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Emotional 911: How to Handle Painful Emotions

October 11, 2016



Emotions can feel intense. Difficulties in managing painful emotions are common. Most of us didn’t get to take a class in how to handle painful emotions. Sometimes it may feel that everyone around us has control over their emotions. It can be easy to discredit the waves of our ups and downs or judge ourselves for having them in the first place. That can lead us to feelings of shame, anxiety and anger on top of the initial feeling. A double whammy experience. The simple fact is that painful emotions will come and go. What matters is what we do with them.


There are helpful steps that you can take to navigate and handle painful emotions when they inevitably arise. 

1.  Practice mindfulness.

Work to develop non-judgmental observation of your emotions. Incorporating a regular meditation practice is one of the best ways to boost your sense of mindfulness. Meditation does not require anything additional other than you and your intentional awareness. There are easy ways to work it into your daily routine. 

2.  Challenge yourself to identify and label your emotions.

Emotions are complex. Identifying and labeling means being able to observe your emotion without judgment, while also accurately describing your emotional response. In order to get more intimate and familiar with your internal feeling state, observe what prompted the emotion. Pay attention to the physical sensations that are related to the emotion. Notice how you expressed the emotion.

3.  Build mastery.

As a counter to feelings of overwhelm and helplessness in the face of big feelings, an important skill is to regularly participate in activities (even small tasks) that make you feel confident and accomplished. Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a second-wave cognitive behavioral therapy, teaches extensively on this skill. Although DBT was developed with a specific population in mind, people from all walks of life can benefit from incorporating this skill.  

What are some activities you might incorporate into your daily routine that will leave you feeling competent, self-confident, in control and capable of mastering things?    

For starters, you might want to accomplish a task, such as finishing a project, completing an errand or making yourself a nourishing meal. This task can be as small as organizing your sock drawer. What matters is how you’ll feel when you’ve accomplished the task.  

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