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How to Handle Overwhelming Emotions

emoteI was just reliving my younger years as I worked on the Teen Angst playlist for Spotify, as inspired by my novel “Don’t Try to Find Me.”  Adolescence, for many, involves overwhelming emotion, in part because so many of the emotions feel new as well as intense.  What’s the best way to understand and cope with all these emergent feelings? In some ways, that’s the key developmental task of adolescence.

But for some people, the struggle continues on into adulthood.  They might hear themselves called “oversensitive”‘; they might often feel misunderstood or invalidated as a result.  This can lead to a difficult spiral that actually intensifies emotions that already feel like too much to handle.

So where to start?

This post owes a great debt to Dialectical Behavior Therapy.  While DBT is often used with borderline personality disorder, it can be useful for anyone who struggles with strong emotion.  I’d recommend the DBT Workbook by Matthew McKay for specific exercises that will help you develop the skills.

One of the central premises of DBT is that our emotions have purpose.  They’re trying to give us information.  Learning how to listen to that information and make changes accordingly is, again, an important developmental tasks.  If we’re lucky, we (mostly) achieve it in adolescence.  But sometimes there’s still work to be done.

Another premise of DBT is that primary emotion is the one that’s teaching us something (for example, if we’re sad about something, we need to attend to that emotion) rather than getting bogged down in secondary emotions like shame and guilt (which are, generally, non-productive and keep us from figuring out the message in our primary emotion.)

So if you seem to be having an unusually strong reaction to situations in your life, consider why that is, and what needs changing.  Hopefully, by being proactive, you can avoid certain situations or figure out alternatives instead of placing yourself repeatedly in distressing situations and thinking, “Well, I should be able to handle that.”  When you think in “shoulds”, it’s likely that you’re falling into secondary emotions and self-recrimination.

Being proactive–thinking ahead, having coping skills you’re ready to use, maybe even devising an exit strategy–is extremely valuable.  An ounce of prevention, and all that.

What are some good coping skills?  Distraction, calming statements you can repeat to yourself like a mantra, breathing techniques, a way to remind yourself that emotions feel strong but they all pass eventually, the recognition that you’re bigger than this one interaction, people you can talk to who you find soothing, mindfulness skills (like being able to ground yourself as you notice specific details in your environment and catalogue them in a non-judgmental manner)–for more on these, definitely check out the Matthew McKay book.

Speaking of non-judgmental, do your best to be kind to yourself after a meltdown.  It was upsetting enough; you don’t need to berate yourself for it.  You’re a work in progress, and with time and practice, you’ll get better at handling your emotions without becoming overwhelmed.  Think of it as a process of learning more about yourself, and you’re worth getting to know.

Emotions image available from Shutterstock.

How to Handle Overwhelming Emotions

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). How to Handle Overwhelming Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 May 2014
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