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5 Steps for Managing Difficult Emotions


Although emotions can feel unpleasant or overwhelming at times, it is important to recognize that all emotions (even negative emotions) are normal and natural, and that they can even be helpful in allowing us to better understand our values, our experiences, and ourselves.

Whenever a difficult emotion or emotional reaction arises, these five steps can help you to better understand how you’re feeling and to better manage how you respond:

Ask yourself, “What happened right before I started feeling this way?”

Emotions occur in response to our environments and our experiences. In order to manage our emotions in healthy and effective ways, we must first understand what triggered those emotions in the first place.

Triggers can include a range of experiences, including situations (e.g., a conflict with a co-worker or loved one), thoughts (e.g., self-critical thoughts about ourselves, worries about our future), or uncomfortable physical sensations (e.g., sudden dizziness, a racing heart).

State the reason you are feeling the way you are feeling.

Once you have identified the trigger for your emotion, complete the following sentence:

“I feel X (emotion) because Y (reason).”

For example, if you are talking to a stranger at a party and he glances at his watch, you might complete the sentence in the following way:

“I feel sad because he does not want to talk to me.”

Now, PAUSE. Acknowledge that your feelings make sense.

At this point, it is important to recognize that there is a reason that you are feeling the way you feel. The emotion is valid. It makes sense.

Now, this does not mean that the logic behind the emotion is sound or helpful. In fact, when we are experiencing a strong emotion, our thinking often becomes distorted to match how we are feeling.

In the above example, you have no idea what the stranger actually thinks about you. He could be looking at his watch for a number of reasons. BUT, it is important that we allow ourselves to validate our emotions before judging them, dismissing them, or acting on them.

Let yourself feel it.

Often, we are so quick to judge or invalidate our emotions that we do not allow ourselves to actually feel whatever we are feeling. When we start to tell ourselves that we should not be feeling this way, we start to feel a whole host of other negative emotions. We might feel embarrassed for feeling sad, angry for feeling embarrassed, ashamed for feeling angry – and on and on.

If we allow ourselves to experience our emotions as they happen, without judgment or criticism, these emotions will come and go with time. It is when we avoid experiencing these emotions or criticize ourselves for experiencing them in the first place that we end up feeling much worse.

They might not feel good in the moment, but unpleasant emotions are normal and natural. We all have them. And we need them.

Critically evaluate your logic before reacting.

Before responding to an emotion, we should ask ourselves a few important questions:

– What facts or evidence do I have to back up my thinking?
– Is there any evidence that might not support my thinking?
– Is it helpful for me to tell myself these things?
– What might be a more helpful or balanced perspective?
– If a friend were in this same situation, what advice would I give them?

By following these five steps, we are likely to be more accepting of all emotions and better able to manage those unpleasant emotions when they arise.

By: Danielle Schwartz Ph.D., C.Psych.

Danielle Schwartz is a Registered Psychologist who has worked at the Clinic on Dupont since 2012. Her practice is in the cognitive-behavioural treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, stress management, sleep concerns, and relationship issues


Posted March 20, 2017
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