Emotions make us human. When we interpret them well, they can serve as our guideposts. Emotions provide useful information: Feeling angry may indicate our boundaries have been violated or our needs have not been met. Disappointment lets us know what is important to us.
A common defence mechanism can be to selectively tune out certain strong emotions, and to try and express only positive emotions such as joy and contentment. There can be long term consequences to doing this. We are designed to experience a range of emotions. Think of a piano – each key has a purpose. The piano will not work as designed if you remove some keys. Similarly, if we try to limit our range of emotions, we dampen the whole system.
It takes time and learning skills to be able to dial down the reaction in our nervous system and respond in ways that are healthy for us and our relationships.
Here are some tips to help you cope with strong emotions:
Slow down, connect with your body, and breathe. There are parts of our brain that tend to go offline when we get heated. When we exhale slowly and calm our heart rate, then we can allow the wiser parts of the brain – the ones that can problem solve and see the big picture – to come back online. It works well to practice deep, gentle breathing when you are not heated too. Regularly practicing this can work to lower your stress level and help you to relax.
Avoid speaking immediately in the heat of the moment. Count to 10, especially if you are experiencing a great deal of anger. Try not to react until you are sure your words are mindful and helpful. Remember, in the context of any caring relationship, nothing has to be fixed in this moment. Take the longer view and try not to do damage to your relationship when you are angry.
Take a mindfulness approach to the heated moment. Emotions are like boats going past on the river. You want to learn to sit on the riverbank, rather than riding on the boat. Be aware of the boats going by – be aware of the thoughts, emotions, and body sensations you are experiencing. The goal is to not stand in the river to stop the boats or jump onto a boat to see where it takes you, but rather to be aware of the emotions and learn what they are telling you. Accept the emotions nonjudgmentally and with compassion.
Coping with strong emotions takes time and practice. If you feel you could use some extra support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or mental health counsellor.