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.


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?


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_______.”


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.

Talking to your friends and family

Behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others that they’re okay to do the same. The question is, how do you do it?

Have you ever opened up to a friend or family member with a problem, hoping for a listening ear, a hug or the chance to vent? Did you receive advice you didn’t ask for, worse still a judgement, or an ‘I told you so!’, a ‘Pull yourself together!’ or even a ‘Come on now, all you need to do is…’.

Often these reactions are well-intentioned, but they can also be extremely annoying or even hurtful, leaving you feeling frustrated, patronised or misunderstood; you may even feel guilt from offloading and it can be off-putting to open up when we can’t be sure of the response we’ll get.

So what’s going on here?

The thing is, when we see people we care about suffering it’s only natural to want to help them solve their problems; we may want to take away their stress or sadness somehow, or we might jump to feeling angry with them or whatever is behind their distress. We can often react quickly, based on our own views, and we do all of this before they have even finished what they want to say. This can result in shutting down a conversation even if we didn’t intend to.

For example, someone in the midst of a break up is unlikely to benefit from a blunt, ‘Plenty more fish in the sea, let’s get you on tinder’ response.  Or a student struggling to choose between universities doesn’t need to be told ‘Well if you can’t make this decision how on earth are you going to manage on your own when you get there.’.

The good news is that we can interrupt this unhelpful dynamic; we can find the courage to speak up and learn the skills to set up a conversation that meets our needs. Or, as listeners, we can learn to really help our loved ones.

In the counselling room I often help clients to play out difficult conversations. This can be a great way to work out what you really want to say, prepare for the responses you might get and find the confidence to start those difficult conversations in a more thoughtful way.

Setting up a conversation…

Two people drinking coffee

Step 1: Choose your listener

Who you choose to seek support from can be really important. Sometimes our loved ones can seem too close to the situation to remain impartial. You may worry about burdening others with your problems or being judged by them. These fears are common, and they are manageable. Showing your vulnerability takes courage and strength; the opposite of weakness. It’s about being real rather than putting on a brave face and trying to cope on your own. There’s no avoiding the risk you take in opening up, but you can manage that risk by choosing someone you trust. It’s important to be absolutely clear about what you need from them and more important perhaps, to tell them what you don’t need!

If you don’t feel you have anyone you trust enough to talk to them you may want to consider counselling as an option. You can also speak to a trained listener anytime of day or night by contacting Samaritans

Step 2: Think about the location and timing

Where and when are you going to have this conversation? Avoid places full of interruptions or places where you might be overheard. Try taking a walk together or finding a quiet time with a cuppa. In fact, research shows that walking is good for the brain. Not only that, but many people find the act of walking an excellent stress reliever in itself, and even better to have someone with you. I don’t know about you but when I’m walking I often find my thoughts begin to take better shape. Car journeys can work well too. The key here is to ensure you have the space and time you need, in a place that you feel comfortable, and make sure you both put your phones away.

Step 3: Don’t be afraid to put some structure in place

If you’re the one asking for help, avoid blurting out the problem with no prior warning. You’ll take the other person by surprise and you’re way less likely to get what you need. Instead try to initiate the conversation calmly at a time that suits you both.

Here are a few useful phrases to get you started:

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something that’s not easy for me. Do you have some time in the next day or two to have a chat?’

I’ve got something weighing on my mind that I need to offload. I don’t want advice or even your opinion really, just some space to get this off my chest, would that be okay?’

If you’re helping someone else, learn to be a good listener. Clarify what you have heard, summarise it back to them and then, only if they ask, help them to come up with solutions or offer your opinion. Focus on them.

Clarify: Make sure you know what this person wants:

Are you looking for advice or would you rather I just listen?’ ‘Can I just check I have understood correctly?

Summarise: Let them tell their story. Resist the urge to take control with your own solutions and don’t weigh in with your opinions or judgements. Instead, communicate your understanding of their situation:

So, it sounds like you’re really angry with your boss and you’re struggling to cope with the stress, and you don’t know what to do.’

This helps the other person feel genuinely heard and understood, this can be invaluable!

Ask questions: Put them in the driving seat.

‘What do you think your options are here?’ ‘Would you like me to help you come up with some solutions or do you just want a hug?’

All of these suggestions should give both sides the chance to slow down, make time for each other and generate more supportive conversations. Give it a try and let me know in the comments how you get on. What might a half hour walk once a week with a good friend, partner or family member do for your wellbeing?

Remember, behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others they’re okay to do the same. You might be surprised with the connections you make.

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