Emotionally Upset? 20 Ways to Defeat Negative Feelings
What should you do when your emotions are spiraling out of control?
Posted Oct 27, 2016
When your psychological chain gets yanked, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by powerful feelings. But losing control of your emotions is never a good thing. It makes responding effectively to the situation besetting you just about impossible. So it’s crucial to develop a skill set that enables you to loosen the tight grip your emotions may be exerting over you.
The 20 tools and tips below, executed as soon after your upset as tenable, will minimize the likelihood that your overwrought reaction will prompt you to say or do something you’ll later regret—whether it’s cussing someone out, pummeling the nearest thing at hand, or keeping all your intense emotions inside and ending up with a bad headache.
And the same is true of negative feelings directed not toward another but yourself. For if you “run” with them, they’re likely to run over you.
Here, then, are 20 suggestions to "triumph over" your bad feelings:
1. BREATHE—AND RELAX YOURSELF. Your whole body tightens up when some perceived “assault” on your sensibilities catapults you into fight-flight mode. In particular, your breathing speeds up and becomes constricted. So as soon as you’re aware that something negative is strongly resonating within you, take several slow, deep breaths—possibly while repeating to yourself the word “calm” or “relax”.
When something throws you off balance, it’s critical that you “re-center” yourself. Emotions are best experienced to a mild or moderate degree, so when your upset reaches an 8, 9, or 10, it’s urgent that you lower its intensity. And slowing down your breathing represents an ideal first step.
Obviously, whatever else you can do to relax yourself in the face of something experienced as deeply disturbing will also help you regain self-control. So, might you be able to visualize a tranquil scene—say lying peacefully on a private beach, while the sun and warm breeze soothes your whole body and, additionally, all your other senses are brought into play. So, imagine yourself “sifting” the fine granules of sand, smelling the sea salt and fresh air, and hearing the pleasantly rhythmic sound of the surf. The more successfully you can fantasize yourself in such an idyllic environment, the sooner you can more positively reconceive a situation that immediately left you feeling furious, helpless, or dejected.
2. IDENTIFY AND CHALLENGE THE THOUGHTS UNDERLYING YOUR UPSET. Typically, what causes you to emotionally overreact are beliefs that are exaggerated or distorted. So ask yourself:
(a) Am I reducing this person who so disturbed me to a two-dimensional label? Can I force myself [and you may really need to force yourself!] to find some positive traits in them that would help me regard them in a more favorable light—and so mitigate my animosity toward them?
(b) Am I mindreading?—that is, am I attributing the worst possible motives to their behavior—maybe because it makes my reaction to them feel that much more righteous and justified?
(c) Am I “fortune telling”?—that is, making a prediction that they’ll always and forever disappoint me, ’cause they’re so disappointing me now? And is this deduction (or sweeping generalization) really all that reasonable? [for such forecasting is guaranteed to make you feel more upset]
(d) Am I magnifying or catastrophizing the seriousness—or severity—of what just happened, or what was just said to me, making my so-heated reaction “over the top” as well? [and finally]
(e) Are my “shoulds” or “ought to’s” compelling me to overreact to the other person(s) in ways that deny the authenticity of their own behavioral standards—that is, what’s “right” or “fair” to them, as opposed to my own (admittedly subjective and self-interested) rules and ideals?
Inasmuch as your feelings link directly to your thoughts, when your emotions start to overwhelm your better judgment, you need to take a step back and explore the rationality of these thoughts, earnestly attempting to "adjust" them.
3. LOOK FOR POSITIVES. You can alleviate your emotional distress if you de-focus from your immediate experience of injustice, fear, hurt, or disappointment, and get yourself to re-focus on whatever positives might come out of what just transpired. It’s critical to explore what you might learn from this experience that could truly help you in the future.
4. SUSPEND YOUR POINT OF VIEW—AND TAKE ON THE OTHER'S. Again, in your hyper-aroused emotional state, this will challenge you. But if you make the effort to identify with another’s viewpoint—and particularly their needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings—your upset feelings are likely to diminish. Can you get yourself to be less self-righteous, less self-centered? For if you consider the possible legitimacy of where the other person is coming from, and their self-interest, it can alter your thinking in ways that will soften your distressed feelings.
5. BECOME MORE MINDFUL. Essentially, what mindfulness is about is not letting your feelings take you over. What you need to do here is become more aware of the particular feeling that’s been aroused, sit with it, and establish enough distance from it to process through it. Don’t identify with it, or allow yourself to become immersed in it. Rather, imagine yourself outside your self (or ego), curiously describing to yourself the “phenomenon” that is this emotion(s), and then move past it. re-centering your attention on something else. (Otherwise, the feeling is likely to "consume" or "engulf" you.)
