• Managing Uncomfortable Emotions

    Emotions are a complex but necessary part of the human experience. From a functional perspective emotions help to guide our behaviour and our relationships with others, which from an evolutionary perspective has helped with our survival. Regulated by a region of our brain called the limbic system, they involve a complicated interplay between our thoughts, our physical sensations and our actions. Emotions can motivate us into action, help us avoid dangerous situations, attract us to certain people and warn us about others, deter us from socially inappropriate behaviour and bond us with our loved ones. Emotions, therefore, are necessary within our lives.

    Despite this, many or in fact most of us will struggle with our emotions at some stage: this is part of the human experience. Common emotions that people most often struggle with are anger, fear, guilt and sadness. However, some people struggle more than others and we will look at these reasons below.

    At their core no emotions are intrinsically “good” or “bad”, however some are pleasurable to experience and others are more uncomfortable or even painful. It is human to want to try to push away unpleasant emotions and hold on to pleasant ones. As humans we are set up to avoid harmful events and we are very skilled at doing this when the event is external to us. However the same strategies do not work when the event is internal, such as a thought or a feeling. Fighting, problem-solving or suppressing rarely work well when it comes to managing feelings. They may help in the short-term, but rarely help with our long-term ability to manage our emotions. Equally, it is just as ineffective to try to “hold on” to happiness and pleasure. Sometimes, particularly after we have been feeling low for some time, we may be desperate to hold on to a moment of happiness. So desperate that we may forget to actually enjoy the moment! Emotions come and go, the trick is allowing that to happen.

    It is a common myth that people with good mental health feel happy all the time or have less sadness in life. In fact people with good mental health are often quite accepting of feelings such as pain and sadness and/or have more tools at their disposal for managing these feelings.

    The way we experience and respond to our emotions varies greatly based on our individual temperament, our previous life experiences (such as family background and trauma), our skills and our resources.

    Some people are naturally more sensitive to their emotions than others. Emotionally sensitive people may feel their emotions quite strongly, whether pleasurable or painful. Some people lack much emotional variation at all, whilst others are somewhere in between. None of these responses are inherently bad or wrong, each person is simply different. Emotional responses become problematic when you either feel out of control with your emotions, unable to manage your behaviour when highly emotional or when you stop feeling anything altogether (ie feel numb).

    We have not all been taught to manage emotions in a helpful way. Firstly we live in a society which, instead of seeing uncomfortable emotions as necessary or even helpful, encourages us to think that we should feel good all the time and infers that there is something wrong with us if this is not the case.

    Secondly, you may have come from a family or a culture where it was not ok to talk about feelings. You may have been told that having feelings is weak, stupid, childish or (in the case of men) “for girls”. In adulthood this may lead to attempts to avoid your emotions by suppressing, denying or pushing them away when you start to feel them.

    Conversely you might have grown-up in a family or environment with heightened emotional reactivity and expression, where there was a lot of yelling, crying and airing of feelings but very little calm.

    You may have experienced one or multiple traumatic events in your childhood.

    Perhaps there was never anyone around for you to talk to when you were upset, or even when you were happy, and so you never learned how to work through your feelings.

    In adulthood this may translate as trouble regulating the intensity of your emotions. You may feel things intensely or for an extended period and have trouble letting them go or “down regulating” them. For example someone with problems regulating their anxiety may feel intensely anxious over an objectively small trigger and then have trouble reducing their anxiety after the event has passed. Rather than allowing the emotion to pass with time, the person may feel suspended in that emotion for some time, or even do things which exacerbate it and make it feel bigger/more intense.

    People who have problems managing emotions may also have one or more of the following issues:

    • Experiencing some or all emotions as overwhelming
    • Not knowing what they are feeling a lot of the time
    • Routinely suppressing their emotions
    • Feeling scared or anxious about their emotions
    • Having strong secondary emotions (eg angry about feeling anxious or feeling guilty when they experience happiness)
    • Feeling numb a lot of the time
    • Routinely using drugs, alcohol or food to regulate their emotions
    • Excess use of distraction techniques whenever they feel emotional
    • Never being able to simply have a feeling without acting on it
    • Constant anger at others or yourself
    • Abusive behaviour
    • Self-harming in the context of strong emotions
    • Dissociating (the sense the you are no longer in contact with your body or your surroundings, often accompanied by loss of sense of time)

    Therapy and counselling can be very helpful for people with problems managing their emotions. Therapy will often focus on helping you to understand why you have trouble managing emotions, learning your emotional triggers and teaching you to respond to them differently. It may involve addressing unhelpful coping strategies, such as drug and alcohol use or self-harm. Often therapy will involve teaching you mindfulness and meditation skills that will help you when emotions feel intense or overwhelming.

    If you have difficulty with managing your emotions or for more information about therapy, please contact Virginia on 0476 674 094 or virginia.pulker@gmail.com

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