Emotions are part of the human experience. Everyone, however logical they appear to be, is guided at least in part by their feelings.
Emotions often get a bad rap. Who hasn’t heard someone say “you/he/she’s so emotional!,” as if it’s a bad trait? In our society, “rationality” is often praised over emotionality.
The unfortunate (and fortunate) thing is that emotions are part of being human. And being alive. They can be wonderful. Who doesn’t enjoy feeling happy, experiencing healthy pride in an achievement, or falling in love? Emotions help us feel empathy and compassion. We were not created to be robots.
The trouble starts when our negative emotions get in the way of leading a balanced life, or when we act on them without thinking about the consequences.
So, the key is not to turn off our feelings. We need to embrace where our emotions help us. In the same token, we need to manage where our emotions cause problems.
Follow these tips to stop anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions ruining your day:
1. Take a few minutes to breathe.
Deep breathing often does not get the credit it deserves. We often write it off as some “woo woo” activity that doesn’t work. People often don’t realize the power it has and don’t try it, or give up too soon.
Here’s why breathing works (it’s based in science!): Taking deep breaths helps regulate your nervous system. Breathing actually works with your parasympathetic nervous system to slow your heart rate, and make you relax.
Think about it–when you are angry, do take shallow, quick breaths or deep, slow breaths? How about when you are anxious?
Our bodies and minds are connected. If we can slow down our breathing, we can slow down our bodies. If we can slow down our bodies, we can calm our brains and feel calmer.
Deep breathing also helps us think clearly. When you experience a strong emotion, activity in your prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational thought – drops. That’s why it’s so hard to make good decisions when you’re under stress, and why calming down should be your first priority. Breathing can help us do that.
2. Remind yourself that all emotions pass.
Nothing in life is permanent, but when we are in a negative cycle, it can feel like it will never end. And this can lead to further feelings of hopelessness or depression.
It helps to take a step back and know that our emotions come and go. Some days are better than others. Most of the time, our depression does not last forever. That heartbreak will not last forever. We will move on. It can take some time but we will see the end of the tunnel.
Ask yourself: will you remember feeling this way in a few days or weeks from now? Tell yourself that you don’t have to act on your feelings right now; they are only transient, after all. It’s better to wait, however hard that may feel, and react when you’re in a better frame of mind.
3. Have Faith
Oftentimes our negative cycles endure because we are holding on to things we cannot control. We may be trying to control something that we have no control over. This can be frustrating and depressing.
When we put our lives into the hands of a benevolent God or higher power, it makes it easier to let go of the outcome. If we trust that our God has a purpose and plan for our lives, we don’t need to get stuck focusing on what is wrong right now.
When we are in a negative spiral, we often can’t find anything within ourselves to pull us out. Turning to God helps us trust that there is a force greater than ourselves. And this force will give you the strength and inspiration you need to turn the situation around.
Believing in a higher power can be very comforting when your emotions threaten to overwhelm you. Faith makes you feel less helpless.
4. Put the situation into perspective.
Life’s challenges can be great teachers. We know that the people you meet who seem to have the most depth seem to have gone through some challenging experiences in life. Seeing the purpose in our trials can help us persevere and even embrace the hard times we are going through in the moment.
So be open to the fact that your situation might hold a few valuable lessons. Wise people understand that things happen for a reason, and sometimes we need to trust that time will reveal their true meaning.
I’m not saying that we should embrace a loved one dying, or jump for joy when we find out we have a diagnosis for a terminal disease. We can embrace both the sadness and the acceptance together.
5. Challenge negative thoughts
They are known as ANTS–Automatic Negative Thoughts. We’ve all had them. They seem to come out of nowhere and they are awfully hard to get rid of. (Just like real ants!)
Oftentimes, ANTS happen because there is a way of thinking that you are used to that was formed since childhood. As you continue thinking these thoughts throughout your life, it becomes like second nature to think these thoughts, almost like a habit.
We all know that habits are hard to break. Changing takes, perseverance and energy. And when we are breaking a bad habit, we need to replace them with new ones.
So here’s how we can stomp out the ANTS:
When you catch yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, make a deliberate effort to think of something else. You have a choice to make: you can either choose to ruminate on whatever has gone wrong, or to imagine a good outcome and distract yourself with positive thoughts.
Challenging negative thoughts doesn’t just make you feel better in the moment; it also prevents you falling into destructive patterns. Negative thoughts and negative emotions go hand in hand. If you can detach yourself from the former, you’ll find it easier to detach from the latter.
6. Release your feelings
Negative feelings are like food stuck in the garbage disposal. After a while, left there too long, it will start to stink, rot and just get plain disgusting.
We often think that by ignoring our feelings, we can make them go away. However, our feelings are meant to be expressed, so we may not be expressing them directly, but they WILL come out, whether you choose to express them or not. Sometimes they come out as using drugs or partying hard. Sometimes they come out as self-harm, or a shopping addiction. Some people have very intense nightmares.
Make your expression healthy. Try exercise, journaling, singing, creating art, prayer, or meditation. Any healthy activity that lets you put feelings to words can help you move forward. Consider talking to someone you trust.
There is something powerful in allowing another person into your life and allowing them to share your burdens. There is research that shows that just putting words to feelings can change the which part of your brain is activated–from the fight or flight area to the rational, calm area of your brain.
7. Release yourself from emotional triggers
If someone – and that includes yourself – has made you angry or upset, try to forgive them. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you approve of what someone did, and neither does it mean forgetting about it. Forgiveness simply means releasing the emotional hold something or someone has over you in order to move forward. I often tell clients that forgiveness is for us, not for them.
Learning to master your emotions is a lifelong project. Everyone has to cope with life’s ups and downs, and it’s impossible to stay calm all the time. Welcoming your emotions and reframing your negative thoughts is one of the most important skills you can develop. It is not easy, and like any other skill, we need to practice. However, the reward is great and permeates into every area of our lives.
Learning to manage our emotions can allow us great freedom. For ourselves and for those around us.
About the author: Lia Huynh, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist serving the Milpitas, San Jose and Fremont areas. She helps individuals and couples manage their emotions so they can live happier and peaceful lives. If you are interested in couples , Christian, or individual counseling, find out more here.