The sad consequence of getting entangled in your emotions is that your best judgment, or higher neocortical functioning, is no longer available. It’s offline, so your ability to respond wisely to whatever set you off is seriously compromised. It’s also important to remind yourself that, regardless of the strength of your feeling—or maybe because of its strength!—you don’t need to (or, in fact, shouldn’t) act on it.
6. DON’T JUDGE YOURSELF ON THE BASIS OF YOUR FEELINGS. You may well be plagued by too many negative self-thoughts as it is. Repeated so many times that it’s become a truism, feelings themselves are neither right nor wrong, they just are. And if they’re truly reflexive, they can overtake you in an instant. Further, they can be precipitated by all sorts of past experience—and the “programming” instilled in you from various messages you received from others, especially your family of origin. In fact, the combination of your temperament and everything that’s ever happened to you determines what emotion (and how much of it) an event will trigger in you.
At some point it’s essential to become more aware of just what sets you off. But regardless of what emotions you’re susceptible to, they don’t have to be viewed as saying anything particularly negative about you. Finally, you want to teach yourself to acknowledge all your feelings as genuine, and so (in that sense) justified.
7. APPLY SELF-COMPASSION AS NEEDED. If you’re in the habit of beating yourself up, your self-accusations are no better for you than losing your temper with someone else. You need to tell yourself, for instance, that making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person—or incompetent, unworthy, stupid, etc. And a great way of calming yourself down is simply to recognize that old tapes of self-denigration have gotten triggered, and that it’s time to be as considerate, kind, and forgiving of yourself as (hopefully) you’ve shown the ability to be with others.
8. “TAKE PAINS” TO HEAL WHAT YOU FEEL. If you’re feeling unwanted or unworthy—or anything that reflects ancient self-doubts that intermittently haunt you—can you offer yourself some reality-based reassurance? For until you’ve worked out your deeper issues (with or without professional assistance), you may still be vulnerable to nagging feelings about not being good enough.
Still, if for example, you’re not an academic genius, can you ask yourself whether lacking superior intelligence actually means you’re not smart enough? For you hardly have to be “super-smart" to handle most of the things that come up in life. So, when any “not good enough” program surfaces, you need to find effective ways to counter it—to tell yourself that there’s much concrete evidence that the truth about you is far more favorable than whatever trying situation caused you to doubt yourself.
9. TAKE APPROPRIATE ACTION. If you’re feeling lonely, is there someone you can call or get together with? If you’re feeling lethargic or apathetic, might you be able to walk briskly out of it? If you’re feeling anxious, can you explore, and alter, the underlying thoughts or beliefs tied to your nervous state? And if you’ve got unresolved frustration or anger with someone, can you call or write to that person, or arrange a meeting with them, to assertively—not aggressively—get the matter resolved? Many times relatively simple things can be done to alter a feeling that’s gotten you down.
10. REACH OUT TO A FRIEND OR RELATIVE. Complementing the above, might your negative emotion or mood dissipate if you overcome whatever immediate resistance you might have to reaching out to someone?—an individual who’d be ready to offer you the understanding and emotional support that at present may be missing. Typically, when you’re beset with aversive feelings, there’s nothing better than a friend to help you change your pessimistic, or otherwise self-defeating, perspective.
11. DON’T GET CARRIED AWAY BY THE FEELING. The moment you’re conscious of how strong, or upsetting, your emotional reaction is, do a reality check. Might you be overreacting because—unconsciously—what just happened reminded you of something earlier (maybe much, much earlier) that’s still negatively charged for you? If so, bring yourself back to the here-and-now and reassess the situation as (in all probability) being less fearful, inflammatory, or hopeless than it initially seemed. You’ll cope much better in the present if you can prevent past sensitivities from undermining your more mature, rational judgment.
12. DON’T GET “LOCKED INTO” THE FEELING. If you can tell yourself that this feeling will pass—unless (perversely) you keep rehearsing all the reasons you’re “entitled” to feel it—in time it will die down. And, of course, it will do so sooner if you make a conscious effort to alter the negative thinking that’s feeding the feeling. There’s a paradoxical expression: “You always get what you resist.” So, mindfully, just let the feeling be, while increasingly detaching yourself from it. Eventually, it will leave on its own—hopefully replaced by something much less negative.
13. TAKE FULL “OWNERSHIP” OF THE FEELING. As long as you blame others for what, emotionally, is going on inside you, you’ll render yourself helpless to effect any change in your feeling. Altering this stance isn’t really about giving up your viewpoint toward another’s possible wrong-doing. It’s simply about accepting that whatever they said or did relates to themselves quite as much—or more than—it relates to you. So there’s no need to “hold onto” the words or deeds of another when they’ve made you feel bad. Since your feelings belong exclusively to you, you can change them just by reevaluating the meaning you gave to what originally provoked you.
