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6 Ways to Manage Multiple Emotions

How to juggle life with multiple emotions.

istock/Martin Dimitrov
istock/Martin Dimitrov
Source: istock/Martin Dimitrov

Infertility is an emotional experience—often one filled with negative thoughts, stressful experiences, and overwhelming feelings. In accordance with National Infertility Awareness Week (April 21-27), I want to discuss the ways in which we can manage multiple emotions at a time—balancing the bad with the good. If you think we must work through all our negative emotions, like sadness and fear, before we can get to positive emotions, like hope and joy, I have good news for you. We don’t. We can have more than one emotion at the same time and we don’t have to resolve all the feelings from our past to move forward into our future. Life isn’t always linear and neither are our emotions. As a researcher and therapist, I see that we manage multiple emotions all the time.

Of course, the notion that there is an orderly sequence of emotions while recovering after a crisis is inviting. It gives us back a sense of control and predictability when all is upended—like a sudden bereavement, a job crisis, a health threat, a break-up, a financial emergency or an infertility diagnosis. But a Scientific American* review concludes that no scientific study has ever established that such static stages really exist. We don’t have to resolve denial and anger, then go through bargaining, before we get to acceptance or hope. We can experience all these emotions simultaneously and work through them at our own rate—and then be thrown into a new emotional crisis before we finish with the old one!

So here are some strategies for managing multiple emotions.

1. Observe your feelings; don't judge them.

Catch if you’re pressuring yourself to feel what others think you should feel. You will just be adding unnecessary confusion or guilt to the emotions you are already juggling! Observe your own multiple emotions instead, with interest and self-support. Observe changes too, as your brain digests the many mixed emotions. Some will become major motivators and others will become background. Get to know yourself as you are, not as others think you should be.

2. Live; don’t re-live.

We are resilient and built for daily life. As we help others, focus on work, share events, make plans, and have moments of laughter. We should try and gather positive emotions and dilute the negative ones. Believing you must work through past emotions before you can participate in daily life delays healing and prolongs the anxiety or sadness. Delaying fertility treatment if your body is ready after a miscarriage, for example, may mean missing an age-related window of opportunity to use your own eggs. Delaying dating for years after a divorce may mean missing an opportunity for bonding and companionship. Delaying job hunting after a company reorganization may mean missing an opportunity to have your worth reaffirmed. The resolution for the past is often in the future.

3. Talk—or don’t talk.

Even though the popular notion is to express your conflicting feelings in order to help you sort them out, the research says, ‘not so much’. A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology of more than 2,000 people found that those who did not express their many emotional reactions after September 11, 2001, “showed fewer signs of distress later on, than those who did.” For some, it seems that talking is cathartic because you get to hear yourself out loud, and that helps you clarify your feelings. For others, it’s a rehearsal and reminder of the negative feelings and holds you back. Again, the key is to know yourself and what you need.

4. Find friends; don’t find excuses.

Don’t use mixed emotions or multiple feelings as an excuse to withdraw from friends. When you are dealing with mixed emotions you need distraction, entertainment, and different perspectives. But not any friend will do. Whether you share your feelings with them or not, surround yourself with supportive friends because being around others who care about you, helps you care about yourself.

5. Organize; don’t multitask.

Clean your closet, arrange the garage, re-sort your wallet. It works because our brain responds not only to all mixed feelings as disorganizing emotional chaos, but it also responds to all organizing actions as taking emotional control. Every time your sense of control goes up, stress goes down. But make sure that you do only one project at a time. Multitasking when you are already dealing with multiple emotions will leave you feeling even more out of control since the brain is really switching attention from task to task, not doing two simultaneously.

6. Pause; don’t panic.

While your brain and body are trying to sort, digest, and organize your many emotions after an unexpected event or life crisis, the rest of you needs peace and quiet. That doesn’t mean you will get it, but you can create islands of peace and moments of quiet for yourself. Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard University finds that a total of just 20 minutes of pausing a day can decrease stress symptoms by almost 50 percent. That's a total of 20 minutes a day—five minutes of breathing exercises in a slow elevator, five minutes of progressive muscle relaxation on a long line, or ten minutes of walking or meditation all count toward the total.

To increase your patience with your emotional progress, you can also hum a tune, sing a song or listen to music slower than your heartbeat (72 beats a minute) to calm your breathing. Or phone a friend, do a crossword puzzle, get a back rub, say a prayer, pet an animal, draw a picture, or take a photograph. Like mindfulness, pausing stops you from re-living the past or pre-living the future; it brings you back to the present. After all, the present is the only place you can really sort your feelings. And since there’s no marker to tell you that your emotional confusion is over and you are ready to move on, you will only know once you try.

So try some of these different tactics, and hopefully you will find the ones that work for you when you’re juggling multiple emotions. We may not know what life will bring next, but at least we can learn how we best handle whatever it brings!


*Psychology Today Oct 26th 2009 George A Bonanno Ph.D.Thriving in the Face of Trauma

* Scientific American By Michael Shermer on November 1, 2008 A review of grief research in Scientific American by Michael Shermer finds that no scientific study has ever demonstrated that stages of grief actually exist.

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