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Coping With A Stressful Situation: Managing Your Emotions


Whether you’re dealing with an emotional bully (see previous post about adult bullies) or other difficult situation, one of the first steps is to comfort yourself and manage your emotions.

The part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making and planning cannot function as well when you are filled with emotion. Acting on emotions without the thoughtfulness of the logical part of the brain usually means trouble.

Even when you’re in the right about a situation, if you act impulsively and emotionally it’s unlikely others will listen. They’ll tell you to calm down and don’t get so upset. This situation happens frequently for the emotionally sensitive and they soon believe no one listens to them. They also may find themselves reacting first and regretting later.

There are ways to learn to not act immediately on the feeling you are having. Mindfulness is a skill that helps you develop a pause between feeling and acting so you’re not ruled by whatever emotion you are experiencing.  Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, lists three How Skills and three What Skills of mindfulness. The What Skills, meaning what you do, observe, describe and participate.

Observe means to see what is present and real without coloring it with interpretation or assumptions. Observe is to see the facts of a situation. Describe is to put words on what you see without judging. You can see that the chair is red. Saying the chair is a horrid shade of red would be a judgment. Participate means to participate fully in events with full awareness of what you are doing. This means you’re not daydreaming or half-aware or clouded by emotion that you aren’t paying attention to what is actually happening.

The How Skills are how you do the What Skills: One-Mindfully, Nonjudgmentally, and Effectively. One-Mindfully means to do only one thing at a time and to have your attention fully on whatever you are doing. Non-judgmentally means to just experience without labeling good or bad and Effectively means to do what works.

In the case of the adult bully, observing and describing what happened is the first step: doing this in a nonjudgmental way may be difficult. Effectively is key. Regardless of whether the other person is being fair or behaving in reasonable ways, how can you be most effective in coping with his behavior?

Wait until you are calm enough to think clearly.  Strong emotions seem to compel people to take some action, whether it’s to fight or run away or tend and befriend. The body is poised to act, not think or plan. This system was effective when human surivival depended on avoiding a tiger or a lion, but doesn’t work so well in most of the situations people face today.

The urge to do something to protect yourself against a perceived threat can be very strong, but in most situations the urgency is not real. Acting impulsively, without thinking through the action, can make the situation worse. Then one crisis is followed by another and then another. Impulsive efforts to solve the problem usually create more problems. Soon it may seem like your life is one crisis after the other. That can be discouraging and only makes your emotional state worse. Being mindful of your emotions and your internal experience without acting on your urges and impulses is an important skill. You learn that the emotion will pass.

Be Aware of and Name Your Emotions. When you observe and describe your internal state, that is one step in managing your emotions. For some, this means taking time to identify the specific emotions they’re feeling:  jealousy, hurt, anger, or fear?

Sometimes anger acts as a shield against feeling hurt or scared. Knowing that your anger is a secondary emotion and that your primary emotion is fear will help you manage your feelings effectively. Knowing what you are feeling gives you more of a sense of control and gives you ideas about what action to take.

Some people have great difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations that are the basis of emotions. This characteristic is called alexithymia. If someone is alexithymic, then learning how emotions are expressed in the body is important. Sadness is often felt in the throat, chest and belly. Anger is felt in the neck, head, shoulders, hands and arms. Fear is felt in the belly, head, face, chest, and throat.

Sometimes focusing on the body sensation, such as your throat feeling tight, is more helpful than repeating in your head how anxious you are. Saying “I’m so anxious,” repeatedly may actually feed the emotion.

These are beginning steps in managing your emotions. Not acting on your emotional urges takes practice, but the peace you gain by not acting impulsively is well worth the practice time.

photo credit: AbigailPhotographyCreative Commons License

Coping With A Stressful Situation: Managing Your Emotions

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Coping With A Stressful Situation: Managing Your Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 Jan 2012
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