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How to Cope with Overwhelming Emotions

Posted on Thursday, 02 August 2018, in Personality Disorders, Treatments & Therapy

Coping with overwhelming emotions

From time to time, we all experience difficult times and the feelings accompanying these times can be overwhelmingly strong. For some people, the feelings are so strong they can feel completely out of control, lashing out at others, ‘breaking down’ or harming themselves. The triggers for these events are personal to the individual – it might be failing an exam, a fight with a partner or a difficult time at work. What is a small event to one person can feel catastrophic to another.

Whilst we can stop difficult things happening in our lives, we can acquire a skill set that allows us to handle these emotions in a healthier way. Whether the cause of your distress is physical or emotional, the skills needed to survive the experience are the same. Here we discuss ways of coping during life’s most difficult moments – a life raft to keep you afloat until you find the shore.


Building a Toolkit

Tolerating distress is always a difficult task, and it is important to have the right tools for the job. Try to build up a toolkit of activities and skills that you can dip into at difficult times. Here are a few tried-and-tested ideas:



In the heat of the moment, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take our mind off things. Focusing on feelings of pain can make it very difficult to think of anything else, and sometimes that can lead us to act in ways that prolong or increase our suffering. Sometimes, this might even 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 it 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, watch your favourite TV show, or read a magazine? Take an exercise class or go for a walk? Get a haircut or a massage? Work on a project like a scrapbook or gardening? If you don’t feel able to distract yourself with something fun for yourself, perhaps you could consider doing something helpful for someone else – for example, doing some shopping for an elderly neighbour, or volunteering for a good cause. Not only can this take your mind off things, but it can give you positive feelings, too, like accomplishment.



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, or a sports coach. As adults, it is often down to us to soothe ourselves when we are distressed, and this is 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: both your body and mind function better when you are relaxed; giving you the strength and resilience you need to combat difficult times.

Self-soothing and relaxation


Grounding yourself

Often, when we are very distressed, we become very focused on our thoughts and emotions and are removed from our body and our environment. This is why it’s really 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. To learn more about relaxation strategies, click here.

Grounding yourself


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. 

Alternatively, you could make a “comfort pack”, made up of all the objects that are likely to make you feel better (e.g. scented candle, photo album, soft bear, herbal teas). 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. 



Thinking Differently

Expert in managing distress, Marsha Linehan (1993), advocates developing an attitude of ‘radical acceptance’. In essence, this is about acknowledging that however unfair it is that we are experiencing a certain situation, it exists, and is happening to us now. By accepting this, rather than fighting it, we can put our energy into changing either the situation or ourselves so as to alleviate the suffering, rather than prolonging it.  

Dr Linehan points out that when we are in pain we often search for causes, be they people or situations, which we can blame for our difficulties. However, this doesn’t change the situation that we are in and can often make us angrier or more despairing. This can make us feel quite stuck – not only do we not progress forwards, but it becomes even harder to think of a solution to our difficulties and it can actually make us feel worse.

Instead, she suggests that we learn to live in the present moment, which is the only moment we can change. It is important to note that this doesn’t mean condoning the events that have happened – choosing not to focus on the past doesn’t mean that you agree with it. It simply means that you have made the choice to leave your suffering in the past and to move towards a brighter path. 

Of all the skills discussed here, this is perhaps the most difficult, and it takes a lot of practice to learn. Start by introducing the idea gently into different areas of your life: accepting when your bus is late, when you are stuck in traffic, when the weather is poor, or when you have a headache. Over time this attitude of non-judgemental acceptance will become a more natural thinking style, and you can start to apply it to more difficult, emotionally evocative events.



The Take Home

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 expert support, call 0203 326 9160 to see how we can help.

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Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.

Abie Alfrey

Abie Alfrey

Abie graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a first class (honours) degree in Psychology and Philosophy. She went on to work as a behaviour therapist for young adults with autistic spectrum disorder and challenging behaviour, followed by a period as an assistant psychologist working with adults with epilepsy.

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