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A Simple Strategy for Handling Overwhelming Emotions

Our emotions can easily feel big. Too big. So we usually do everything we can not to feel them. Because we worry that when we open the gates, the water will rush in, and we’ll drown.

We think the emotions will destroy us.

As neuropsychologist Judy Ho, Ph.D, writes in her book, Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation, Harness Your Willpower, and Get Out of Your Own Way, “Usually negative or intense emotions seem scary because they feel amorphous. The lack of obvious boundary gives your mind the impression that it is never-ending, which can make us feel emotionally unsafe. Emotions like fear, sadness, anger, guilt, or shame can feel larger than life in many regards, because the only limit to them is how big and how scary our minds can make them!”

This is why Dr. Ho suggests “physicalizing” a difficult emotion.

She notes that this “makes it easier to deal with [an overwhelming emotion] and makes it seem manageable, because any tangible object has a beginning and an end. Even something as vast as the Grand Canyon has a clear start and end.”

Dr. Ho suggests using this specific technique when too-big emotions arise:

  • Sit comfortably, and take several deep breaths.
  • Imagine what a physical representation of your emotion would be. It might be anything from a blob of Play-Doh to a block of wood. Imagine gently pulling it out of your body.
  • Use your five senses to think of the object: What color is it? What about its size and shape? Does it feel smooth or rough, warm or cool, light or heavy? Does the object have a scent? If so, what does it smell like? If you were going to take a bite, what would it taste like? Would it be bitter, sour, salty, sweet, or a combination of these flavors?
  • Write down your description. You can even draw it.
  • Imagine holding the object in both hands.
  • Imagine you’re able to change its size, shape, and color, and anything else about it.
  • Imagine pushing and squeezing the object to the size of a pea. And then imagine putting it inside your pocket, wallet, or purse.

After you’ve diminished the intensity of the emotion, you can explore what it’s trying to tell you. What message is it sending? How can you act on that message in a constructive, healthy, productive way? For example, your anger might be a signal that you need to set a stricter boundary. Your loneliness might convey that you need to cultivate deeper connections.

Similarly, another approach is to do the opposite. This is a common technique recommended by clinicians (and included in Ho’s book) to ensure that negative emotions don’t rule your life. For example, instead of lashing out when you’re angry, you support someone. Instead of isolating when you feel sad, you invite a friend to lunch.

It’s hard to feel your feelings, but remember that you can turn to helpful strategies like the above to make the process a bit easier. The above technique is an important reminder that you can take something nebulous, overwhelming, and even scary, and transform it.

Because while the emotion may seem powerful, so are you.

Photo by Luis Galvez on Unsplash.

A Simple Strategy for Handling Overwhelming Emotions

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2020). A Simple Strategy for Handling Overwhelming Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Feb 2020
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