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5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Difficult Emotions Arise

Using mindful awareness to handle unpleasant feelings.

Key points

  • Suppressing, avoiding, ignoring, and pushing away difficult emotions doesn't work so well for our long-term psychological health.
  • Changing how we relate to unpleasant emotions and learning to approach our emotions mindfully can help with our long-term well-being.
  • Asking who, what, why, where, and when with the strategies provided can help you turn toward unpleasant emotions and find greater ease.
Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

Have you ever experienced a time when you were upset, irritable, angry, sad, or anxious, and some well-meaning person said, “Come on, cheer up,” or “Snap out of it,” or “I think you’re overreacting… look on the bright side”? I know I have, and it doesn’t feel good, especially when I’m in the grips of intense emotions. While the other person may be well-intentioned, trying to rush too quickly into positivity without acknowledging the emotions that are present can leave someone feeling invalidated or not heard. When this happens, it can lead to an increase in negative feelings.

And very commonly, we can do this with ourselves. It is easy to push away unpleasant emotions, tell ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling this way, ignore or suppress our emotions, or try to rush too quickly into positivity that doesn’t feel genuine in ways that can backfire. Research has shown that pushing away our emotions can be harmful psychologically and physically. In fact, the term “toxic positivity,” referring to a need to be positive all the time (at the cost of avoiding difficult emotions), has become increasingly talked about in the psychology world because of its potential harms.

On the other hand, getting stuck in difficult emotions without a way of moving through them, getting overwhelmed and paralyzed by them, or being trapped in the ruminative, negative thinking that often accompanies intense emotions is equally unhelpful.

A New Way to Related to Difficult Emotions

So, how do we work with these unpleasant emotions when they appear? How can we relate to them in a healthy way that serves our long-term well-being?

Below, I offer five suggestions for working with common unpleasant emotions using the questions who, what, where, why, and when. (For those experiencing more intense emotions due to trauma, grief, or other extreme situations, it may be important to seek the guidance of a licensed mental health professional.)

Who, What, Why, Where, When

When you notice unpleasant emotions arising in the course of your day, such as anger, irritability, frustration, anxiety, or sadness, try this:

1. Ask yourself, “Who is showing up in this moment?”

Imagine that your emotions are like guests arriving at your home. (You may take a look at this beautiful and often quoted poem called “The Guest House” by Rumi). You wouldn’t push the guests out the door, but you also wouldn’t let the guests run the house. You might invite them to come in and have a seat and tend to them. Often, when we can acknowledge our difficult emotions, when they feel seen and heard, there is some feeling of ease that accompanies this.

Asking the question, “Who is here?” helps to create a little bit of space between you and your emotions, reminding you that there is a larger self that notices the feelings and that you are not your feelings. Also, asking, “Who is here?” helps to label your emotions as they arise. For example, “I see that anger is here,” or “I see that impatience is here.” What we know from research is that when we do this, it takes the intensity out of what we are experiencing.

2. Ask yourself, “What is happening in my body?”

Practice bringing mindful awareness and the accompanying qualities of friendliness and curiosity to what you are experiencing. If you are feeling frustration, you might notice the way your body contracts and tightens, you may notice your breath becoming more shallow and your jaw clenching. When we notice these things, there is an invitation to take care, to soften, to take a deeper breath, or put a hand over the heart as a gesture of self-care. Mindfulness practices have been widely shown to help with emotional regulation.

Additionally, it can be helpful to ask, “What does my ______ (fill in the blank with your emotion) need right now?” Maybe my frustration needs me to acknowledge that this is a moment of difficulty and to remind myself that I’m equipped to handle this. Maybe my anger wants me to acknowledge that I am feeling hurt underneath, and I would really like this other person to understand my perspective.

3. Ask, “Why is this emotion coming up now?”

Recognize that all our emotions serve a purpose and can give us helpful information. Many of our more unpleasant emotions may be connected with our primitive threat system, which was especially useful for our ancestors in the face of external, physical threats. When someone cuts you off in traffic, and you feel anger, or you are worried about finances or feeling overwhelmed about too much to do, your primitive threat response might be trying to protect you by getting your body mobilized into a fight-or-flight stress response. It was useful for our ancestors to fight or flee in the face of a tiger, but that conditioned stress response may not be the most helpful in our modern lives.

Nonetheless, we can use these emotional signals as helpful information. When I notice this is happening to me (for instance, getting anxious in the middle of the night about something I can't control), I thank my primitive brain for trying to protect me and then look for more effective ways to address the issue at hand (such as turning on my soothing system to help me feel safe in the moment).

4. Ask yourself, “Where might this emotion be held?”

I often imagine containers—large, expansive containers that can hold my difficult emotions within them. There might be a container of self-compassion or care for my sadness, a container of courage for my fear, a container of acceptance for my self-doubt, a container of awareness and perspective for my irritability. When I invite my difficult emotions to be held in these more vast, expansive containers, it helps to bring ease to whatever I am experiencing. It reminds me that there are other qualities that I can call on, that I can invite into my field of awareness, to make my difficulty more bearable.

5. Ask yourself, “When might I take wise action?”

If we try to ask this question prematurely before we have gone through the other steps, it may not be so effective. But once we acknowledge our emotions in ways that help them feel seen and heard, we can ask if there are any actions that might be beneficial to take. If I am experiencing a minor irritation, I might choose to let it go, to focus my attention on something else that feels more nourishing. If I am feeling hurt by another person, once I am calm, I might choose to address this issue with the other person. If I am sad or upset, I might choose to go for a walk or call a friend as a way of taking care of myself.

Remembering the five W’s won’t change the fact that difficult emotions will naturally arise throughout the course of your day, week, and life, but it does offer a way to relate differently to them and perhaps experience greater ease along the way.

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