14. JOURNAL AWAY THE FEELING. One powerful way of overcoming a distressing feeling is, through journaling, to freely ventilate, or “discharge” it. If you find yourself stewing over something, it can be extremely useful to write it out—partly as a way of clarifying and “integrating” the feeling, and partly to console or comfort yourself. Such an act can enable you to get at least temporary closure on the matter, and maybe even expand your perspective so that you find it less disturbing. You can even write a letter specifically to the person who antagonized you, or made you feel hurt or abandoned.
Actually sending the letter, however, is something else. Once you’ve managed to regain some semblance of calm, you have to ask yourself whether, realistically, such direct communication will actually help improve the situation. If you think it might, you’ll no doubt want to edit it—to moderate a tone that may be overbearing, too accusative, or vindictive. Still, the simple act of honoring your feelings by giving “voice” to them can help you make peace with them. Seeing your thoughts and feelings “laid out” on the page (or computer screen) may do wonders in helping you come to emotional terms with whatever upset you. For what may not be resolvable with someone else may yet be resolved within yourself.
15. AVOID WHAT ROUTINELY PROVOKES YOU. If there are individuals or things that typically push your buttons, then, if feasible, go ahead and eliminate them—or at least “take a vacation” from them. On a daily basis, we all have enough stresses to deal with without taking on, or putting up with, people and things that aren’t that germane to our welfare. So it may be time to reassess what (at least temporarily) you might let go of that’s gratuitously contributing to your emotional vulnerability.
16. YES, SHOW SELF-COMPASSION—BUT BE CAREFUL ABOUT FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF. This one’s a bit tricky. Acting with self-compassion can help you transcend such feelings as sorrow, regret, guilt, or shame. But if, instead, you “luxuriate” or “slosh around” in diffuse feelings of self-pity, it can become almost self-indulgent, preventing you from processing, and moving beyond, your distress to a healthier emotional state. Continuing to ruminate or feel sorry for yourself about your situation, whether it’s one of failure or rejection, interferes with your arriving at a more balanced understanding of it—and then, for your own good, letting it go.
17. GET OUT OF YOURSELF. Refocusing your attention on someone else’s issues stops your self-absorption in its tracks and can be very useful in taking leave of an emotion gnawing away at you. Assisting another in a project, or simply redirecting your attention to listen sympathetically to their problems, almost always helps you feel better. Which is precisely why the mood of many depressed individuals lifts once they “lose” themselves (or their self-preoccupation) in volunteer work.
18. BRING HUMOR TO THE RESCUE. If you can prompt yourself to behold the situation that so provoked you in a less serious, more comic, vein, then whatever you might have taken too much to heart might lessen in severity. Might you be able to get yourself to recognize its more ludicrous—or even “absurdist”—aspects? It’s been said that “life is a comedy for those who think, but a tragedy for those who feel.” So can you make an effort to cultivate some sort of “humorous detachment” from whatever compromised your composure?
19. LOWER YOUR TENSION—AND RAISE YOUR FEEL-GOOD CHEMICALS— THROUGH EXERCISE. At its best, exercise does at least three things for you. One, it distracts you from the thoughts keeping you stuck in your feelings; two, it alters your brain chemistry—gets your opiate-like endorphins flowing; and three, it allows you to physically vent the toxic, stress-induced energy coursing through you. It’s almost always a good idea, through vigorous movement, to “loosen yourself up” when uptight feelings have left your whole body tense. And if you exercise with a trusted friend, the chances of your discouraged mood abating increase all the more.
20. NURTURE YOURSELF. Sometimes the best way to deal with painful feelings is to be kind to yourself, to do something that affirms you’re worth being treated better than maybe the rocky drama of your life has now prompted you to believe. Even if someone has made you feel abandoned, you certainly don’t have to abandon yourself. I’ve written about self-soothing techniques in previous posts (e.g., “The Power to Be Vulnerable, Part 3”), and this may be a perfect time to take a walk in the woods, get a massage, or anything else that helps convince you that you deserve as much tender, loving care as anyone else.
And that’s it. When some person or situation in your life leaves you feeling anxious, depressed, or enraged, you’re now armed with multiple techniques for combating these distressing feelings (and, no doubt, there are others). So, if you can’t trust your memory to access these tips when needed, get a magnet and attach a copy of this piece to the side of your refrigerator.
. . . For who knows when it might come in handy?
Some of these ideas were adapted from Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind (A. Washton & D. Boundy, New York: Harper, 1989).
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To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.