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What to Do If You Are Depressed: Relating to Your Emotions

A blog series guiding folks who are depressed.

Welcome to Part XII in our “What to Do If You Are Depressed” blog series. The prior blog described your subjective experience of being in the world as you “lifeworld”, and we divided it up into the biological, mental, and personal self-reflective domains of being. Today’s entry is about emotions and learning how to process them adaptively. We explore what emotions are, why emotional awareness and regulation are key skills, and briefly describe how to hold emotions in what I call the Emotional Sweet Spot.

Emotions are a key aspect of depression, and many depressive episodes emerge from conflicts people have with their feelings, which is why so many psychotherapies are "emotion focused." What, exactly, are emotions? Emotions are “perceptual response sets,” which means they are activated by an appraisal of an important event and orient the body, mind, and self-consciousness system to respond accordingly. This means there is a physiological component to emotion (e.g., your body will become aroused or disengaged), an experiential component (e.g., you will feel either positive or negative and orient to move either towards or away from certain stimuli) and a narrative component (i.e., you will be more inclined to think about a situation in a particular way when an emotion is activated).

Classic or core emotions represent evolved “signatures” for perceiving and responding to the world. As was seen in full display when the US women’s soccer team won the World Cup, joy is activated when one receives feedback that one’s goals or desires are or will be met. Anger is another classic signature emotion. As this experiment with monkeys demonstrates, anger is activated when an individual perceives their rights or interests have been violated or they are treated unfairly. Sadness, fear, guilt, shame, pride, love and hate are all important emotional states. Because it is helpful to have a rich emotional vocabulary, here is a list of emotion-related words.

Emotions are centered in the domain of the mental. This gives rise to a second key point, which is that conflicts often arise between the mental and personal domains of one's lifeworld. Let me disclose a personal example. There was a period in my life when I had real problems processing sadness, such that I went almost 15 years without crying. As soon as I would start to feel sad, I would feel helpless and vulnerable in a way that was not consistent with how I wanted to see myself as a man. The conflict between my personal domain and my emotional domain created a disharmony which resulted in some limitations and blind spots. I recall when I tapped into these feelings, I was flooded with tears and injuries that I had been blocking for a long time. The point here is that we humans have both primary emotional reactions and then secondary emotional reactions (and other coping tendencies) to those primary reactions. In the clinic room, we see that much mental distress is about “affect avoidance,” which is the technical term for inhibiting or blocking key feelings.

In an earlier blog in this series, we explored the concept of “neurotic loops.” A neurotic loop is when an individual has secondary negative reactions to negative feelings, which creates inner conflict and distress. This disrupts the natural flow of the emotional system, and leaves people feeling all tangled up inside. This is important because the consequence of such emotional tangles is often a depressive shutdown (see here for more on why this might be).

What does this mean for you and your depression? It means you should be aware that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of relating to your feeling system. The unhealthy way, described in the neurotic loops model, is by trying to block, control, attack, or avoid one’s core feelings. The healthy way is via cultivating a different relationship with one’s feelings, what I call the Emotional Sweet Spot (ESS) model. It starts with a couple of key insights.

The ESS starts with the idea that we have feelings for a reason and they are a vital aspect of our lives. They teach us about our core, embodied values and how things are going in our life and it is crucial that we integrate them into our being to be fully human. However, it makes good sense as to why internal conflict arises in relation to emotions. Some of the key reasons are that (a) negative feelings suck, and (b) they often remind us of painful wounds that we can’t do anything about, and (c) they activate impulses that can be problematic.

These two insights are, of course, somewhat contradictory. This means that we humans have much to learn regarding the complicated process of dealing adaptively with our emotions. Unfortunately, our society is not good at teaching emotional intelligence and so many people get confused and all tangled up for a host of reasons. (Consider that, throughout their elementary, middle, and high school years, my kids were never taught anything about emotions).

According to the ESS model, the healthy way to relate to one’s feelings is to be (a) aware and attuned to one’s feelings on the one hand and be able to (b) adaptively regulate one’s feelings in accordance with one’s short- and long-term goals on the other. Here is a diagram that captures this model. It also involves changing the attitude from the inner critic. Instead of being critical and controlling or avoiding of feelings, as the neurotic loop model highlights, the attitude one attempts to cultivate is one of curiosity, acceptance, loving compassion, and motivated toward valued states of being.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

How does one accomplish this? It is a process that requires both intellectual understanding, as well as courage, and practice. In addition, human emotions are very relational, and so ideally it takes place in a particular kind of relationship that is safe and secure.

The most basic process starts with an awareness of the conflict between the head and heart. Specifically, this involves questions such as: How connected am I to my feelings? What feelings are hard for me to feel? What makes them hard? These are “awareness” type questions, fostered by the attitude of curiosity, which we discussed in this blog.

Second, there is the capacity to accept the emotions one has. This is hard and can be extremely difficult in distressing and threatening environments. Meditation and other distress tolerance models have been developed to help folks learn how to maintain presence in the face of pain.

Third, is the capacity to integrate the feelings while maintaining clarity about one’s goals and values in the short and long term. This means being aware of the outcome one desires and channeling the responses energized by the emotion into adaptive ways. For example, if someone experiences road rage, the key is to help learn what the anger is about, what it comes from, but also be able to recognize that impulsive, aggressive responses are maladaptive and need to be effectively regulated.

Below are some additional resources for learning to cultivate your capacity to hold emotions in the sweet spot between awareness and attunement and adaptive regulation. One final comment I would like to make is a distinction between an emotion and a mood. The former is a charged reaction to a particular stimulus. It is something that if it is responded to via the ESS, when you “arrive” at it will integrate your physiology, your mental frame, and your narrative and you will then fairly quickly leave it. That is, peak emotions tend to only last seconds into minutes. In contrast, moods are more general states of mind that last hours into weeks or more. Depression is a mood state, and mood states are often things you want acknowledge but counterbalance (i.e., instead of giving into the shutdown mood, get activated).

To start the process of diving in to healthy emotional processing and move from the neurotic loop model to the ESS model of feeling, I have developed this “blog tour” that details a series of steps for learning how to deal with negative feelings via my unified approach. For a book length treatment on why openness and curiosity are better ways of relating to one’s feelings rather than rejection and escape, I recommend Todd Kashdan’s The Upside to Your Downside. Dealing with grief and loss are particularly important emotions associated with depression. The book Progressing Through Grief: Guided Exercises to Understand Your Emotions and Recover from Loss by Stephanie Jose provides a helpful guide in processing grief.

By far the most common and powerful emotions we tend to experience are relational in nature and are activated in response to our core psychosocial need to be known and valued by important others in our lives. In our next entry, we look at the crucial role relationships play in depression.