Feeling Overwhelmed by Emotions & Caring for Yourself – Part Two

“Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.” – Max Ehrmann

During times of intense stress or overwhelming emotions, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This is often the result of our attention becoming overly focused on the subjective intensity of an emotional experience or moving mindlessly from one “crisis” to the next. It is easy to see how our overall health can steadily decline when operating from a foundation of fear, stress, and intensity. We must learn to become mindful of the warning signs that we need to slow down and take better care of ourselves.

For some people, these warning signs come in the form of unpleasant changes in sleeping or eating habits, physical exhaustion, moodiness/irritability, emotional numbness, and difficulty concentrating. Consider the sources of stress in your own life. We all have finite resources to handle stress and emotional intensity. When we adopt an attitude of mindfulness, we will become more attuned to our personal cues that it is time to replenish those resources through engaging in effective self-care strategies.

Caring for Yourself

Fortunately, there are tools that can be learned to take care of yourself during times of intense or overwhelming emotions. Rather than allow yourself to succumb to mental, emotional, and physical suffering, consider taking back control over that emotional reactivity by learning new skills to effectively manage intense emotions more effectively. As you read through the following strategies of moving through overwhelming emotions, reflect on which of these self-care strategies you are willing to practice the next time an emotional intense experience arises.

(1) Engage in self-soothing and comforting activities

A sense of being emotionally overloaded or at an internal breaking point is a powerful signal that you will benefit from slowing down, taking deep breaths, and engaging in behaviors that will soothe your intense emotional state. Consider what has worked for you in the past, as far as feeling a sense of calm, safety, and comfort. Reflect on healthy self-soothing activities that have provided you with relief during past times of distress. Perhaps you feel comforted by sharing your worries with a close friend, asking for a hug from a loved one, or spending healthy rejuvenating time alone.

There are many healthy self-soothing activities available to you during times of distress – the trick is to do them. Examples include behaviors such as: listening to calming music, taking a bubble bath, going for a walk, wrapping yourself up in a soft blanket, watching a funny movie, writing in your journal, holding a pet, engaging in prayer, reading an uplifting book, etc. The key is to find healthy activities that work for you and then to remember to practice them during times of distress. One effective way of doing this is to keep a list of soothing activities that you enjoy in a convenient place, with the goal being that during times of intense emotions, you will access and use the list as a clear reminder of soothing activities you can engage in in the present moment.

(2) Direct an attitude of mindfulness toward your experience

During an intense emotional experience, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the big picture and the potential consequences of behaviors. Even though it may be quite difficult – or even seem “impossible” – it is precisely during these overwhelming moments that it is especially important to direct an accepting and nonjudgmental attitude toward your experience. For example, perhaps you find yourself feeling overwhelming emotions of sadness or despair and notice urges to engage in self-destructive/unhealthy behaviors.

In this instance, directing an attitude of mindfulness toward your experience involves pausing in the present moment to simply notice the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that you are currently experiencing. This means taking a step back from the intensity of the moment and observing what is happening. This involves mindfully describing what is happening in the moment without judgment. For example, “I notice sadness welling up within my heart. I observe a sensation of heaviest in my chest and feel the warmth of tears roll down my cheeks.” When you become the mindful observer of your experience, you become less fused to the intensity of it and allow yourself greater space to make intentional choices about how you wish to respond to your experience.

(3) Observe and rewrite the story you are telling yourself

We all have complex personal narratives about why we are the way that we are, why we do the things that we do, why other people are the way that they are, and so forth. It is natural to create an internal narrative about our lives. When our stories are coherent, integrated, and based upon a core belief in our own self-worth, our life narratives allow for greater flexibility, optimism, and motivation for growth. It is when our stories become rigid, self-defeating, lack cohesion, and are filled with negative beliefs about our self-worth and self-efficacy that they can become disabling.

Perhaps you find yourself repeating a story in your mind about all of the reasons you are a failure, will never accomplish anything, and will always be unhappy. Maybe you back up this narrative with examples of some past failures or perhaps it has been such a longstanding narrative that you no longer even know how it began. The beauty of the story of your life is that you are the author. No matter what has happened to you in the past – however joyous, horrific, or anywhere in between – you have the opportunity in this present moment to decide what the next chapter of your narrative will be. The longer that you remain stuck in self-defeating narratives and limiting beliefs about yourself, the more time it will take to embrace your authentic self, become free from disabling emotions, and live your life based on your true values. The past is gone… you don’t have to live there anymore in your mind.

Narrative therapy, founded by Michael White, includes concepts such as making meaning of your life story, externalizing problems, and ultimately becoming free of the negative impact that your dominant life story may be having on your identity and direction in life. