coping with emotions

Coping with Emotions: A Five-Step Approach

Coping With Emotions

Have you ever felt flooded with emotion, so much so that you didn’t know what to do? Maybe it was so intense that you froze or got really down on yourself or felt like you were being swept up in riptide of distress. . . .

One of the questions we get frequently involves how to tolerate or cope with difficult emotions. People ask, “What do I do when I’m feeling this way?” Here, we answer that question, helping you figure out what you might do when in the thick of an emotional experience. We introduce you to a five-step approach that can facilitate coping with emotions more effectively. Each piece is critical and serves a different function. Together, they can help you navigate those intense emotional storms.

A Five-Step Approach

1. Name the emotion. It might not seem that important on the surface, but labeling our experiences can help us make sense of them and it can help us feel a bit more in control. As psychiatrist and author Dr. Daniel Siegel says, “Name it to tame it.” Using language evokes the more rational, thinking parts of our brains, which can help temper our emotion minds and aid in coping with distress. Plus, having a name for something can help it to feel a little less chaotic. If possible, try some mindful describing (e.g., “I notice I feel overcome with shame” or “I’m aware that I’m feeling some intense jealousy right now”). Describing our experiences like this, specifically adopting an observing stance where we’re noticing versus being in the thick of our emotions, can help us defuse from them a bit. There’s a little bit of space created between us and our emotional experiences via this process.

2. Validate the emotion. Coping with emotions also involves validating yourself and your experiences. Your internal dialogue might sound something like, “It makes sense that I’m sad because I lost something that I care about,” or “It makes sense that I’m angry since that person was threatening me.” The formula goes like this: It makes sense that I’m feeling [emotion] because of [trigger/prompting event for emotion]. Emotions serve important function. They evolved to help us and tend to surface due to common triggers. They alert us and other people when something is wrong and can help us spring into action when needed. They are truly critical experiences. Don’t gaslight yourself.

3. Access self-compassion. This part can be challenging for many folks but is also so important to the process of coping with emotions. Be kind to yourself. Remind yourself that everyone has painful emotions – you’re not alone. Approach yourself with compassion and understanding. Imagine how you’d caretake a young child in distress and then provide yourself with this same kind of care, compassion, and concern.

4. Figure out what you need. Different emotions and different contexts call for different interventions. Sometimes, we’ll want to talk to someone; at other times, we’ll want to be alone. Maybe you want to distract for a period of time. Or really feel your feelings, crying, journaling, leaning into whatever you’re experiencing. Maybe you’re driven to spend some time outdoors. Maybe some self-soothing would be helpful. Coping with emotions looks different across individuals and across situations. Try to figure out what might help for you in this situation right now. If your emotions are really intense and you’re in danger of doing something that could make the situation worse, you might benefit from one or more of the DBT crisis survival skills.

5. Remember that emotions come and go. Understand that emotions are like waves. Whatever you’re feeling will pass. All of our emotions, no matter how intense, resolve at some point. Sometimes, there’s nothing more to do but remind yourself of this fact. We can acknowledge how unpleasant the experience is or how much distress we’re in, and it also helps to remember that, “This too shall pass,” that no feeling is permanent, and that if we can “ride the wave,” our emotional experience will shift again at some point, relieving us of our current distress.

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