Love them or hate them, we all experience them. Constantly…even when we don’t realize they’re there. Emotions are powerful forces in our lives. All of us, from time to time, have a hard time navigating our relationships when emotions are high. Some of us have gotten good at ignoring them. It’s common to use all sorts of activities and/or substances to numb them. Some of us get so swept up in emotions, that our lives are a sea of emotional chaos – volatile and out of control. Since emotions are a common part of the human experience, we need to learn how to harness their power!
What do we need to know about emotions?
The thing is, all emotions serve an important purpose. The brain and body work together to give us valuable information about what’s going on in our lives. Our brains take in sensory information and interpret it as either safe or pleasant, or unsafe/threatening or unpleasant. The brain sends the message through our nervous systems, changing the way we physically feel. This happens to motivate us to take some sort of action to try to better our situation or avoid pain or threat. In an ideal world, this process would work perfectly. Our brains would always interpret information accurately and we’d respond to these emotional promptings thoughtfully. If this were the case, the result would a proper response to every situation.
Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. We don’t enjoy experiencing painful emotions like fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, or sadness. So we often either act out defensively or try to shut down or numb our emotions. The problem is, when we do those things, the problems don’t go away. They often get worse.
How can we use emotions to improve our circumstances?
The good news is that there are things we can learn and practice that will help us strengthen our ability to feel emotions, use them to reflect on our situation wisely, and respond in ways that can help improve our circumstances. These skills include:
Grounding is helpful for times when we feel emotions very strongly.
When emotional reactions are so intense that we become overwhelmed or “flooded,” it’s necessary to put some healthy distance between ourselves and them. Focusing outward on our immediate environment can help us achieve this. For example, shift your focus to noticing and mentally labeling everything you see around you, and try to note as much detail as possible. This is particularly effective for those who experience panic attacks.
Body scans help us attune to what is happening physically.
Perhaps you’ve described feeling numb. Learning to suppress emotion is a defense mechanism. The purpose of this step is to train yourself to notice emotional sensations in your body without judging them or immediately reacting. Starting at the top of your head and slowly working your way down to your feet, tune into the physical sensations you are experiencing in your body.
Breathe deeply to help regulate your body’s systems.
It may sound trite or overly simplified, but science has proven that there is much benefit to practicing deep, slow-belly breathing. It is one of the essential elements of managing strong emotions. Imagine this as the “key” that unlocks your brain and body’s ability to use emotions wisely. You can not control your heartbeat but you can control your breathing. When you focus your thoughts on managing your breathing, your heart will follow. You are helping your brain and your body to work together healthily.
Name it to tame it.
Research in neurobiology shows that we can help tame our emotions just by labeling them. When you notice your heart racing, your chest tightening, and your breathing speeding up, try to put a label on the emotion connected to these sensations. Think about the event or thought that occurred just before you started feeling the sensations, and ask yourself, “How am I feeling about this? Am I angry? anxious? Jealous? hurt?” It may even be a combination of emotions. That’s okay! When you acknowledge what you are feeling, you are better equipped to address them healthily.
Be curious about your emotions.
Do not shame yourself for feeling a certain way or try to tell yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling that way. Emotions can’t be dictated – they just are. Instead, reflect on what it is your brain and body are trying to tell you. You may find that your reaction was based on a negative assumption, an inaccurate belief or interpretation of someone else’s motives, etc. Knowing this about yourself can be incredibly useful. Once you gently but honestly acknowledge these things, you’re better prepared to choose the wisest response.
Talk and/or write it out.
This helps us process and integrate our experiences, evaluate our options, and achieve some clarity. Again, I know it sounds so simple. Journaling has shown to be a powerful tool in helping us access the wise part of ourselves that exists behind the reactive, fear-based parts of ourselves. Some people say they dislike journaling because they just end up writing about how bad things are.
It’s important to be intentional about using journaling to move through the pain. Ask yourself questions and remember to be gentle/non-judgmental, yet honest with yourself. This can be challenging if you’re struggling to understand your feelings/have limited insight. This can be especially true if the problem is very serious or complex. Perhaps you need a trustworthy and objective individual who will meet you where you’re at, really listen to you, and help you sort through everything. Some of life’s problems are too big for us to try to manage on our own. Friends and family members can be great sources of support and counsel. (Sometimes they get caught up in the drama, have trouble staying objective, or give you bad advice.)
Are you finding that reaching out to your support people isn’t enough? Or maybe you’d like to work on managing your emotions. Consider enlisting the help of a professional who can help you navigate this process. If that’s the case, we’re here and we’re happy to help you.
Did you know that emotional health and personal empowerment go hand in hand? Check out our blog How To Be Your Most Empowered Self for more information.