Feeling Stuck in Intense Emotion: Three Steps For Relief

Image by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

Image by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

It happens to the best of us--we feel stuck or trapped by an intense emotion. Maybe we feel temporarily consumed by depression, anxiety, grief, or fear. Perhaps we wake up one morning and it feels like a switch was flipped—our emotions feel like they’re in full overdrive and it feels like there’s no way out. I can relate to this on a personal level and I witness many of my clients experiencing this from time to time.

It’s human nature and perfectly normal to get caught up in our emotions. Often times, it’s because something emotionally deep has become triggered and we become flooded by the feelings it brings up. And when we feel flooded, it’s harder to use our “logic brain” to help ourselves cope.

The trigger that causes this can be something obvious or something we’re not consciously aware of. For example, I recently worked with a client who reported she was suddenly feeling consumed by panic and anxiety after a couple weeks of feeling pretty good. A lot of different areas in her life were in the process of BIG change and transition. For her, this triggered a sense of needing to immediately escape as a way to cope with the change. Which then caused her to lash out at her loved ones in a way that was uncharacteristic for her. All of this snowballed into her feeling depressed and helpless.

When we went back and looked at the chain of events that brought her to feeling depressed and helpless, it empowered her to understand why she felt the way she did. When she understood that the root cause to her distressing feelings was an old need to escape when life felt out of control, it helped her to not only gain a deeper sense of self-compassion around her lashing out but it also began to relieve her intense emotion. 

Helping her to step back and see the bigger picture helped her to regain some balance. It didn’t take away the external life stressors, of course, but it changed the way she was perceiving them. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) this turning of the mind is referred to as “Wise Mind”. 

A helpful way to understand Wise Mind is by using the visual below:

Image from 7-cups.com

Image from 7-cups.com

On the right side we see “emotional mind”. This is where we sometimes experience feeling stuck in intense emotion. On the left side we have “reasonable mind”. This is the logical mathematical part of our psyche. When the two overlap in the center and there’s a balance of both “emotional mind” and “reasonable mind” it creates “Wise Mind”.

So, how do we achieve “Wise Mind” on our own when we’re feeling really stuck in intense emotion? Below, are three tips you can use on your own to practice getting out of “emotional mind” and back into “Wise Mind”:


1.  Practice Mindfulness by Observing Your Surroundings

If you’re familiar with my work or read this blog consistently, then it’s no surprise that mindfulness makes an appearance yet again. Mindfulness is one of the most essential tools that we can use to help us emotionally regulate and is a great starting place when you’re feeling emotionally distressed. A very simple mindfulness practice you can do is through observation. For example, you can begin to look for certain colors in the physical space you’re in (i.e., look for anything with the color blue in the room). Or you can focus your attention on listening to sounds that are near you. Focusing your attention visually or through listening helps us to come back to the present moment, which means it takes us out of our emotion mind, even just temporarily.


2.  Build Emotional Awareness by Naming Your Emotion

This may sound overly simple but often times when we’re in a state of feeling emotionally distressed, it’s challenging to name our emotions and sometimes we aren’t even totally conscious of what exactly the emotion is that we’re feeling. Or maybe you are somewhat aware of the feeling but push it away because it seems too overwhelming to feel it. What you resist will persist. By naming and acknowledging the emotion, you create space and compassion for yourself. You’re telling your brain, “this is what I’m feeling and it’s safe to make space for it.”


3. Practice Self-Compassion: “This too shall pass…”

Often times in our family of origin and in our culture we’re taught to push away painful or uncomfortable feelings. Because of this we learn that certain emotions are unacceptable. When we have the belief that emotions are “bad” or “wrong” we tend to shame or numb ourselves when we feel them, instead of soothing ourselves. We hope by shaming or numbing that the emotion will just disappear--this actually creates the opposite effect and prolongs or intensifies the emotion. Once you’ve practiced steps one and two, above, then practice self-compassion by using affirmations. Think of this like you’re re-training your brain to process emotions in a healthier way. Affirmations that you can use can include: 

“It’s okay to feel my feelings.”

“Even though I feel overwhelmed, this emotion will pass.”

“I accept myself and my emotions.”

Or make up your own affirmation. The goal is to repeat these affirmations (silently or aloud) and with time, you’ll build self-compassion and a higher tolerance for your emotions.

Uncomfortable emotions aren’t easy to navigate. But with gentle awareness and effort, it is possible to learn how to befriend your own emotions. It takes trial and error too—remember, unlearning old habits takes time! By using these tools, with consistent practice and time, the emotions will feel less threatening and you will begin to feel more empowered.