What To Do When Emotions Become Overwhelming
While it’s important to release your emotions, sometimes, you just need to take a break. Sometimes, your emotions become so overwhelming that it’s best to have a few soothing strategies up your sleeve.
In her excellent book, Writing for Emotional Balance: A Guided Journal to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions, clinical psychologist Beth Jacobs, PhD, shares a few ways that we can “refocus.”
According to Jacobs, refocusing means returning to your emotional equilibrium. She describes refocusing as a way to take a much-needed respite, “like putting down some heavy suitcases to shake out your arms and then picking the suitcases up again.”
Refocusing is important because strong feelings can make you feel terrible, confused and scattered.
And, as so many of us have experienced, strong feelings can lead to self-destructive behaviors. You may feel so bad that you reach for the fastest relief — which may not be the best thing for you.
When you’re in it, really in it, it’s often hard to get out. It’s often hard to think beyond that strong emotion, make wise decisions and feel better.
But having the right tools and practicing those tools can help you minimize overwhelming feelings and regain your focus. In her book Jacobs shares valuable writing exercises to quell strong emotions and refocus.
Research has show how refocusing can stop an emotional explosion. First, consider the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of nuclei in the brain that regulates emotions. Jacobs explains that “Sensory signals can go straight to the amygdala, where the emotional circuits are fired and connect directly to the body systems that regulate arousal and movement.”
Your prefrontal cortex, or “the intellectual part of the brain,” temporarily stores, synthesizes and processes information, Jacobs writes.
What’s interesting is that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex can’t be active at the same time. So the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are like two weights on a seesaw, Jacobs says.
That’s why engaging your prefrontal cortex helps to quiet down your emotions. You focus your brain on something else (something positive or productive), and those once strong emotions start losing their steam.
How to Refocus
These are several exercises from Jacobs’s book. Tomorrow, I’ll share a few more.
1. Use your senses to refocus on your environment.
This journal exercise helps you “develop your sensory focus by making you aware of your immediate sensory environment in both obvious and novel ways,” Jacobs writes. This way you become less and less consumed by your emotions, their grip slowly loosening.
She instructs readers to describe the below parts of their environment in the moment. (If you have some time, try this activity right now.)
The quality of the light
Weight distribution and position of your body
Elements of atmosphere, such as movement and density, moisture level
Brightest color in your line of vision
Textures of your clothing
Anything you can smell
Temperature of the air relative to the temperature of your skin
Shadows or reflections in your line of vision
Taste in your mouth
Your size relative to the space you’re occupying
What you see out of focus or in your peripheral vision
2. Use your senses to think of the most pleasant and calming experiences.
This exercise is the same as above, except that you’re going to describe your ideal “soothing sensory impression for each category.” So, for instance, what’s your favorite smell or taste?
You can make the most of this activity by paying close attention to when you encounter these pleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. For instance, if you love morning light, Jacobs says to take a few moments every a.m. to focus on it.
She also suggests carrying what she calls “a concrete token of sensory comfort.” Look over your list and see what comforts you that’s small enough to fit into your wallet.
For instance, you might carry a picture, a note to yourself or a perfumed piece of cloth, she says. Keeping this with you gives you a tangible object to remind you to refocus.
Another way to use this list, according to Jacobs, is to imagine a scene that incorporates these favorite soothing sensations. For example, if you love the ocean and warm weather, you might picture a beach. Or your visualization can be as simple as staying in bed on a rainy day.
You can transcribe your soothing scene in a journal. According to Jacobs, start by listing your top three sensory comforts and then incorporate your favorite details.
Also, check out Jacobs’s website, which includes sample exercises and more recommended resources on journaling and coping with emotions.
What helps you cope with overwhelming emotions? Do you enjoy journaling? How does it help in managing emotions?
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). What To Do When Emotions Become Overwhelming. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2012/04/what-to-do-when-emotions-become-overwhelming/