Therapists Spill: How I Deal with Difficult Emotions
Difficult emotions are inevitable. Yet so many of us aren’t used to feeling them. We do other things — like distract ourselves with Facebook, snap at our spouse, paint a smile on our faces — and these other things don’t make the pain go away. Which is why it’s vital to have a collection of healthy coping strategies we can turn to. Strategies that help us to process our pain, strategies that genuinely soothe and comfort. We asked several clinicians to share what works for them — a tool or two that you might want to adopt and adapt for yourself. You’ll find their wise words below.
Psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, describes herself as sensitive and reactive. So when a difficult emotion arises, she tries to “feel” it first. Next, she processes why she’s feeling this way, trying to pinpoint the cause. Then she considers what actions she can take. “I’ve learned that dwelling in a feeling state too long can cause helplessness, so once I register the emotion, I try to figure out what I can do about it.”
If she can’t change the situation, she turns to relaxation and mindfulness practices. For instance, she suggested readers think of a favorite image, such as watching the sunset or sitting in a meadow with wildflowers. “Breathe deeply in and out while closing your eyes and visualizing your image.” Then say to yourself: “I cannot change my current situation, but I can imagine being here and being at peace.”
The intention of these kinds of practices is “not to get lost in the feeling, and to move into some kind of solution-focused experience,” said Serani, a professor at Adelphi University and an award-winning author of several books on depression, including Depression in Later Life: An Essential Guide.
The first thing psychologist and relationship expert Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D, does with a difficult emotion is to normalize it. Next, she reassures herself that she’ll get through it by reflecting on the many times she has gotten through it. “I really try to recall examples and specifically remember how I felt when I started going through a struggle and how those intense feelings faded with time.”
Nickerson also focuses on gratitude. “I try to baste my brain in positive, optimistic, grateful thoughts as often as I can because I know that gratitude is the antidote to painful thoughts.” For example, she’ll tell herself: “Yes, this horrible thing just happened, and I will deal with it, but I am really so lucky to have x, y and z in my life.”
Writing is another powerful tool for Nickerson. Specifically, she writes a letter describing her painful feelings to her mom, who passed away suddenly 5 years ago. Then she writes a response as if her mom is writing it. “It may sound a little hokey, but it’s wonderful. Her responses, which are really my responses, are always deeply loving and nurturing, and that really helps me cope.”
Nickerson also finds it helpful to make deals with herself, a strategy that her clients resonate with, as well. She shared these examples: “OK, I will let myself sit and watch TV all night, if I first spend 30 minutes putting things away.” Or, “If I am still feeling this way in 2 weeks, I will make a massive change.”