Emotions play a crucial role in our lives. They are our emotional inner compass guiding us through our actions and decisions.
We all experience positive and negative emotions in different ways and levels of intensity. We also express our emotions differently, based on several factors such as, upbringing, cultural and societal norms and personality.
There is also a tendency to pay more attention and dwell on negative experiences and emotions, than on positive ones. Researchers name it negative bias, a result of evolution. Earlier in human history, paying attention to the dangerous and negative threats was a matter of life or death. Considering this natural human tendency let us take a closer look at the impact our emotions have in our live and how can we manage our emotions.
Imagine you are having an incredibly stressful week. You have tight deadlines and a boss breathing down your neck who just scheduled a last-minute meeting asking for immediate results. Or perhaps your teenage kid has been cutting (online) classes to play video games all day long and you just got called to a (zoom) meeting with the principal.
You get to the (online) meeting – in either of the scenarios – already feeling stressed and anxious. What do you think will happen? What role will your emotions play? Most probably you feel upset, your stress levels increase, your heart starts beating faster and before you notice you are being rude or yelling at the other person. How realistic does it sound?
In the above-mentioned scenarios, emotions have been experienced and expressed. They were acting as your emotional compass influencing your actions and decision-making, though likely not in the most effective way.
Feeling overwhelmed by our emotions happens to all of us, especially in times of greater stress and anxiety. Below are 5 strategies to help you better manage your emotions.
1. Identify your feelings: Take time to check in with yourself and what you are feeling. We have talked about self-awareness before; here you are practicing emotional awareness by identifying and acknowledging your feelings. Paying attention to your thoughts and emotions is the first step. Ask yourself: 1) What am I feeling right now? – acknowledge the feeling (angry, disappointed, sad, happy). 2) What triggered this emotion? – identify what has happened in that particular situation to make you feel that way. 3) What do I want to do about these feelings? – give yourself the opportunity to express what you are feeling (scream, cry, hug someone). 4) Is there a better way to cope with these feelings (especially negative ones)? – distance yourself from the situation and explore healthier alternatives.
2. Notice the impact of your emotions: Our emotional experiences are quite rich. It is natural to feel overwhelmed – positively or negatively – when something amazing or terrible happens. Notice the impact your emotions have on yourself and the people surrounding you. When you let your emotions control you, this might lead to conflicts in relationships, difficulty connecting to others, problems at work, physical or emotional outbursts. Take time to observe your emotions and the impact they have in your everyday life. This enables you to better identify the root cause, to recognize your emotional triggers and keep working on your emotional self-regulation.
3. Aim for regulation, not repression: Positive and negative emotions co-habit within your inner world. Moreover, not all negative emotions are necessarily bad. Suppressing (consciously) or repressing (unconsciously) your emotions can highly contribute to mental and physical health symptoms, such as, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, muscle tension and pain, difficulty in managing stress. Finding the right balance between overwhelming emotions and no emotions at all (kept away in some inner drawer) takes practice. Go to bed early to ensure a good night sleep, exercise regularly, meditate, take a few deep breathes, practice meditation.
4. Express your emotions in a healthy way: Expressing your emotions – both positive and negative – is key to your psychical and emotional wellbeing. There are moments when the best remedy is to cry your heart out, scream into a pillow, or hug someone and tell them how much you love them. On the other hand, it would not be helpful to yell at your boss or punch a wall when you feel upset. Journal about your feelings, take a few deep breathes or go for a walk, talk to a professional if you keep feeling overwhelmed by your emotions.
5. Accept your emotions: Give yourself permission to sit with your emotions, positive and negative, even when it is uncomfortable. Accepting your emotions means allowing them to feel them as they come without the need to react immediately or try to change them. Yes, it may be uncomfortable and painful. When sitting with your emotions, try to picture them as an object. Give them a shape, a color, a texture, a smell. It might bring up unpleasant feelings, though they are giving you relevant information about yourself and your needs. It might seem contradictory to the above-point mentioning actions towards the emotions. But perhaps it is the combination of acceptance – acknowledging your emotions – and regulation – knowing that you have the power to transform them – the best strategy.
It takes practice to manage your emotions. There will be times when you still feel your emotions are getting the best of you. Next time you start feeling this emotional turmoil, regardless of where you are or with whom you are, take a step back. Distance yourself from your emotions and allow this mental space to happen, this gap between the stimulus and the response. Sit, go for a walk, take a few deep breathes. Do whatever you need to give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling without the need to respond immediately. Emotions – positive and negative – eventually go away on their own.
Do not judge or punish yourself for what you are feeling. Be patient, check in with yourself regularly and keep exploring and trying out which strategies serve you best.