When you’re in the middle of an intense situation, emotions can be overpowering — like they’re going to sweep you away and drown you. When you feel like this, it’s hard to remember that emotions are transient and do not last forever. Later, when things have calmed down a bit or from the outside looking in on someone else’s life, it’s fairly easy to see that “this too shall pass”.
But how do you find that kind of level-headed clarity in the middle of a challenging situation? It is possible.
What Exactly Are Emotions?
The classical view of emotions proposes that you have emotional circuits in your brain that when activated cause distinct changes in your brain and body in predictable sequences. For example, you see an emergency alert about severe weather headed your way soon. According to the classical view, your fear neurons become triggered, cortisol is released, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing becomes shallow, and you feel alarmed.
In the classical theory, emotions are leftover artifacts of evolution that were necessary for our survival. This would make them universal, fixed components of biology that look pretty much the same in everyone around the world. But they aren’t.
There’s a wealth of research supporting this classical view. However, there’s also an overwhelming amount of evidence countering this explanation and supporting a theory of constructed emotions. In the second theory, your brain constructs your experience of emotion based on how you have come to understand that emotion as being expressed and appropriate. In other words, your brain learns what anger, sadness, or any emotion is based on what it sees in your past.
No matter which theory is correct, or even if it’s a combination of both, you have the ability to exert power over your brain and choose how to respond and react.
Four Practices to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions
Most of us have learned unhealthy ways to deal with our emotions. We usually either distract ourselves with food or other substances or try to make them go away as quickly as possible and ignore them. There is another way.
You can make peace with difficult emotions and even learn from them by turning towards them with mindfulness. Over time, when doing this, you begin to develop a new relationship with your feelings, mind, and inner world. Some people may benefit from the guidance of a mental health professional when confronting and processing big emotions or trauma. However, if you feel confident going it on your own, these four practices can help you begin to mindfully navigate your emotional terrain.
Become Aware of What’s Happening in your Body
Emotions present as physical sensations in your body. When explored with awareness, they can help you understand what is happening on a deeper level in your mind causing the physical reality. For instance, you might notice a tightness in your throat, stiffness in your shoulders, or headache often accompany specific feelings.
Research has developed a ‘body-map’ to help you interpret your physical sensations and emotions. The chart shows the locations where emotions manifest physically commonly in most people. Bodily sensation maps derived from collected data in different cultures suggest that some emotional experiences are universal. For instance, the way we experience anger physically on one side of the world may be similar to how it is physically felt somewhere else iin the world.
Getting to know your emotions by becoming aware of where they present in your body can help you interpret and diffuse them. The goal is to put mental distance between you and your emotions and engage your observing self. You can practice relaxing breathing to help relax and calm your body. (You can find more relaxation practices here.) When you calm your body, you calm your brain and vice versa. It’s a biofeedback loop.
Mindfully Tap Into Your “Inner Flow”
Tapping into your “inner flow” is another tool you can use to achieve greater acceptance of the feelings moving through you. Doing this means approaching the situation with gentle mindfulness and curiosity rather than being judgemental and intellectual.
When you’re compassionately aware of your thoughts and emotions as fluid, impermanent things in your experience, mindfulness can help you create psychological distance between the self that is observing the emotion and the emotion itself. By enhancing cognitive control mechanisms and/or shifting your perception, mindfulness helps you to better regulate your emotions.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness to improve your mental health. When you observe your thoughts and feelings, over time and through neuroplasticity, you actually rewire your brain to be calmer and less reactive. While your emotions might sometimes still feel strong, you learn to witness them as separate, fleeting entities that do not define who you are. In practice, this might look like mentally noting ‘anger’ as being present as opposed to using inner dialogue that says ‘I am angry.’
Mindfulness builds a person’s inner resources and brain pathways for working through and with upsetting emotions. Also, it physically alters a person’s brain to reinforce and entrench mental strength and resilience. With regular practice, mindfulness becomes less of a coping tool and becomes part of a happier, healthier way of life.
Practice Self-Compassion with RAIN
Developing self-compassion is another way of effectively navigating difficult emotions. Research shows that self-compassion is a determining factor in whether life events become setbacks from which you don’t recover or stepping stones on the path forward. One study found that self-compassion is successful in reducing depression. Another body of research proves that self-compassion can help to establish healthier emotional regulation skills.
As you practice self-compassion, you start to ease the thought patterns that intensify the difficulty of whatever emotion you’re experiencing. From this balanced state, you can view the situation from a broader, more objective perspective. Tara Brach’s RAIN practice is a helpful way for anyone to begin building more self-compassion. The RAIN acronym stands for:
R – Recognize what is going on
A – Allow the experience to be there
I – Investigate with interest and care
N – Nurture with self-compassion
Write About Your Emotions
Last but not least, mindful journaling is a useful tool to help you when you feel overwhelmed. With journaling, you can reach deeper levels of emotional insight and understanding. Getting your thoughts and feelings on paper, can help you process and diffuse them and can even physically calm your brain.
Keeping a journal assists you in creating order when your world feels chaotic and out-of-control. Your brain likes to feel in control – even if it’s an illusion. Journaling can help you get to know yourself by revealing your most private fears, thoughts, and feelings without anyone judging them. You can view your writing time as personal self-care time to de-stress and wind down. Write in a place that’s relaxing and soothing, maybe with a cup of tea and soothing music playing.
You can use prompts that specifically encourage you to explore your emotions about something in a deeper way. For example:
- What is one lesson I might be able to take away from this experience?
- If I zoom out and broaden my perspective, how does it change the situation?
- What do I need in this circumstance? How can I extend love and caring to myself?
Writing is a therapeutic way of allowing yourself to move outside of your habitual thought patterns. Whether you use journal prompts or write stream-of-consciousness, you might be surprised at what insights, ideas, and resolutions come bubbling out. Your brain does its best problem-solving when you allow it to go-with-the-flow.
Here’s an interesting TED Talk about how writing helps you take your power back:
Learning to calm the waves of difficult emotions is a skill you learn and practice. Some days, you might still feel anxious and overwhelmed. That’s normal. That’s called being human. On other days, you’ll take a deep breath and feel like “I’ve got this. I can do this.”
Gillian Florence Sanger is a writer for Mindfulness Exercises. She writes both poetry and non-fiction and teaches yoga and mindfulness. Through her work, she aims to uncover ever-deepening realms of soul and psyche for greater peace, self-awareness, and contentment.