Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by something that it feels like a tornado inside your body, your mind starts racing, or perhaps the opposite, your brain feels like it has shut down? You might know exactly what you are feeling and why, other times not so much? Other times that intensity feels less tornado like, and more buzz like, enjoyable, fun. What a rollercoaster!
Emotions provide valuable information to us and others, and helped our ancestors survive all sorts of dangers and threats (think escaping a hungry lion caveman times!). However, as we have evolved and our lives are very different now, we modern-day humans have more detailed interpretations of these emotions, and this often includes labelling them as either ‘good’ (think happiness, excitement, love) or ‘bad’ (think anger, fear, sadness).
Think back to the last time you felt really anxious about something …maybe it was a situation at work, a crowded or new/unfamiliar place? Maybe a specific phobia, like spiders or a tall height? Now ask yourself, why? What was your mind alerting you to?
Fear is a common emotion that often falls into the ‘bad’ category. Because of course! Our heart may start to race, we may struggle to catch our breath our legs can feel like jelly…typically there is a strong urge to escape…horrendous! BUT your mind/body is actually just trying to protect you. This is the function of fear – self-preservation. Babies don’t know not to touch that really hot but interesting looking thing until they have developed the fear response so we have to watch them 24/7…if we didn’t have fear we wouldn’t know not to walk out in the middle of the road without looking. We wouldn’t have lasted very long as a human race without the ability to be scared/anxious/worried!
Ok that one might have been a bit obvious, as might be the function of joy (interact, manage the other emotions), love (to care and connect), lust (to reproduce) …but what about emotions like anger and sadness, how can those be helpful I hear you ask! Well…if we never got angry, how would we know if we were being disadvantaged in some way? Sadness is helpful too, believe it or not – it alerts us to some kind of loss, signals the need to retreat and seek care.
Based on the above, we can probably deduce that the emotion itself isn’t the problem. If we are struggling with our emotions, it will typically be the intensity of the emotion that’s the problem. Some people will experience emotions more intensely than others, and sometimes there are stressful life events that lead to our emotional experiences feeling more noticeable. This means our emotions can feel overwhelming and leave us scared of losing control and being unable to cope. At these times, we want to reduce the intensity and impact of the emotion, rather than get rid of it completely.
There are some helpful ‘in the moment’ steps you might like to consider and try when you feel overwhelmed:
If you are experiencing an intense emotion, it is important to get distance first so you can respond rather than react. Buy yourself some time and make a shift in your physical environment if you can – for instance if you are sitting, stand up and walk about; if you are inside go outside if possible.
This doesn’t mean just putting up with it, but it is more about seeing the ‘negative’ emotion for what it is – an emotion, that’s trying to tell you something; and then changing how you pay attention to it. Think quicksand…I know this is not that common these days but stay with me…what are you supposed to do in quicksand? Lie back! The more you struggle to get out of it, the further in you sink into it; and this can apply to our emotions too.
You can implement some quick and simple strategies to ‘ground’ or ‘anchor’ you in the present moment whenever you feel overwhelmed. Some of these include:
If the emotions were triggered by an interaction with someone – how could you communicate how you felt and check out your interpretation of the situation is the same as what they intended and vice versa?
If the emotions were triggered by a specific situation or event, what can you do about it? Either now or for next time? It may help to list all the solutions you can think of and then look at the pros and cons of each solution to narrow that list down. Then, make a plan based on your chosen solution – what do you need to do, how, and when?
There are also other helpful things you can do more generally, for better management of emotions:
An earlier post on mindlessness vs mindfulness (INSERT LINK) gives some tips on why it is helpful to be mindful and how to be more present.
I know this is mentioned a lot and everywhere, but there really are some huge benefits to maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle when it comes to managing our emotions. Lack of sleep makes us irritable and affects concentration, so it is understandable this will have a knock-on effect on our mood.
Diet can have such an impact too – certain foods make us sluggish and lethargic, and therefore less able to think clearly when something happens; and we may also use food as a coping mechanism for unpleasant emotions which then creates a vicious cycle leaving us feeling worse. Healthy balance is key to managing our emotional wellbeing.
Physical activity can help improve our mood and overall emotional well-being. Especially when we feel anxious or angry – exercise can help burn off some of the adrenaline that our bodies release at these times.
If you notice that your emotions are often intense and overwhelming, very up and down; or maybe you generally feel uncomfortable much of the time, then you might find it helpful to speak to a therapist to help you understand what might be going on and why and use this understanding to learn how to better manage your emotional wellbeing.
Written by: Dr Gurveen Ranger