- Trying to control our emotions can lead to them being even more sticky and disruptive.
- Yet there are still strategies to influence our emotions, which can reduce their intensity and duration.
- Paradoxically, the more attached we are to the outcome of these strategies, the less likely they are to be successful.
When we feel a rush of fear or anxiety, or a wave of sadness, or strong anger arising, we may immediately try to get rid of it. And yet, often we find that the more strongly we try to change the way we are feeling, the more intense and “sticky” our feelings become. Telling ourselves to relax, be happy, or stop being so angry can add feelings of shame and thoughts of self-criticism to the negative feelings we are already having, making it even harder to engage in our lives the way we want to—furthering the cycle of negative emotional reactions, leaving us feeling worse and worse.
Additionally, telling ourselves not to feel what we feel may interrupt the important messages those emotions are giving us and implies they are somehow our fault, rather than a natural, human response to outside (or inner!) circumstances.
So, if trying not to feel the way we’re feeling causes more problems, what can we do? Certain processes can increase the chances that our efforts will help to interrupt our cycle of distress rather than worsen it.
1. Noticing emotions as they arise
Just noting the sensations, feelings, thoughts, and urges that arise can disrupt the cycle of avoidance that can fuel the intensity of these reactions. Reframing experiences neutrally—for instance, “My chest is tightening and my breath seems shorter” or “I’m feeling a lot of anger right now"—is one way of acknowledging the humanness of our responding and may help us receive any messages these reactions are sending.
2. Practicing compassion for ourselves
Although it can be easy to get angry at ourselves when our reactions are intense and inconvenient, it can be helpful to counter that reaction with intentional care and compassion for ourselves. Using empathic and kind inner language to describe what’s happening in a difficult moment such as, “I’m feeling a lot right now” or “It’s hard to be inside my body right now” or “This is a lot to deal with”—is a way of validating the experiences we are having and can disrupt the negative cycle described above.
3. Connecting to what’s important to us
When we feel strong emotions, we can let them lead us closer to what matters to us, or they can get between us and what really matters to our heart. So, in times of intense reactions, we can work to get clearer about how we want to respond by connecting to what is important to us in that moment. For example: Do we want to be connected to the person we are interacting with? Do we want to face a new challenge? Do we want to take actions that promote care and justice for others? Do we want to leave this situation and replenish our resources so we can do something else important to us later?
4. Flexibly choosing strategies that may influence our emotional reactions
Does all this mean we are always just stuck with whatever emotional intensity we are experiencing with no options? Not at all. We have all had numerous experiences of successfully responding to intense emotions in ways that diminish their intensity. You may have found it helpful to do something that brings you joy, breathe deeply 10 times, write in a gratitude journal, explore nature, listen to music, watch a comedy, pray, meditate, connect to community, or countless other actions in times of intense distress.
What’s most important is the paradoxical truth that the less attached we feel to the goal of changing how we are feeling, the easier it is to influence our emotional response with skillfulness. The more flexible we can be in the moment, the more effective our efforts will be. We can try a strategy, notice its impact, and then let it go if it doesn’t lead to the desired change, and maybe try something else. And sometimes we may just find that the intense response is simply how it is for us in the moment, no matter what strategies we try. When that happens, then there is always the possibility of bringing compassion to the current reality of things exactly as they are.
When we practice noticing intense emotions, caring for ourselves in the midst of them, reconnecting to what’s important to us, and flexibly trying strategies to affect those emotions, we can interrupt negative emotional spirals and continue to live our lives in the midst of these emotions.
Hayes-Skelton, S. A., & Eustis, E. H. (2020). Experiential avoidance. In J. S. Abramowitz & S. M. Blakey (Eds.), Clinical handbook of fear and anxiety: Maintenance processes and treatment mechanisms (pp. 115–131). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000150-007
Orsillo, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2011). The mindful way through anxiety: Break free from worry and reclaim your life. New York: The Guilford Press.
Tull, M. T., & Aldao, A. (2015). Editorial overview: New directions in the science of emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, iv-x.