Brewer suggests trying a technique called HALT, 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 this stressful time in order to stay grounded and happy.

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. Try a deep breathing exercise or progressive muscle relaxation. This can help you stay calm and examine whether the intensity of your feelings is warranted. Brewer has developed a free app called Breathe by Dr. Jud that takes users through a calming minute-long deep breathing routine, making it easy to practice mindfulness techniques anywhere.

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 get less likely about doing them in the future,” Brewer notes.

Think about the last time you’ve had a strong emotional response during the pandemic, such as panic-buying groceries at the store or staying up way too late worrying about things you have no control over. It probably was not helpful to your mental or physical wellbeing.

“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 on to or manufacture the ‘good’ ones and get rid of the ‘bad’ ones.”    

If you are having trouble controlling your anxiety during these uncertain times, try Unwinding Anxiety, a step-by-step program developed by Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, that is delivered to your smartphone or tablet.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

Sources:
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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