dr. joachim sehrbrock, r.psych.

registered psychologist


the top 5 strategies for difficult emotions

an important distinction: feeling versus acting

One reason why we may think there is something wrong with our feelings or we shouldn’t feel them, is because many people confuse the feeling with an action. For example, people might think or hear “Don’t be angry!” But there is a difference between feeling a feeling internally (e.g., anger) and an action (e.g., acting on the anger by slamming a door). If we don’t make that distinction, we run the risk of trying to get rid of a feeling (see above), while perhaps what we mean is not to act on the feeling. And again, trying to not feel a feeling usually makes things worse.

practice makes perfect

One of the primary reason people don't benefit from these strategies is that they simply don't use or forget abouh them. When and how often are you goingo to practice any of these strategies?t

strategy 3: acceptance

If we are simply aware of unpleasant feelings about difficult situations, make room for them, and let them be, they tend to feel less strenuous or threatening. This is what we mean by expansion. We drop the struggle with our feelings, open up to them, and make space for them by being willing to have them. We don’t have to like or want feelings in order to simply let them be.

The Three Steps of Acceptance

To practice expansion, follow the following steps. Do this from a few seconds to a few minutes, or until you completely give up struggling with it.

1. Observe: Become aware of what you feel and notice any body sensations associated with your feelings. Observe these with curiosity, as if you were studying what you feel.

2. Create Space: With every breath, imagine that you are creating space for your feelings. Give them as much space as they need.

3. Allow: You don’t have to like or want your feelings to accept them. Just “let them be there.” Allow the feelings rather than pushing them away. It might help to let your body relax a bit or take a deep breath when you focus on this last step.

A recording of this process can be found below.

strategy 4: validation

Research suggests that one of the most effective ways of coping with challenging feelings is to validate them. You can do this as simply as by telling yourself “Given [insert cracked feeling code], it makes sense that I feel [feeling],” or "Given that I am not getting what I need, it makes sense that I feel irritable." You can also imagine having someone tell you that it’s ok to feel [feeling].

the function of feelings

One of the most important functions of emotions is that they tell us what is happening. If something good happens, we may feel content. If something difficult happens, we may feel scared or angry. So, emotions are a kind of coded messaging system telling us about ourselves and our lives. Therefore, there is never anything wrong with emotions, they simply arise in response to things happening inside and outside ourselves. If we learn to crack the code of the system, we can make better choices about how to address our needs, wishes, or desires.

avoidance makes it worse

Many people feel discomfort with certain feelings, which makes many people want to not feel those feelings. However, research suggests that when we try to get rid of feelings, we only make the situation worse. In fact, the more we try to not feel feelings, the more intense they might feel and the longer they might stick around. Therefore, we recommend working towards accepting feelings as they are and learning to tolerate them. But that is of course much easier said than done, especially if we feel there is something wrong with our feelings or we shouldn’t feel them.

strategy 1: naming feelings

When we think about what feelings we are actually feeling (e.g., frustration, sadness, grief, irritability, etc), we are engaging important mechanisms that have shown to decrease the intensity of feelings (such as reflecting about feelings, being aware of them, and decoding their meanings).

You can use the following feeling chart to help you with that:

strategy 5: acceptance self-talk

True willingness to feel something is not a thinking process. It is an attitude of openness, interest, and receptiveness to whatever we are aware of. However, some people may find it helpful to tell themselves things like:

I don’t like this feeling, but I can make room for it. It’s unpleasant, but I can accept it. I don’t want to feel it, but I am willing to feel it. I am having a feeling of…

strategy 2: cracking the feeling code

Remember, feelings can be understood as a coded messaging system. When we understand what message our feelings are sending or what they represent, we can make better choices.

After you have named what the feelings are, think about what they could mean and what message they could be sending. For example, a feeling of irritability could mean that you are not getting what you think you need.