June 3rd, 2020

Our negative emotions are there for a reason, but when things become overwhelming, there are steps we can take

By Dan Whale

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

To say that 2020 has been a year like no other would be something of an understatement. We have arguably faced more global shocks in the past 6 months than we usually do in 6 years. This has undeniably thrown up some challenges for our collective mental health.

Most recently, the death of US citizen George Floyd has ignited protests all over the world. The killing of another unarmed black man in police custody has left many feeling angry, frustrated, hopeless and scared.

These feelings are completely understandable and can act as triggers for both individual and collective change. At HelloSelf, we would never want to suggest that the way to deal with difficult issues such as these is to attempt to feel less affected by them and hope they disappear. If your emotional reaction results in your fighting to create the world you want to see, in whatever way you deem appropriate, that is something to be celebrated, not discouraged.

What we will maintain, however, is that taking care of your mental health is always of vital importance. As such, if the negative emotions that are so easy to feel right now are stopping you from functioning as you would like, there are certain things you can try. This process is called tolerating distress.

Explaining distress intolerance

Negative experiences serve purposes in life. On a most basic level, they keep us safe. If something is too hot, we let go of it. If something makes us ill, we don’t eat it again. We push away from things that give us a negative experience.

As well as physical experiences, we have emotional experiences, which also serve a purpose. Fear activates our ‘fight or flight’ and allows us to perform better in situations of danger or unease. Anger motivates us to challenge injustices and unfairness, making us stand up for ourselves. Even sadness serves a purpose - a world without sadness would mean we’d assign very little value to anything. The existence of sadness makes us care about what makes us happy, whatever that may be.

Where difficulty arrives, is when we try to push away negative emotional experiences as we do with negative physical experiences. Attempting to avoid emotions can cause us to develop fears around them - we may tell ourselves that we ‘cannot cope’ or it may feel like we’re ‘going crazy’. This further compounds the distressing association we have with the emotion and it acts as a vicious circle.

By accepting and tolerating feelings of distress, we are able to manage it more effectively and alleviate it quicker.

How to tolerate distress

There is no surefire way to get a handle on negative emotions, but the below steps, based in mindfulness, have been proven to be effective for many people.

Observe

Try to think of yourself and your emotions as separate entities. Watch the effects your emotions have, see how they make you feel both mentally and physically. Regardless of what your emotions are doing, you are not your emotions, you are the observer of your emotions.

Label and describe

When observing your emotions, describe exactly what it is that is happening - you could do this out loud or write it down. Take note of things such as ‘there is anxiety, I feel my heart beating faster’ and ‘there is sadness, I feel a lump in my throat’.

Take a curious approach

When observing and describing, try to see it from a curious angle, as if you are a scientist doing a test on emotions. Emotions such as anger and sadness are not good or bad, they just are what they are.

Use imagery

Some people like to take this approach of viewing their emotions apart from themselves even further, by using imagery. Some imagine their feelings as guests in their house - they may come and stay for a while and some can be louder than others, but eventually they will all leave.

Others view them as an ocean wave. Instead of trying to outrun it or fight against it, which may result in being swept under, simply float with the wave and ride the crest to the shore. Think of imagery that works for you.

Be in the moment

Finally, when you feel that your emotions are slightly more under control, try to focus on something that is there in the present moment. A breeze through the window, the sound of a bird outside, a particular smell from the kitchen. Anchoring yourself to something in the present moment can have immense calming qualities and is the key component of mindfulness.

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Your negative emotions are there for a reason, but they do not need to stop you from functioning, even in particularly trying times such as these. If you are able to convert anger into action, that’s great. On the occasions you’re finding it all a bit much, try the steps above to get you into a more productive headspace.

If you’d like to know more about this or think you would benefit from speaking to a therapist, you can reach us at hello@helloself.com.

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