Humans are social and emotional creatures. Many of us live in avoidance, unable to find the time or strength to fully face our feelings head on. In our everyday culture, we are encouraged in many different ways to distract ourselves, which often results in us avoiding our our emotions. For some people, they believe that going from one distraction to the next is how to manage their emotions when in fact they are suppressing them. When emotions are not processed, felt, and integrated it can cause disruptions in living a healthy lifestyle. Managing your emotions goes beyond just distraction.
In this article, I talk about how to manage your emotions in healthy ways that serves your growth, relationships, and well-being. Emotions are meant to be felt so that you can properly take care of yourself and your body. Here are some tools that can help you to manage your emotions using a healthy, integrative approach on an ongoing basis.
Be With Your Emotions
Picture waking up to realize you’re going to be late for work. You rush out the door and during your commute, you check your email and find out that you made an error at work yesterday. On the way to work you almost get hit by a car because you’re so distracted and in your head about your error. On your lunch break you see that your partner sent you a text about the fight you had last week and then you switch to scrolling through social media. After working overtime, you make dinner, but burn it, and then put on the TV while you eat it. You fall asleep watching TV, and then in your dreams you finally process the entire day of avoided emotions, waking up late yet again with little recollection of your dreams that were full of shame, fear, anger, anxiety, and helplessness. Then the cycle repeats.
Avoiding emotions like this is more common than you think. So many of us are rushing from one commitment to the next, overstimulated and without the opportunity to process what is happening around us or inside of us. When we do have a moment, it is a common impulse to pull out our smartphones, consume products and services to “help” us, or somehow engage in some other thought process. The lives of many are set up to be distracting from processing emotions that are sometimes uncomfortable.
You can practice recognizing your emotions intentionally by pausing to take a deep breathe throughout the day when any emotion arises. Notice where in the body the emotion seems to affect. Breathe into that location and while exhaling, send the intention to feel and release the emotion. Observe each emotional reaction without judgment or resistance. This may prevent a potential domino effect of compiling suppressed emotions from occurring. Be patient with yourself and allow yourself to just be with it. Without intentional presence during each emotion, you are unaware of when your behavior is actually emotionally reactive. Try to avoid the impulse to distract yourself from reactions, or to “manage” your emotions with substances or relationships — as this is merely a reaction. Observe how much of what we do is actually just reactions to emotions. Become present with your own reactions. Most importantly, be compassionate with yourself in this process. (Learn more in Accepting Discomfort: 3 Steps to Better Handling Negative Experiences.)
Although fully experiencing and surrendering to each emotion can be an uncomfortable experience, it is an act of self care and self love to allow yourself to actually feel them. Suppressing emotions can lead to poor sleep patterns, mental exhaustion, weight gain, memory lapses, high blood pressure, digestive issues, wrinkles, reduced levels of oxytocin (a hormone that helps to reduce stress), and damage to your temporal lobe functioning. Studies show that suppression of emotional thoughts is not effective, as it lead us to making our emotional thoughts stronger over time. Eventually, suppressed emotions can turn into disorders like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Stuck emotions are also believed to become stuck in different areas of the body, causing bodily pain and energetic blockages. Studies have even found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of early death from heart disease and cancer. The body stores emotions whether or not you use your conscious mind to experience them. Only the loving act of using your conscious intention to recognize and feel your emotions as they come can facilitate a healthy integration and release. This is a great example of giving yourself a loving gift that requires delayed gratification because often it can be painful to fully feel some emotions. Be patient and loving with yourself in this process. Believe in yourself, but don’t expect long standing patterns of emotional avoidance to suddenly change overnight.
Tools to Facilitate Emotional Management
Well known neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel uses the phrase “name it to tame it” when referring to learning how to manage emotions. He presents this tool to help parents soothe their children and teach them to be able to self soothe as adults. This is a skill that many of us may not learn appropriately in childhood. Neurologically, the limbic system is the emotional part of the brain that is activated during intense emotions, such as fear or sadness. When you name the emotion, the logical left side of the brain activates and begins to signal the release of neurotransmitters sent to soothe the limbic system. By slowing down and observing the emotion, you can name it and then feel better because you neurologically signalled your brain to soothe itself!
There are a number of things you can do to help facilitate healthy management of your emotions. Using yoga and meditation practices are very powerful to help you to observe, name, and tame any emotion. When we are so overstimulated, it can be hard to find mental silence even in these practices. To help create the space to feel your emotions, try to minimize ongoing distractions. You can do this by setting aside device-free time in the morning and nights, or taking complete technology fasts. Things like these can help to create the space for the mind for stillness. Participating in any personal growth practices or courses, stepping out of your comfort zone, journalling, or spending periods of time in solitude can also help to facilitate ongoing healthy emotional management. As you sit with yourself and your emotions, you can spend time alone, in silence, and learn to be your own best friend. (Learn more in The Tendencies of Feelings and How to Take Back Control of Your Emotional Responses.)
Emotions are Simply Messengers - Neither Bad nor Good
It is most important to remember that bad or good emotions do not exist. Emotions are simply messengers. If ignored, or preemptively disregarded, it's possible they will keep coming to relay their message, perhaps getting louder and louder. We are conditioned to believe that some emotions are bad emotions and should not be expressed. There are healthy ways to manage and express ALL emotions and it is important to keep this as a top priority, if you want to live a balanced, healthy, authentic, and integrated life. Remember that it takes time to change patterns of behavior. Just as they did not develop instantly, they likely won’t fall away instantly either. So be patient and compassionate, if you find yourself needing the old 'comfort' of distraction. Simply use your awareness to slowly, but surely, replace emotional avoidance with effective and healthy emotional management.