Managing Anger and Other Big Emotions

Calling out our emotions can help us deal with them.

Posted Mar 15, 2019

Hazzel Silva/Unsplash
Source: Hazzel Silva/Unsplash

My tweenager was feeling elated because a friend had invited her to a sleepover. Then she was feeling sad because another girl wasn't included. Then she was angry—lashing out at me—when I told her she couldn't go until she picked up her dirty clothes. Then there was guilt, frustration, despair, and, ultimately, calm. Then happiness. And that, my friends, happened all in about 12 minutes. Ah, adolescence.

But, while weathering her stream of emotions, I was reminded of some of the ways we can all handle the flood of big feelings. 

Remember emotions change. Maybe as adults, we don't cycle through them quite so fast, but our feelings are big and they do fluctuate. So when you feel overwhelmed or worried,  hang tough. Share your feelings with a trusted friend, or write in your journal, or just take a deep breath and wait a moment because your feelings are bound to change.  The despair you feel now will feel different in a few minutes or hours. The anger you have in this minute will change too—you might still feel it, but it may morph into something easier to process. 

If you are feeling persistent sadness, irritability, despair talk to your doctor. You may be experiencing depression. This is an illness, not just a feeling. And there is a treatment available, so get it. 

Feelings aren't the enemy. Sure, some feel icky, but our emotions are simply information we are getting from our bodies and other stimuli. If you can take a deep breath and observe them rather than reacting, you might discover what triggered the feeling in the first place and work through that, rather than staying stuck.

Take a minute, before doing anything. And, when you feel buried in big feeling, be deliberate in your response. Often we attack in anger, or we drink or shop or eat our emotions rather than feeling uncomfortable. We choose behaviors in the heat of the moment that unleash a bunch of other bad feelings or things we have to go back and fix. But, when you are not in immediate danger and you can pause to notice what you are feeling, do that before doing anything else. Just sit in the web of emotions. Notice them, and then respond deliberately to the situation rather than reacting to the feeling. 

Watch from a distance. Then take some emotional distance. Imagine yourself as a distant bystander watching the emotional scene play out in third-person. Instead of analyzing or immediately seeking to understand the negative event that piqued your big feelings, self-distancing can make it easier to work through them, according to research from Ethan Kross, at the University of Michigan.

Build your emotional vocabulary. I've posted an emotion wheel—a pie chart, with dozens of slices, each labeled with a specific emotion—on my refrigerator. My husband, daughter, and I often glance at it when we are feeling emotionally buried. The chart gives us a language, a nuance to describe our feelings. Labeling our emotions can help us better regulate them, according to research by Matthew Lieberman. 

Yet many of us don't have the words to do it. Develop your emotional vocabulary. Get specific about what you are feeling. Call it out and the emotion will soften a bit, making it easier to cope.

And while raising the tweenager, you can bet I'm calling out a whole bunch of things.