By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW
Here’s the situation: Allie’s on vacation in Prague for the holidays after saving up and planning for the trip. She’s excited for all the fun she’s going to have and proud of her months of saving. But on the first day of her trip, she learns that her grandmother, who’s been sick for months, has died. Allie feels completely overwhelmed — her head is spinning, and she thinks she must be the worst granddaughter in the world to travel when her grandmother was unwell. How does she manage all of this?
Some people may choose to cope with a situation like this one in ways that actually make things worse (e.g., recklessly spending money, overeating, or binge drinking). And to their credit, these ways of coping sometimes do help reduce really intense emotions. They’re distractions from the pain, oftentimes numbing or dulling it — but only in the short-term, as the relief that they bring rarely lasts. What’s more, these ways of coping are also often unproductive, unsafe, and chock full of unpleasant consequences (anyone who’s experienced a hangover can vouch for that!).
While coping with emotions in a healthy and safe way isn’t always a simple task, it is indeed possible. Keep in mind that coping means just that: regulating, moderating, controlling, and downsizing — it does not mean getting rid of difficult emotions altogether (even though we may want to).
So, what’s Allie to do? It’s incredibly difficult to manage an emotion if you don’t know which one it is, or when you have to manage many at once. Try going through the following steps when a difficult emotion arises:
1. Just notice.
Observe your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. This will help you slow down and take a deep breath. Allie could start by making statements such as, “I notice my heart is racing and I’m having the thought, ‘I wish this would all go away.’”
Identifying what you’re feeling can be quite grounding. Allie can ask herself, “Am I feeling (insert emotion here)?” over and over, inserting a new emotion in the blank every time. She may eventually identify that she’s feeling devastated about the death, guilty for traveling when her grandmother was sick, and confused about whether to cut her trip short to attend the funeral.
Consider why the emotion has shown up. While they can be pesky and painful at times, emotions actually do a lot for us:
Emotions motivate and organize us for action. Allie’s sadness, guilt, and confusion will likely move her to make a decision about whether to end her trip early to attend the funeral. In the long-term, these emotions may lead Allie to think about her relationships, values, and priorities.
Emotions communicate to (and influence) others. Allie learns about her grandmother’s death on a phone call with her parents. She begins crying and says, “I don’t know what to do.” These behaviors communicate to her parents that she is sad and confused. Based on this communication, her parents may console her or offer her advice — even if Allie hadn’t intended to communicate her emotions or influence their behavior.
Emotions communicate to ourselves. Allie’s emotions prompt her to look inward and consider what she needs in the moment. Her sadness may indicate that she doesn’t feel up to going to a museum like she had planned — or maybe the sadness may indicate that what’s going to help her get through the rest of the day is in fact going to the museum as an intentional distraction from her intense emotions.
4. Validate, validate, validate.
Let go of beliefs that there are right and wrong ways to feel about or act in a situation. Allie can practice being nonjudgmental of her emotions, and even validate their existence by making statements such as, “It makes sense that I’m feeling confused,” or “Anyone in my situation would feel this way.”
Knowing what you’re experiencing and why are helpful first steps in changing or tolerating difficult emotions. Once you take this step, you can implement coping skills, which are shown to help people in situations like Allie’s cope effectively with difficult emotions and reduce their overall suffering. Stay tuned for future blogs — we’ll be discussing more ways to cope with intense and difficult emotions!
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