How to cope with overwhelming emotions
We will all experience difficult times in life. For many people, the feelings triggered at these times can be overwhelming, leading to situations that can feel completely out of control. In some instances, this can lead to people breaking down, lashing out, and causing harm to themselves or others.
From failing an exam to feeling stressed at work, the triggers for these events are personal and wide-ranging, and what might be something small to one person can feel catastrophic to someone else. But whether the cause of your distress is physical or emotional, the skills you need to handle the experience in a healthy way are the same.
It's important to have the right tools for the job, so try to build a toolkit of activities and skills that you can dip into at difficult times. Here are a few tried-and-tested ideas.
When we experience strong feelings of pain, it can be very difficult to think of anything else. Sometimes this can lead us to act in ways that prolong or increase our suffering.
In the heat of the moment, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take our minds off things. This might involve walking away from the situation until you are back in control of your emotions. Bear in mind that distraction is not the same thing as avoidance – it is a temporary ‘time out’, which enables you to come back to a difficult situation with the emotional resources that you need to tackle the situation head-on.
Take some time now to consider what sort of things you could do to distract yourself from difficult thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations. What activities do you enjoy doing? Could you listen to music or watch your favourite TV show? Take an exercise class or go for a walk?
Self-soothing and relaxation
When we are upset as children, we often have someone around to soothe us, be that a parent or relative, a teacher. But as adults, we often have to soothe ourselves in distressing times, which can be much harder. Learning to be kind to yourself is not easy for everyone, particularly if others have not shown you the same kindness. However, this is a really important thing to develop as both your body and mind function better when you are relaxed; giving you the strength and resilience you need to combat difficult times.
Often, when we are very distressed, we become focused on our thoughts and emotions and are removed from our body and our environment. This is why it’s so important to use your senses when trying to relax.
Think of ways in which you can reconnect with your body and the world around you. Are there pleasant smells, textures, tastes, sounds, sights, or other sensations that you could engage with? Perhaps you could light a scented candle, watch waves crashing at the seaside, listen to relaxing music, or take a hot bubble bath? Some people like to carry a meaningful photo, a favourite perfume, or a comforting fabric with them so that they have an object that they can connect with at times of distress.
Experiment with the senses that you find most relaxing and find ways to draw upon objects or activities that tap into these senses when you most need them.
Making a Plan
Once you have thought about the sorts of tools and techniques that you find helpful at distracting or soothing you, make a plan about how you will use these at difficult times. For instance, you could write a list of things that could help you and keep it close to hand, or somewhere you are likely to find it if you are in crisis – perhaps on the fridge, or next to your keys. If you are likely to be triggered by something specific, or if you fall into predictable patterns, you could write a letter to yourself reminding you of what you need to do in these moments.
Remember, when we are distressed it becomes much harder to make decisions, to think clearly, and to remember times when we felt differently. That’s why it’s important to write down your plan and to keep it somewhere easy to access, so you have a clear guide to follow when your mind might not be working at its best.
Everyone experiences periods of distress from time to time, and when we don’t have the right tools available to us it can be really difficult to know how to tolerate it. There are some people, such as those with borderline personality disorder, who find this particularly difficult.
The intensity of emotional experiences can sometimes lead us to make unwise choices that can prolong our suffering. Here we have discussed the importance of taking the time to tailor make a plan for yourself to use at these unpredictable and painful times so that the next time distress strikes you, you can manage it more effectively.
Tolerating distress is never easy and sometimes you might need a professional hand to help you through. If you or a loved one is experiencing overwhelming emotions and you would like to speak to someone, call 0203 326 9160 to see how we can help.