Part 2: Emotions: What Good Are They Anyway?

Emotions, whether positive or negative, are a vital part of being human. In the previous post, emotions were discussed as being important messengers with an action tendency- for example, fear may mean “seek safety”, or anger may tell us that an injustice has been done, or boundaries need to be set. While for many people, it is a bit easier to welcome the positive emotions such as delight, painful emotions are sometimes shut down or dismissed to avoid feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed.  

Have you ever felt so angry, you feared you might lose control? Or sadness felt so intense you were afraid if you started crying you would never be able to stop? Sometimes feelings seem overwhelming and consuming, and it is at those times it is helpful to remember feelings change. Like an ocean wave  which ebbs and flows, the feelings will not stay at that intensity forever. Meanwhile, there are some helpful ways of coping with painful emotions instead of dismissing, suppressing, or medicating them.

Grounding is a way to calm yourself when feeling overwhelmed or “highjacked” by emotions. There are several useful grounding techniques including:

  • Look around the room or outside where you are and name 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste.

  • Sit up straight, pressing your feet onto the floor. Feel the chair supporting your body. Take deep, slow belly breaths.

  • Hold onto something comforting such as a pillow or blanket. Some people like to have smooth stones to hold and focus on when grounding.

  • Name as many shapes or colors you can.

  • Some people find movement helpful. Take a brisk walk, run or dance.

  • A shower or bath may be calming.

Some find scents such as lavender to be calming. Or try putting a peppermint in your mouth, focusing on the taste and texture.

 Grid of emoji faces expressing various emotions

Distraction is also helpful when feelings get too overwhelming. Focusing on activities such as cleaning, cooking, talking with a friend, or running errands may give you the time you need to calm before going back and processing emotions. Be careful, though, that distraction is not used as a way to avoid feeling! Zoning out in front of the TV or computer is not helpful if the feelings are never dealt with.

After you feel calmer, ask yourself questions about how you were feeling.  Name the emotion, what triggered the feelings, and what is the “message” behind them. Is this a familiar feeling to you? Is there something you need to do, such as have a conversation with someone or write in your journal to further process what you are feeling? Notice your body sensations and how they change as you process through the emotion.

Lately, I have been recommending a book called It’s Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel. The subtitle is Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. In it, the author not only discusses emotions and how to cope with them, but also gives case examples from her own life and others. The book is practical, understandable and applicable.

If you frequently feel overwhelmed with feelings and it is impeding your ability to function or enjoy life, reach out to a professional for help. Talking to a counselor or therapist may allow you to begin to process feelings in a new way, allowing you to experience the whole gamut of human emotions including joy.