For different reasons at different times, our emotions can seem to get the better of us. Sometimes, a situational crisis sends us into a tailspin and we find ourselves at the mercy of intense and difficult feelings as a result. Other times, we’re not sure why we’re emotionally off-kilter, but our feelings are getting in the way of our day-to-day functioning and activities. We might find ourselves in tears in the middle of our work day, or losing our temper with our children at home. Maybe anxiety is keeping us lying awake late at night. Whatever the cause of our distress, there are ways of coping with difficult emotions and feeling more in control of ourselves and our lives. Here are some of the most effective ways of dealing with problematic feelings.
1) Understand that feelings aren’t The Enemy in fact, they have an essential function. Emotions are basically messengers, giving us information about what’s happening to us and how we should respond. As a comparison, consider accidentally resting your hand on a hot stove burner. The pain in your hand would be a powerful message that the burner is a danger, and to move your hand ASAP. In a similar manner, a burst of anger can mean that we perceive a threat or injustice, and the surge of adrenaline that follows helps us to defend ourselves against a real or imagined threat. A feeling of depression might tell us that a job or relationship is draining our energy. The depressed feeling, in turn, might lead us to make changes that will guide us toward happiness again. If we can recognize that our feelings might be trying to tell us something, we’ll realize also the futility of trying to avoid, deny, or numb our feelings.
2) Practice noticing feelings and then letting them go. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, clients are taught to use a Teflon mind technique, in which feelings are identified, accepted, and then allowed to slip away like something sliding off a Teflon surface. Visualization can sometimes help with this. You can use the Teflon image, or imagine letting go of feelings like they are helium balloons, or any other such image that captures the idea of noticing and then releasing.
3) Rewrite your thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapists help clients to recognize the ways in which their thoughts can intensify negative emotions, and then to modify those thoughts as a way of decreasing the emotional intensity. For example, one category of thinking, known as catastrophizing, entails imagining the worst case scenario and thinking of it as inevitable. When you find yourself thinking in ways that increase negative feelings, try to experiment with modifying your thoughts. If it’s too tricky to do it yourself, you might consult a book on cognitive therapy (David Burns’ book titled Feeling Good is a classic), a mental health professional, or even a good friend. Sometimes all it takes is an objective listener to notice and help with one’s thinking patterns.
4) Get back to the basics of self-care. This may sound simplistic, but it’s amazing how skipping a meal, skimping on sleep, or being a couch potato in a darkened apartment for days in a row can affect your moods and your ability to handle them. Check in with yourself on the most basic level. How does your body feel? What do you need to do to feel better? Naps, meals, and sympathetic listeners can be powerful medicines, indeed.
5) Consider seeking professional help. Make getting professional help a top priority when: a) none of the above is working, b) you are feeling steadily worse, and/or c) you have thoughts of harming yourself or someone else. If you don’t know where to get professional help, you might try the yellow pages under mental health or social services, your primary care physician, your health insurance, and/or your clergy.
6) Last but not least, sometimes distraction can help you temporarily, at least until you can mobilize to try some of the above-mentioned ideas. A change of scene, a matinee, or curling up with a good book can be just what the doctor ordered for the short term. Just make sure that you aren’t escaping with activities that can become problematic, such as substance abuse, gambling, or casual sex.
When you’re really up against it, remember that most situations and all feelings are temporary. As the saying goes, This, too, shall pass. Sometimes, the best you can do is just stay the course and wait for the winds to change. This, in and of itself, is one strategy for coping.