Maybe it was the argument that set you off. Maybe it was the poor performance review, the fender-bender, the sarcastic remark from your colleague, or a string of stressful events.
And you find yourself seething with rage. Or you’re heartbroken or devastated. Or you feel a profound sense of shame.
Your heart is beating faster and faster. Your palms are clammy. Your face feels hot. Your ears are burning. You feel incredibly uncomfortable. And you want to leap out of your body.
It can be hard to know how to handle your emotions when they’re so intense. After all, most of us weren’t taught this skill. But thankfully, it is a skill that you can learn—regardless of your age or past experience.
For insight, we turned to Lisa M. Schab, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and author of 18 self-help books and workbooks, including her newest book Put Your Feelings Here: A Creative DBT Journal for Teens with Intense Emotions. Below, Schab shared several actionable strategies for managing any intense emotion in the moment.
Take one conscious breath. Simply taking a single deep breath can help to relax “the muscles and begins to dissipate the stress chemicals that just shot out,” said Schab. It also delivers oxygen to your brain, she said. “This helps us to think clearly so we can make healthy, rational choices about how to proceed.”
Practice these four steps. Schab regularly teaches the below “feeling plan” to her clients.
- Name your feeling. Be very specific here. I’m feeling angry. I’m really disappointed. I’m worried. I’m embarrassed. I feel humiliated and ashamed.
- Accept this feeling. Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel whatever emotion arises. “We have a right to experience all of our feelings,” Schab said.
- Express this feeling safely. This means making sure you’re not hurting yourself or anyone else. You might talk or write about this feeling. You might draw, run, sing, dance, or play the piano.
- Care for yourself. What do you need in the moment? You might need to cry, take a walk, watch a silly video, or crawl under the covers, she said. Of course, the particular strategy will depend on where you are and how much time you have, but either way, you can find something healthy to soothe yourself with.
Target the trigger thought. First, identify the thought that sparked your intense emotion. According to Schab, these are common ones: “Oh no, I can’t handle this!” “This is terrible!” “This is unbearable.” “This is so unfair.” “This is the worst thing that could happen!”
Next, identify what you’d like to do with this thought. You might question it, decide to let it go, or revise it so it’s more accurate, she said. For example, instead of repeatedly telling yourself, “This is unbearable,” you’d say: “Wow, this is SO hard. But I will get through it,” or “I hate what just happened! I’ll take a break for a minute, calm down, and then figure out what to do.”
STOPP. According to Schab, this is another helpful acronym for managing intense emotions in the moment:
- “Stop whatever you’re doing or saying right now.”
- “Take a breath.” A single “breath can help stop the emotional ‘revving up’ cycle and begin the ‘calming down’ cycle.”
- Observe what’s happening. You might directly ask yourself: “What is going on here?” Schab said. This helps you gain a bit of distance from your emotion.
- “Pause and take a second breath,” which further promotes the relaxation response.
- “Proceed wisely.” “Once we’ve lowered the intensity of our emotion by stopping, taking a breath, and observing, we then have a better chance of deciding how to proceed in a rational way.” According to Schab, we can think of proceeding wisely as “proceeding from ‘Wise Mind,’” which is a technique from dialectical behavior therapy. (Here’s a helpful mindfulness meditation to access Wise Mind.)
When we’re experiencing intense emotions, it can feel like we have no choice but to explode. It feels inevitable.
But, as Schab said, “We’re not victims of our emotions.” We can learn to regulate the storm, she said. And, while it does take practice and can feel tough, remember that the starting point is a single slow breath. And remember that the more you practice, the easier and more natural this process will become, and the better you’ll feel.