Difficult emotions are an inevitable part of life. We can’t protect ourselves against them, but we can develop coping strategies so that when they arise, we’re better equipped to tolerate and move past them.
The problem is, most of us don’t learn how to manage difficult emotions. More often than not, we’re taught to suppress unpleasant feelings: to bottle them up, to ‘stay strong’ or ‘stay positive’ (’good vibes only’ right? 🤢).
As a result, many of us end up numbing ourselves from difficult emotions, distracting ourselves with food, sex, alcohol, Netflix.
The problem is, ignoring our feelings doesn’t make them go away - in practice, it usually makes them worse. Learning how to sit with our emotions and finding healthy tools to cope are important essential life skills.
If sitting with difficult feelings is something you struggle with, here are some tips that might help.
Ten tips for dealing with difficult feelings
1. Sit with it
It won’t be easy at first, but learning to sit with difficult feelings is the best way to overcome them. When we are able to identify and acknowledge our feelings, we can address them and move on.
Meditation is a great tool for this, and can help you not only learn to sit with difficult emotions, but become aware of what’s going in on your mind and body in the first place.
2. Create your own self-soothing toolkit
While we can (and will) provide plenty of evidence-based tools for managing difficult feelings, the reality is that everyone is different. What helps me when I’m down may not work for you - and vice versa.
Try out different techniques and see what works for you (you may have to repeat something a few times for it to be effective). When you’ve found some techniques that help, you can begin to create your own self-soothing toolkit. This could be a physical toolkit (a box filled with comforting objects or scraps of paper where you write different self-soothing ideas) - or just a metaphorical one.
The key is having a selection of tools available at your disposal, so that when things get tough, you’ll know how to manage and will be less likely to reach for unhealthy coping mechanisms.
3. Tune into your senses
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tuning into your senses is a great way to find immediate comfort and help get you out of your head and into your body. This could mean watching a candle burn, drinking some herbal tea, wrapping up in a soft blanket or listening to relaxing music.
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4. Practice sitting with stillness
In an age of sensory overload, many of us are increasingly unable to sit with ourselves. We listen to podcasts while we cook, we fall asleep to Netflix shows and audiobooks, we scroll on TikTok on the toilet. Sound familiar?
The consequence of this is a profound disconnect with our own bodies, and an inability to sit with silence (and the deafening sound of our own thoughts).
By practising stillness - through meditation, mindfulness, or just sitting in silence on a park bench - we can get better at recognising our own emotional needs, and become less frightened of the contents of our own minds.
5. Remember everything is temporary
When we’re experiencing something difficult, we often struggle to see beyond the immediacy of the feeling. However, nothing lasts forever. Even the most difficult of times eventually pass. We can find comfort in remembering that everything is temporary, and things will feel easier soon.
6. Practice self-compassion
We all go through difficult times. Moving past them is much easier when we are able to hold compassion for ourselves - just as we do for the people we love. Rather than beating yourself up for having a bad day or directing your hurt inwards, try to offer yourself some kindness and compassion and prioritise self-care.
7. Tune into your breath
Our breath can be a powerful tool for managing emotions. When you feel anxious, breathing out for longer than you exhale can help to calm your nervous system, while connecting with the breath (e.g. by counting each breath) can help to refocus your attention away from anxious thoughts and help to ground you into the present moment and your body.
8. Write it out
Journalling is a great way to help get any difficult feelings out of your head and onto the paper (or notes app) in front of you. Don’t worry about how well you’re writing, or if what you write makes any sense at all. Regardless of what you write, the act of writing can help you release and process difficult feelings, while bringing you out of fight-or-flight mode and stimulating the part of your brain associated with rational thinking.
9. Accept support
Our instinct when we’re feeling low is often to isolate, or to turn our negative feelings onto the people we love. Accepting (let alone asking for) support can be challenging. But it always helps. Even if you can’t find the right words for how you’re feeling, just communicating to someone that you’re struggling can take a weight off your shoulders.
10. Get mindful
Mindfulness is a great tool for helping you change your relationship with your thoughts and also improving your tolerance for difficult feelings. Long-term, research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can reduce symptoms of anxiety, and decreases activity in the DMN network - a centre in the brain associated with self-referential thinking and depression.