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Managing Emotions and Regaining Control

Regulating strong negative emotions is a commonly shared hope for many of us. We strive for emotional autonomy, rather being overwhelmed by our feelings. In this article I will explore how we can learn to manage our feelings and start to feel more in control.

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Understanding Our Brain

To compliment my work as a counsellor, I have developed a basic understanding of how our brains are organised by following the work of neuropsychologists and neuroscientists such as Dr Bruce Perry. Of special interest to me was the book What Happened to You (2021) by Perry and Oprah Winfrey, which is interspersed with beautiful and useful illustrations and examples of ways our brains operate. Their combination of accessible neuroscience, human insight and examples helped to improve my understanding.

There are extensive complexities and nuances to the human brain which are undoubtedly vital for understanding human health and behaviour, but for the purposes of this article I will refer to my simple model of understanding. Specifically, that our brain is conceptually made up of three key areas: thinking, feeling and survival. I use this model when exploring and understanding thoughts, feelings and behaviours, to grow trusting relationships and for developing strategies to cope.

Survival is Key

Before we explore ways to manage our feelings, it is useful to understand that it is perfectly normal to experience overwhelming and intense feelings. The reason we feel a lack of control is because these feelings are linked closely to our sense of safety, which is linked to our survival – our survival response is automatic and intuitive; designed to optimise our safety or escape danger. This is crucial when we are experiencing extreme threat and we need a rapid escape or to protect and defend ourselves.

Luckily, our survival brain will kick in before we have a chance to organise our thoughts or consider a plan. We metabolise our hormones to super charge our heart rate, blood flow and muscles to engage physically and effectively. What we can understand from this visceral response is that when we feel under threat, we respond to feel safe. But what do we do when we experience high levels of intensity and the energy is misplaced, unwanted or damaging to our relationships?

Awareness and Breathing

I believe it begins with noticing the physical sensations within our bodies, such as: shortness of breath, increased temperature, tension, a fast pace, vigilance, anger, irritability, stomach ache, head ache, cognitive fatigue. We will also likely feel a surge of overwhelming emotions with unclear rationale and unanswered questions.

If you experience these symptoms in a non-threatening situation and you want to manage your feelings, try to take a mental pause. We can shift from this survival state to our thinking state by breathing. When we lengthen our exhale and gently allow our thoughts to come and go, the intensity will eventually subside and we can engage more effectively in response to the facts available in the here and now. Our thinking brain will help us to be more rational and present, and we may begin to discover that the threat has now passed or is not as scary as we initially perceived.

Engage Cognitively and Emotionally

Once our intense and overwhelming feelings have quietened or passed, we can revisit them from a position on cognitive clarity and curiosity. On your own, or with support, try to gently remember back to the visceral sensations you experienced and unpick the associated emotions. Retrospectively labelling our feelings engages our cognitive brain and allow us to explore what was happening with a sense of emotional distance.

Emotional granularity is the ability to get very specific about what we’re feeling. Research shows that the more granular we are in our ability to name what we’re experiencing, the better we can manage it, regulate it, move through it. If it’s a positive emotion, we could replicate it in our lives. Emotional granularity is highly correlated with very positive living outcomes.

Brené Brown

A feelings wheel can be a useful tool to support emotional granularity; to identify and accurately label what you were feeling then or how you are feeling now. This process can be validating, as it can help us to reflect on our experience and have a better understanding of our internal landscape. By utilising this process, we can devise ways to integrate what we have learned about ourselves to make lifestyle changes or consider techniques to reduce stress and regain emotional control. Tuning in to the complex range of our own emotions can also lead to enhanced empathy and better relationships – bonus!

Rest and Relax

Feeling restful and calm are not as crucial to survival as being attuned to distressing signals or running from danger, therefore we need to make a concerted effort to relax and de-stress. Daniel Goleman is a psychologist and science journalist whose research explores the relationship between mindfulness and cognitive control, suggesting that mindfulness can strengthen emotional resilience. Following Goleman’s work, we learn that mindful relaxation can play a key role in our effort to restore emotional balance.

Here are some simple ideas of ways to relax:

  • Gentle stretching or a yoga class
  • Walk or hike in nature
  • Breathe and notice your bodily sensations
  • Visualise a fond memory, let your mind wander
  • Listen to soothing sounds or music
  • Read a book or online article, even for a few minutes
  • Take a bath or relaxing shower
  • Digital detox, take a screen break

Managing our emotions to reduce impulsivity and find balance is helpful in navigating life effectively. I also believe it is important to be aware of our feelings and what they are trying to communicate.  If we can listen to our bodies, tune in and explore our feelings with compassion, we can begin to know and trust ourselves better. We can use this knowledge to inform our life choices in a way that is right for us. If we can advocate for and value ourselves in this way, we will likely treat others the same and improve our relationships.

If you feel regularly overwhelmed with intense emotions and are finding it hard to regain balance, ask for help from someone calm and caring. You don’t have to do this alone.

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