When we’re overwhelmed with powerful emotions, many of us might not know what to do. Or we might rely on habits that are less than helpful. We might avoid our emotions. We might isolate ourselves. We might drink or turn to other substances.
These behaviors might be especially problematic if you experience intense emotions often and for longer periods of time than other people. Individuals who do are emotionally sensitive.
Thankfully, whether you’re struggling with powerful emotions occasionally or on a regular basis, you can learn to process them healthfully. Doing so is a skill.
In her book The Emotionally Sensitive Person: Finding Peace When Your Emotions Overwhelm You psychologist Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D, shares a variety of valuable strategies for dealing with intense emotions.
Here are three of my favorite techniques from Hall’s excellent book.
1. Connect to the cause.
Knowing the cause of your emotions helps you figure out how to cope effectively. For instance, if you’re worried about an upcoming snowstorm, it makes sense to stock up on food and put snow tires on your car, writes Hall, who pens the Psych Central blog “The Emotionally Sensitive Person.”
If you’re anxious about a loved one’s minor surgery, you can wait until it’s over and find ways to comfort yourself in the meantime, she writes.
It’s also important to use specific, factual statements, instead of general statements, which only heighten your overwhelm.
As Hall writes, instead of saying to yourself, “My mom’s a selfish jerk,” you’d say, “My mom said she was angry and fed up that I asked for rent money again.” The latter helps you find a solution to your problem. The former only makes you feel hopeless and stressed out.
To connect your emotion to its cause, Hall suggests filling in the below statements or questions whenever you experience a strong emotion. Do this for a week to help you spot your patterns.
- Emotion you’re experiencing: ____________________
- Event that triggered the emotion (be specific): ____________________
- Can you solve or lessen the problem? Is there any action to take?
- If the problem can’t be easily solved but is time limited, how can you comfort or distract yourself?
2. Use your body for emotional clues.
Naming an emotion is powerful for dealing with it. There’s a physiological reason for this, according to Hall, also the director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, Texas.
The amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight response, acts without thinking. This can lead to impulsive actions. However, once we name an emotion, we activate the prefrontal cortex, which is the executive center of the brain. It communicates to the amygdala to calm down.
In this exercise Hall suggests noticing the sensations you’re experiencing any time you feel a specific emotion, such as sadness, anger, hurt, joy, excitement or shame. Write down the emotion, followed by the body sensations.
Also, pay attention to the body sensations you experience in response to what happens or what people say. For instance, you might experience exhaustion, a headache or stomachache.
3. Practice WAIT.
WAIT helps you figure out the best way to act when you’re overwhelmed with your emotions. It consists of:
- Watching your emotion. That is, notice how the emotion feels in your body, what triggered it, what thoughts are swirling in your mind about it and any urges you might have.
- Accepting that you’re experiencing this emotion (even though you might not want to experience it). Remind yourself that it’s OK to feel whatever arises. You don’t need to act on it or against it. As Hall writes, “… efforts to control your emotions by resisting or attempting to get rid of them are just another way of allowing your emotions to control you, because you’re still letting them dictate your behavior.” Reflect on what it’s like to accept an emotion.
- Investigating what your emotion is trying to tell you. For instance, if you’re angry about work, maybe that means you need to set tighter boundaries or look for another job.
- Taking your time with acting on your emotion. Try to wait until you’ve calmed down, so you can think more clearly. Consider: “How were your thoughts about what action to take different after the emotion passed?” (Because the emotion will pass.)
As with the other techniques, try laying this out on paper.
Feeling powerful feelings may be an overwhelming process on its own. But know that you can learn to cope effectively with your emotions. The key is to practice these skills (and any other healthy skills that help). Over time, you just might find that they turn into habits.