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Feeling “Problems” and What May Help

Problem: Feelings are faster than thought.

You are angry (or anxious or sexually aroused) before you know it. In the split second before thinking can register what is happening, an emotional reaction has already developed. We are always one step behind our emotions. Emotions are triggered by a set of reactions that is older and faster than thinking. Imagine a band of humans walking across the plains of Africa when, suddenly, a lion jumps out from behind a bush. Who got eaten? Those who reacted immediately or those who gave the situation some thought?

Suggestion: The best we can do is to become aware of an emerging reaction as soon as possible and decide what to do about it from the reality-based perspective provided by thinking. Sometimes, however, it can take minutes, or even days, to realize that you have been caught up in an emotional reaction which, by then, may have affected others and generated consequences which have reinforced the runaway feelings in yourself and others.

When you have finally cooled off emotionally and become able to think, you can stop and take responsibility for the consequences of your reaction, especially its effect on others. It is the “lion” in you that simply got out of hand!

Problem: Feelings can “take over” our thinking.

An evolving emotional reaction can “take over” our thinking. Anger may generate angry thoughts, which then feed the anger with all sorts of “reasons,” thought patterns, memories and fantasies. Instead of double-checking our initial response, our thinking gets hijacked. Our feelings are in the driver’s seat and we can end up careening down the road.

Suggestion: Try to identity the moment when you “decided” to let the feeling take over. This may be difficult, because it wasn’t a thoughtful or deliberate decision. But something flashed through your mind just before you hit the emotional accelerator. Such behavior is usually linked to some sort of memory. For example, you may harbor the memory of having to deal with an angry parent who wouldn’t tolerate your anger. When provoked, you may feel that old anger well up within you and “decide” to express it now rather than “stuffing it” like you did as a child. If you can identify the memory, you can recognize more options for yourself than the memory may contain; in this case, more options for managing anger other than “rage” or “stuffing it.”

Problem: Feelings can trigger “secondary” feelings that heighten the emotional reaction.

Imagine being anxious about being anxious, or being afraid of being afraid, or being angry about being angry. Can you see how your feelings would escalate out of control? The original feelings are amplified by how you feel about them. We can get caught in these emotional chain reactions, taken over by a self-reinforcing “vicious circle” of feelings.

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Suggestion: The original feeling probably isn’t as big and hard to manage as the secondary feeling makes it seem. You can practice distinguishing the original feeling and the feeling that you have about that feeling. You might then be able to imagine changing the secondary feeling: What if I weren’t scared of being scared? How else could I feel about being angry? This can be a very liberating process, full of new options and happier possibilities. You can practice new reactions in your imagination and then in “real life.” And if you can change the secondary feeling, might this suggest that you could possibly change the original feeling? What if I were excited rather than scared? What if “anger” was really “hurt?”

When the original feelings are given a chance to be themselves, we can begin to feel the deeper emotional movement and empowerment of a life in which feelings are experienced.

Problem: Feelings can set off “vicious circles” of interaction.

Imagine a child being scared. The child’s feeling triggers fear and perhaps anger in the parent. The parent’s feeling scares the child even more; the “super-scared” child, in turn, scares the parent even more!

These “vicious circles” can be hard to stop. Emotional reactions can reverberate and escalate between two people in a split second. They can become automatic and internalized — a ready-made problem waiting to happen. For instance, this child is likely to grow up being scared of being scared. We can imagine how this old “vicious circle” could get re-triggered in this grownup child’s marriage. Such “vicious circles” underlie many marital problems.

Suggestion: Couples can begin to identify these vicious circles and team up to overcome them. This means becoming less “reactive.” Before reacting, pause to consider if a vicious circle is set to begin. If you can do this, you will see that you have more options than your original reactive impulse. You can reach out to your partner in a more sympathetic and effective way.

Problem: We can have “mixed feelings” and internal conflicts.

Human beings generally do not have “simple reactions.” We don’t just experience the “here-and-now.” Before we have a chance to think, our initial emotional reaction sets off all sorts of memories, feelings, and action impulses. Our mind has to deal with this confusing assortment of contradictory information. Part of us may say, “Go ahead — she is a good mother,” while another part may say “Don’t do it — she has hurt you in the past.” We feel an “internal conflict” which can be difficult to tolerate.

Suggestion: Accept that life is mostly a “mixed bag,” and that this leads to mixed feelings. Take a moment to identify your mixed feelings and then work with them. It is good, for example, to be able to be angry at someone and, at the same time, to remember that you love them. If you tried to simplify your feelings by being only angry or only loving, you would be making a mistake about yourself, the other person, and your relationship. However, if you hold onto all your mixed feelings and think about them, while putting off the confusing impulse to act on all of them simultaneously, you will probably figure out a way to bring them all into a coherent picture rather than remaining stuck in an “internal conflict.”

When contained and orchestrated by thoughtfulness, mixed feelings can become complex and refined feelings. You will be able to be more lovingly angry and more maturely loving.

Problem: Attempts to change feelings can backfire.

People can try all sorts of ways to change their feelings. Some backfire. For example, if I am feeling sad or anxious, I might “take something” or “do something” which relieves me of these feelings and makes me feel momentarily better. But what if this “positive” effect wears off after a while and I end up feeling bad again — or even more edgy or depressed? My brain might say “I know how to make you feel better again — take another swig, have another drag, eat another cookie, put the blame on someone else again, let’s go back to the casino.”

Such “solutions” may “work” for a while but what if they eventually make the problem worse and we react by trying the “solution” more and more? The endless ups-and-downs of such temporary fixes can begin to disrupt the rest of life. Once again, a self-reinforcing “vicious circle” has captured us. If, to this emotional vicious circle, you add “withdrawal” symptoms, which occur when substances are overused, then you have the recipe for a full-blown addiction.

Suggestion: Watch out for temporary emotional “fixes.” Think about the “big picture,” not just the moment of relief. If you have become addicted to your emotional “fix,” then you have some real work to do. You have to stop the “fix” and re-experience the original problem with its assortment of feelings. Try to find support from others, especially someone who has gone through a similar experience. For full-blown addictions, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are your best bet.

Problem: Feelings can be misleading.

Feelings are body-based. We need to be aware that they may be caused by a body malfunction. Perhaps there is some “wiring problem” in our brain. Perhaps the trigger mechanism is faulty. Perhaps some body process is “out of whack” — a thyroid problem, a sugar-metabolism problem, a genetic glitch, a nutritional deficiency or the onset of a disease. If an emotional problem does not clear up, it may be that it is a symptom of a physical problem.

Suggestion: Consulting with your medical provider about “feeling problems” can be very helpful. Perhaps a physical cause can be discovered, or perhaps you will be referred to a psychiatrist or a mental health professional for further evaluation or treatment. Often, such evaluations will take some time and will involve some trial and error to discover what will help. Try having an “experimental” attitude about this — a mixture of trust and skepticism. Remember, though, that most people can be helped with problems of this type.

Feeling “Problems” and What May Help

Robert Stone

APA Reference
Stone, R. (2020). Feeling “Problems” and What May Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.