Regulating strong emotions

In our day to day lives, our brains are constantly monitoring the world around us and looking out for threats in order to keep us safe. Sometimes these threats can be real (a hole in the pavement that we need to avoid) and sometimes these threats are perceived threats – this means that we have interpreted a situation and decided that we are under threat, either consciously or unconsciously, even when we may not be.

For example, you see a group of people talking and looking in your direction and you quickly assume they are saying negative things about you, when in fact one of them is admiring your coat.

How we interpret interactions with others and situations in our daily lives can have a huge impact on how we feel, and ultimately how we behave.

When we experience a surge of emotion, there are two ways of managing this. We can either react or respond.

REACT – FAST AND FURIOUS!

An event occurs >> Our emotions rise up and can feel overwhelming >> We have a quick reaction and we act on it.

We might run away, shout insults, destroy something or any number of impulsive reactions. This type of reaction may or may not be useful and often happens quickly without any thought and from a place of intense feeling.

Consider what you usually do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, do you lash out, run away or something else?

RESPOND SLOW AND STEADY.

An event Occurs >> Our emotions rise up and can feel overwhelming >> We recognise what is happening in our bodies >> We take time to acknowledge and regulate our emotions – slow deep breaths, step away from the situation to generate space to think, tell ourselves the intensity will pass and let the emotion swell up and fall back down, ask yourself – what is happening here? What am I feeling and what is it telling me? >>

With increased awareness and understanding, you will be able to consider your options for action and make a choice about what you do next.

You may choose to express and articulate your feelings and needs clearly when needed: “I feel_______about_______And I need_______.”

HOW DO I REGULATE STRONG EMOTIONS?

It sounds simple in theory but we all know that in reality, when our feelings take hold, it can be really difficult to think clearly. The very first thing to practice is to recognise that something is happening, to say to yourself ‘I am having a strong emotional reaction right now’. This small window of awareness can help you to slow down the whole process and get your body out of fight or flight mode.

Once you have calmed down, you can get your thinking brain back online. This is an essential part of managing your emotions.

The following ideas take practice and you will need to find what works for you.

  • Change your state. If you are sitting down, stand up and walk. If you are indoors, step outside and feel the fresh air. If you are on your own, connect with someone your trust. The key is to ‘do’ something to kickstart a shift.
  • Communicate. If you are in conflict with another person, share with them what is happening and what you need to do. ‘I am feeling really overwhelmed right now, I need some space to think and I will be back.’
  • Breathe it out or shake it off. Sit down, feel your body in the chair, your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap and focus on taking a few long deep breaths. As you breathe out let out a big sigh, or whatever sound feels good. If sitting still is too much, stand up and shake it off, shake your arms and legs until the intensity has decreased. 
  • Focus on objects around you. Name at least five objects you can see that are a certain colour. This helps shift your attention and allows your emotions to regulate to a more manageable level.
  • Imagine a soothing presence or person – what would they say to you right now? Work on cultivating a nurturing inner voice rather than a critical one. 
  • Focus on a soothing object or place from your memory. You may carry something with you that connects you to a calmer state of mind – it might be a pebble from your favourite beach or a piece of jewellery from a good friend. 
  • Get outside, breathe the fresh air and walk for 5 -10 minutes. Pacing can help us organise our thoughts and the physical movement will help to disperse the adrenaline.

These responses take repeated practice and may feel strange and clunky at first. What you are doing is paying attention to your body/mind connection and learning how to self-regulate.

Learning to turn towards your emotions and sit with them rather than block them out or avoid them will be a valuable skill that helps you throughout your life. It will enable you to operate in a more authentic way with the world and the people around you. Counselling can also provide the invitation and opportunity to practice this in a safe space with direction and support. 

Some people also find that practicing things like meditation, mindfulness or yoga enables them to get more in touch with where they feel emotions in their body, as well as becoming more accepting of uncomfortable emotions, allowing them space to be felt, processed and managed in a healthier way. 

Fundamentally it is important to remember that your emotions matter. Putting pressure on yourself to be ‘fine’ all of the time and present that version of yourself to the world is unrealistic and will eventually lead to poor mental health.

It is far more authentic to embrace the full range of your emotions and accept them for what they are and learn how to express them.

Author: CounsellingwithJo

Humanistic Integrative Counsellor working in Brighton and Lewes.

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