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Managing Emotions

This is the first in a series of blogs about managing emotions and is an introductory look at how we all experience a whole spectrum of emotions – and rather than instantly labelling then “good” or “bad”, we could simply see them as messengers, sources of information that can be extremely valuable to us. It will also look briefly at some ways in which we can better manage our emotions and this theme will be expanded in my future blogs. I will look at the power of using a process called focusing (or using the “felt sense”), to check in with how w are feeling.

Future blogs will look at the emotions of anxiety and panic and how we can handle these, as for example, in a panic attack. It also looks at  emotional flashbacks which are often associated with trauma and PTSD where we are filled with distressing and confusing emotions from the past and how to manage these. 

Good and bad emotions?

Some emotions are positive and feel good – happiness, joy, interest, curiosity, excitement, gratitude, love, and contentment. Negative emotions can be difficult at times – sadness, anger, loneliness, jealousy, self-criticism, fear, shame, guilt and loneliness can be difficult, even painful at times. This is especially true when we feel a negative emotion too often, too strongly, or we dwell on it too long.

Learning about managing intense emotions is one of the most common reasons people come for counselling. Strong feelings can signify that we are fully embracing life, that we are not repressing perfectly natural reactions. It’s normal to experience some emotional overwhelm from time to time, both when something wonderful happens or when something terrible happens. So, how do we know when there’s a problem?

Emotions that regularly get out of hand might lead to:

  • A sense of being “out of control” in our daily lives
  • Difficulties in our relationships 
  • Using substances or other addictive habits to help manage our emotions
  • Physical or emotional outbursts

 Regulation, not repression

We can’t control our emotions with a dial or an on/off switch! But even if this was the case, we wouldn’t want to switch them off entirely. Healthy emotional expression involves finding some balance between overwhelming emotions and no emotions at all. Repressing our emotions, feeling numb a lot of the time,  can contribute to mental and physical health symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression and low mood
  • Sleep issues
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Difficulty managing stress
  • Unhealthy addictive habits

A quick guide to managing our emotions

  • Identify the emotions (there is often more than one playing out at the same time)

Imagine for example your boss has, yet again, called and asked you to work late on an evening you had plans to do something special. Your initial reaction may be (unsurprisingly!) to feel like hurling your phone across the room. Taking a moment to check in with yourself about your mood can help you begin gaining back control. Quickly interrupt yourself by asking:

  • What am I feeling right now? (disappointed, raging, fear)
  • What happened to make me feel this way? (He takes me for granted, this has happened too often)
  • Does the situation have a different explanation that might make sense? (Things have been really busy at work recently and I know my boss is under pressure from HIS boss, he isn’t the worst boss really)
  • What do I want to do about these feelings? (Scream, vent my frustration by throwing things, call him back and refuse.)
  • Is there a better way of coping with them? (Take 5 minutes time out, rearrange my plans for the evening, get the work done as quickly as possible and think about how to respond if I am asked to work late again).

By considering possible alternatives, we are reframing our thoughts, which can help us modify our first extreme reaction. NB It can take some time before this response becomes a habit. With practice, going through these steps in our head will become easier (and more effective).

  • Accept ALL your emotions

Something to be aware of if we are trying to get better at managing emotions, is that we start to downplay our feelings to ourselves. It might seem helpful to tell ourselves, “Just calm down,” or “It’s not that big a deal, so don’t freak out” but this invalidates our experience. We are trying to ACCEPT emotions as they come, even the intense ones – feeling them fully, but not reacting in extreme, unhelpful ways.  To practice accepting emotions, try thinking of them as messengers. They’re not “good” or “bad.” They’re neutral. Maybe they bring up unpleasant feelings sometimes, but they’re still giving us important information that you can use.

  • Keep a mood journal

Writing down our feelings and the responses they trigger can help uncover any disruptive patterns. As we reflect on them more deeply we may recognise when specific circumstances, like trouble at work or family conflict, contribute to harder-to-control emotions. Identifying specific triggers makes it possible to come up with ways to manage them more easily productively.


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: What are Emotions? Mindfulness and Emotions Fifty Shades of Crappy