How to deal with difficult emotions

Clients entering into treatment are likely going to need to develop skills around exploring and managing difficult emotions.

For people who have been engaging in compulsive and addictive behaviours, they’ve likely been drowning out the difficult emotions, and with that their ability to manage them.

The ability to manage emotions is like working out a muscle.

The more you exercise it, the more flexible, strong, and resilient it will become. When we don’t exercise that muscle, we are going to find ourselves weak (and less likely to go to the gym!).

Deep Breathing

This is nothing new to anybody, but it still needs to be said. Taking a deep breath sets off a cascading effect of mental, physical, emotional (and some would say spiritual) qualities.

It flips an involuntary skill into a voluntary and mindful action. I like to think of a pilot taking the plane off autopilot and flying manually. It’s as much a mindfulness exercise as it is anything.

Be Aware of Feelings and Emotions in Your Body

If deep breathing is Batman, then body awareness is Robin.

Often overlooked, not only will this help with the crisis of the moment it will help you build resiliency for the future. Each time we work inward to the body, we understand the emotional connections and how to navigate them.

When we continue to mindfully map our inner-world, we will remember where different sensations and roads take us.

If we deny our inner world, it will be a new journey every time, and we won’t develop an increased capacity to explore safely.

What’s in a Name?

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State how are you feeling. Out loud if you have to!

When we’re overwhelmed or upset by emotion, it seems self-evident that we know that we are unwell and so without practice, we are likely to skip over this part.; however, modern fMRI images reveal that naming an emotion is a significant step towards tolerating difficult emotions and returning to relative balance.

Exploring both primary and secondary emotions allows a person to access the depth of experience that might not be otherwise obtained.

This Too Shall Pass

Once you identify the emotions, it’s important to recognize that whatever you’re feeling will pass.

The unconscious message that you tell yourself is “we’re going to feel this for a bit, and then we’re going to move on.”

It’s a conscious effort to put an end date to the experience and gives you a sense of control over the process that can reduce distress on its own.


Now that you’ve readied yourself to process whatever it is that is happening for you; it’s time to let the emotion “in.” Continue to run through the first few steps;

1. Deep Breathing

2. Body Awareness of Emotions

3. Identify Emotions

4. Recognize its Impermanence

This is the processing of emotions. Allowing yourself to feel whatever is happening for you is a healthy process and likely is a re-processing of stored emotions.

Keep in mind that even if it is a difficult experience, the releasing of these emotions is reparative and will help you work through your pain and into the realm of healing.

What are the Facts

As we feel our discomfort lessen, this is an opportunity to explore what are the facts about the situation I am in.

The cardinal rule for facts is keeping it to a pure fact.

For example, the weather in southern Spain is undeniable beautiful, but its not a fact that it’s beautiful.

Life can get complicated. Working with facts in the simplest terms, factual terms can be a relief.

When our emotions are elevated, we can construct complicated narratives that are full of assumptions. De-constructing our perspective by examining emotions and facts separately helps us find the clarity we’re speaking.

Perspective not Solution

Road to recovery

Once we’ve explored our emotions and have put our narrative into simple facts, it might be time to look forward. But I’ll give caution here.

The trap here is that we want the gratification of getting the answer, the Solution, make the decision, and know the path forward. If we get to that point and we feel confident in the path forward – that’s great – just don’t expect it.

If we expect to have the answers we want immediately, then we will more often than not be disappointed when they are not met.

Focus on the Process

If you’re doing this for the first time, you might find it difficult to see immediate results.

Dedicate yourself to the craft of managing difficult emotions and sticking to a tried and true process such as the one just outlined.

Adapt it for your own tastes as you move forward in your journey with curiosity and self-compassion.

Pulling it all Together

1. Deep Breathing

2. Body Awareness of Emotions

3. Identify Emotions

4. Recognize its Impermanence

5. Investigate the Facts

6. Be open to new outcomes.


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