Are You Playing Emotional Whac-A-Mole?

The game we play with our emotions may not be as fun as we think.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

When I was a kid, I loved to play the game Whac-A-Mole. To play this game, you are given a mallet and as moles sporadically pop up, your goal is to hit as many of the moles down as quickly as possible. Yet no matter how many times you hit down a mole, another one pops up unexpectedly. Little did I know how much this game would teach me about emotions.

Mauro Mora/Unsplash
In the busyness of life, we may find ourselves playing Whac-A-Mole and pushing down our emotions, stress, trauma, or grief.
Source: Mauro Mora/Unsplash

Emotions are scary, can be overwhelming, and painful. Even though they are a gift that provide us with information on our needs and how to take care of ourselves, many of us push them down, ignore them, and avoid them at all costs. After all, if we push our emotions down, they can’t impact us, right?

Although Emotional Whac-A-Mole, as I call it, gives temporary relief as we avoid having to face our distress, the “moles” never stay down. As a counselor, I have seen the cycle of Emotional Whac-A-Mole time and time again. As we avoid, suppress, and run from our emotions, the trauma we have experienced, pain that life experiences have caused us, or grief, these “moles” resurface in one way or another; and at times with fervor. What is interesting about emotions, is just like the moles in Whac-A-Mole, as we push them down and suppress them, they pop back up, and sometimes with increased intensity and frequency than when we initially encountered them.

As we go through life in survival mode and playing Emotional Whac-A-Mole, we aren’t allowing our brains the space they need to integrate, process, and recover from the hardships and trauma that we experience. Although Emotional Whac-A-Mole is an effective method in survival, as it allows us to focus on what we need to for the moment (e.g. getting through a workday), it is not effective in helping us learn to live (see my article on Why Survival Mode Isn’t the Best Way to Live). No matter how long ago we pushed the moles down, we may be unpleasantly surprised when “moles” from years ago or even our childhood rear their ugly heads and asked to be dealt with.

Instead of playing Whac-A-Mole, as we confront our distressing emotions, the best way to respond to them is to acknowledge them, accept them, and work through/release them. In fact, research suggests that when we participate in cathartic activities, or activities that help us release our emotions, stress, or anxiety, there may be a decrease in amygdala activity and an increase in prefrontal cortex activity (McHenry, Sikorski, & McHenry, 2014). In simpler terms, this means that when we are able to participate in activities that help us release our emotions, we are better able to cope with our emotions, have self-control, and make decisions. In fact, research by Lieberman et al. (2007) suggests that even just the simple process of labeling our emotions may help us to regulate them and decrease their intensity. 

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Cathartic activities like journaling, labeling emotions, exercising, and listening to music can help us regulate our emotions.
Source: Jackson David/Unsplash

Instead of playing Whac-A-Mole, here are a few examples of cathartic activities that may help us in responding to and regulating our emotions:

  • Labeling and recognizing emotions (a great resource to help with this is The Feeling Wheel by Dr. Gloria Wilcox)
  • Journaling
  • Talking with a friend, safe person, or therapist
  • Exercising, dancing, using a punching bag, doing yoga, or doing an activity to help you release your stress/emotions
  • Listening to music
  • Crying
  • Laughing
  • Spending time in nature
  • Artistic expression

Instead of playing Whac-A-Mole, what if we put the mallet down, allow ourselves to recognize the mole, listen to the message it is telling us about our needs, accept that it is there, and work towards “releasing it into the wild”? It may be scary and challenging to put down the mallet as we must begin to face all of the things we have been running from, but it is work that is worth it. No matter how long you have been playing Whac-A-Mole with your emotions, trauma, stress, anxiety, pain, or grief, it’s never too late to begin recovery (see my article It’s It's Never Too Late for more on this).

Copyright 2020 Danielle Render Turmaud, MS, NCC. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or utilized without permission of the author. 


Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting Feelings Into Words. Psychological Science, 18(5), 421–428.

McHenry, B., Sikorski, A. M., & McHenry, J. (2014). A counselor’s introduction to neuroscience. New York: Routledge.