Getting hit by an uncomfortable emotion is never fun. It can happen very suddenly, without any discernible cause, or a strong surge of emotion might occur as a reaction to an event or even a thought – many intrusive thoughts are particularly good at evoking a strong emotional response. Some of those “negative” emotions might include feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, jealousy – in general, any feelings that make us feel uncomfortable or uneasy. But how do we manage negative feelings? Learning how to process our emotions is often something we learn in therapy, as there are rarely any blanket solutions that work for everyone and every situation. However, there are some easy tips that can make managing emotions easier.
Knowing that there are no negative emotions
Many of us are quick to label our feelings, emotions, and thoughts as negative or positive. I’ve definitely done it in the past as well! However, none of our feelings or thoughts actually carry any moral value, and it can be incredibly freeing to realize that there are no negative feelings or ‘bad’ thoughts. Negative feelings – those emotional experiences that make us feel uncomfortable – are not something that we need to avoid, or immediately turn into more ‘positive’ ones. All emotions are neutral: they are information, not something that should be held to moral standards. Based on this, it can be helpful to understand that experiencing ‘negative’ emotions doesn’t make you a negative person. And, even though those experiences can be very uncomfortable (after all, most of us don’t like to feel sad, anxious, or angry, for example), it doesn’t mean that we have to avoid them or run away from them a minute they appear.
When we label certain experiences as negative feelings, instead of just acknowledging them as feelings, it can make managing emotions much harder. We might feel inclined to immediately push these emotional experiences away, or turn them into positive ones at all costs. This can often be a slippery slope towards toxic positivity, where our negative feelings are dismissed with positive statements without actually addressing or managing those feelings in a helpful way. While optimism is a great mindset to adopt, our uncomfortable feelings are nothing to be afraid of – it’s okay to acknowledge their existence and face them head-on. You might even learn something new about yourself by listening to what your body and mind are telling you through your ‘negative’ feelings. Sometimes the whole experience might feel much easier once we realize that it’s okay to feel what we’re feeling!
Positive only batteries don’t work, and the same thing applies to people. Negative feelings are a central part of life, and they play an important role in our lives. In fact, one of the biggest lessons I’ve personally learned in therapy regarding how to process emotions has been that there are no negative emotions. Yes, some feelings are uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. They just are. Accepting the full extent of our emotional experiences can be key for managing emotions and making all feelings, even those that are more uncomfortable, feel more tolerable and easier to process. It’s okay to feel them without judging them as acceptable or unacceptable, and without categorizing our emotions into rigid boxes of negative feelings and positive feelings. Sometimes just the act of sitting with our emotions and letting them come and go can work wonders. Accepting that even negative feelings can and do exist can save you a lot of emotional turmoil! And, remember, acceptance doesn’t mean that you need to agree with all of your thoughts or act on all of your emotions: it just means that you’re allowing yourself to experience all the things that are a part of our existence as humans on this planet.
Having a ‘toolbox’ of helpful coping skills
This can be a literal toolbox of physical items that make you feel better and more grounded, or it can be a metaphorical toolbox of helpful ways to restructure your thoughts and manage your emotions. Whenever we experience particularly overwhelming feelings, we might benefit from keeping a few helpful items around that help us ground ourselves and distract us from the intensity of the emotion if it’s getting a bit too challenging to handle. Spending some time to figure out what items work for you can be very helpful. Some personal favorites include playing cards, especially ones with aesthetically pleasing designs, having a familiar playlist with my favorite music downloaded and ready to go, and keeping a journaling app easily accessible on my phone. Many mental health apps provide different kinds of journaling options, so you’re sure to find something that works for you!
A metaphorical toolbox of ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings can include skills you’ve learned in therapy or things you’ve found to be helpful for you through trial and error. For example, learning easy breathing techniques (like box breathing: inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four and repeat until you feel calmer and more grounded), or using grounding skills, like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which guides you to name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste, can help you with managing emotions that feel challenging.
Keep a journal
When it comes to managing emotions, turning our thoughts and feelings into words on paper can be incredibly helpful. Especially when we’re going through a strong emotional response, getting that surge of thoughts and feelings out of your head and into words can help you understand what’s happening – or just help you get some healthy distance from your emotions. A technique called ‘brain dump journalling’ is literally a technique where you write down everything that’s on your mind! Using a journal for venting can serve as a healthy release and, in turn, help you with managing emotions in a healthy way, although you can definitely journal in a more structured, analytical way as well. The sky’s the limit!
Keeping a journal can also help you with naming your emotions. When you’re writing your experiences down, whether it happens by using a physical notebook or on your phone, you’ll inevitably have to describe what you’re feeling in some way. Learning to identify your feelings, and naming them as accurately as possible, can help make your emotions feel more manageable. Using a feelings wheel as a reference can help with this if you’re struggling.
Talk to a mental health professional
Sometimes, no matter how many healthy coping skills we know, they might not be enough in a difficult situation. Every now and then our emotions might become too difficult to handle, we might be worried about experiencing more negative feelings than we usually do, or we might find ourselves trying to cope by doing things that are more harmful than helpful. If that’s the case for you, or if you simply want an external perspective on the things you’re dealing with, reaching out to a mental health professional, like a therapist, can help you learn how to process emotions in a healthy way. Using a mood tracker can help us stay aware of what kinds of emotions we’re experiencing, and how often we find ourselves struggling. Thankfully, many mood tracker apps exist for that exact purpose, so take your pick!