Emotions are tricksy beasts. Especially the negative ones. They build up until they’re a roiling mess of sobs and anger and UGH lying just under a thin film of ice. At any moment the control can snap, the ice shatter, and everything just cascades out.
Negative emotions are not inherently bad. Sadness can have its place, as can concern and worry. It’s when they layer one on top of each other so you can’t breathe, or when they appear hand in hand with negative self-talk, that the problem starts.
Suggested ways to deal with emotional tsunamis
These are ideas that work for me, or at least can help a little.
One: Write it Out
Maybe because I’m naturally happy writing, but I’ve always written out my emotions. In letters that I don’t send (and some that I do), in diaries, in endless lists and mind maps and jotted notes in planners and bits of refill.
Research shows that writing out your problems and emotions can be just as, if not often more, effective than talking it out. This article explains it well, and this one gives some advice on how to do it. Writing your feelings helps you to structure your thoughts – we naturally think in paragraphs or bullet points when writing. We edit ideas and words and definitions. This earlier post of mine shows the process I often go through. Writing can help me parse my thoughts and reframe my catastrophising.
You don’t need to do regular journalling to benefit from writing out your emotions. To be honest, the most therapeutic benefits I’ve experienced is from simply allowing myself to spill out all the thoughts and fears and demons that sweep down to roost at various times.
Two: Talk With Someone
Although writing can be just as therapeutic in many ways, there’s no doubt for me that talking is important. I think it’s the whole “a burden shared is a burden halved” thing.
Telling someone you trust about your problems, about the emotions threatening to explode out of you or the sneaky ones eating away at your sense of being – that talk can be such a weight lifted off. For me it’s that I’m no longer hiding how I feel. And honesty and openness are, I believe, healing.
Opening up to someone also means you end up with someone else in your corner, someone ready to have your back. And that’s helpful when dealing with either the negative self-talk, or emotions about something you can’t control.
Three: Look! a Squirrel! Distraction Distraction
Honestly? Sometimes we just need to fill our heads with something light and fluffy and different. Baking shows. Comedians (I love Michael McIntyre for this purpose). Golden Buzzer winners. Puppy pictures.
Chris Evans Laughing. No, really. Evidence below.
Told you it is good.
Four: Exercise and Sleep
I know, sometimes sleep is impossible to achieve when those emotions keep you up in the middle of the night, brain whirling, or worse – tears falling. Routines help here. Doing the same thing every evening at the same time can help train your body into falling to sleep mode.
And this is where exercise helps too. Not just for working out those emotions and getting those sweet endorphins, but for helping you sleep.
Sleep is so incredibly important for resilience. And resilience is what helps us cope with emotional overwhelm in the long run.
I feel hypocritical advocating exercise when I’m possibly at my unfittest, but I also KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that when I’m fit, exercising, I feel better. I have more energy, I have more confidence, I feel more capable.
Exercise can be as simple as a walk, or some stretches, or dancing in your living room (dancing also gives happy vibes so that’s extra bonus points).
Five: Use Logic
So what I mean here is – I catastrophise. It’s easy to do, especially when those emotions are roiling. Logic makes me stop. I think backwards from the horrific end point my catastrophising has filled my brain with and at each step I question ‘how would THIS have happened?’. In the end, I usually prove to myself that whatever overblown fears my brain has cooked up are unlikely to happen.
If it’s a reasonable fear it’s a bit trickier. That’s when I use logic to tell myself things like; ‘It’s 3am. I literally can’t do anything about [Big Problem] now, so thinking about it will have to wait until tomorrow.” I follow that up with a promise to myself with a set time: ‘I will look at this or think about it at 11am tomorrow.” Middle of the night jotted out lists also help me go back to sleep because I’ve tricked my brain into thinking I’ve dealt with it.
This is reminiscent of ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy where you acknowledge the emotion, assess whether it’s useful, and if it isn’t, ‘thanks Brain but that’s not helpful right now.’ It isn’t about denying emotions, or even about solving them, just recognising that they exist but aren’t necessarily helpful. Then choosing a direction to take that is more helpful. Have a read about it here.
Pretty self explanatory.
Sometimes we need a good cry.
Those emotions that are roiling under the surface? Sometimes we need to let them out in a safe space so they don’t explode at inopportune moments in ways we regret or are embarrassed by.
Stock up on the tissues and let it all out.
Seven: Be Kind To Yourself
This is kind of my go-to advice for most things really. Let yourself feel the emotions. Don’t beat yourself up for having them. Don’t tell yourself you’re weak for having emotions or for not being able to cope with them. That’s human. And feeling intense emotion is not a bad thing. It probably means you have a strong amount of empathy and empathy generally = good.
Don’t be horrible to yourself.
Give yourself time and space to deal.
Have that cupcake if it will help.
Snuggle in the blanket and feel sorry for yourself.
But also be kind enough to look after yourself – do the things that will help you feel better in the long term, not just in the short term.
That brings me to my final point
Bonus: Seek help if it’s really bad
Seeking help from trained professionals (General Practitioners, Counsellors, Psychiatrists, Psychologists) is never shameful. It isn’t weak. Seeking help is about one of the strongest things you can do. And it’s a big part of being kind to yourself.
I hope that some of these can help, and remember – you are not alone. There are others out there on the rising tide of overwhelming emotion as well. Maybe if we help each other out we can build a life raft that takes us to calmer waters.