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.

Befriending your emotions

This post was inspired by the wonderful Emmy Van Deurzen – a philosopher, artist and existential psychotherapist who I had the benefit of hearing talk at an event put on by the Brighton Therapy Partnership last year. You can watch her lecture to the Weekend University on ‘Managing your Emotions’ if you’d like to hear more!

Emotions are not just extreme responses to special situations. They are actually essential daily messages

Emmy Van Deurzen

People often come to counselling for reasons such as wanting to reduce their anxiety, prevent their angry outbursts or ‘get rid’ of their depression. Whilst these are understandable goals, they are framed in a way that implies that our emotions are to be avoided, dampened or dismissed. The main message that I took from Emmy’s talk, and that I want to pass on to you, is that all of your emotions are valid and important. There are no good or bad emotions. Consider befriending your emotions, tune in, rather than block out.  

Emmy describes emotions as signposts, daily messages, proof that we are alive, that our body, brain and nervous system are working and reacting to the world around us and to our needs as human beings. The complexity and variety of our emotions is what makes us human and our emotions have something to tell us. In this way, counselling can be an opportunity for growth and learning, time each week to work on understanding what drives your emotions and what messages they have for you.

We can learn to listen to our emotions, feel their intensity, let it pass and then exercise curiosity rather than judgement. We might ask: What message is behind this emotion? What task do I need to take on? What is really going on here? What do I need right now?

Many of us have never learned how to pay attention to our internal world and we may also have internalised the stigma around asking for help or expressing our so called ‘negative’ emotions. You might believe that you should be able to cope better, that you shouldn’t be struggling or that other people are worse off so you shouldn’t be feeling sad. These mindsets are both unhelpful and unrealistic. It also happens that reaching out for help can provide the very thing we are often seeking – authentic connection to others,  one of our basic human needs. If you feel you have a version of yourself that you try to show to the world and a ‘real’ version inside then over time this will become exhausting. 

How do I tune in to my emotions?

Facing your emotions can be scary for a number of reasons. It can often seem less painful to look the other way, minimise them, or discount them entirely, so that in the short term at least, you don’t have to deal with them and the discomfort and pain this might entail. You may have learnt to do this to survive growing up, perhaps certain emotions were frowned upon in your family or you needed to switch your emotions off in order to cope with your environment. Whatever the reason, as an adult, you may find that your emotions come in intense waves when you can no longer hold them at bay or you may feel disconnected from the world around you. 

In the same way that it is necessary for us to attend to our physical selves (we must eat, sleep and exercise to avoid illness), it is also necessary for us to attend to our emotional world so that we can be mentally well. When we let ourselves feel, we are being our authentic selves, this may be uncomfortable at times but being true to ourselves also feels good. The first step is to slow yourself down and name what you are feeling.

Emotions provide both the fire and the light inside us. We need to learn to tend the fire.

Emmy Van Deurzen

Take envy for example, often seen as an ugly, unwelcome emotion. We may feel ashamed to admit our envious feelings, we might put ourselves down for feeling envy. Emmy points out in her talk that in fact, envy reflects our aspirations and our personal values. Envy can lead us to energetic motivation in our own lives. What are we working towards and what do we want to achieve? Embrace your envy, be curious about it, accept it and work out what it has to tell you. Take action. 

Similarly with anger, this has the potential to be an explosive and impulsive emotion. Anger often comes with a lot of energy that we need to learn to contain and then channel into a healthy expression of our resentment, disappointment or frustration. You might want to consider what is going on in your life that is resulting in these feelings? Your anger, like a siren, it’s telling you that something isn’t okay about your current situation. Perhaps someone is violating your boundaries, disrespecting your values, taking advantage of your good nature – the task then is to consider what you need to change in order to tend to your anger. 

Finally, one of the most common feelings that we fight against is anxiety. We can become consumed by worry and fear: What will they think of me? Will I get it right? What if I fail? The task with anxiety is to welcome the rising energy within, the butterflies in your stomach, the racing heart and to find the courage to keep going. Your threat response system is working which is a good thing! You may however, need to remind your brain that in fact you have the tools to cope. Suppressing your anxiety, or trying to switch it off, will only intensify it. Instead, learn to trust your ability to handle unexpected situations and see each one as a chance to grow, to improve and to expand your comfort zone. Take responsibility only for yourself and let everyone else take care of themselves. You deserve to live a full life, not one where you shy away from the action or stifle your potential.

We cannot expect ourselves to know how to handle every situation the first time around and remain calm. This knowledge and confidence only comes with experience and the courage to work with our emotions rather than against them. 

On a practical level, it also helps to find safe places and people to go to and recover from the adrenaline after a difficult experience. I like to run or walk in nature or reflect on my experience with a trusted friend or colleague. A little reassurance can be helpful and a reminder that we are loved and respected in all our messiness.

Get used to noticing your emotions, naming them and being curious about what’s driving them. Whatever you do, don’t judge yourself badly for feeling something. Feeling is what makes you human.

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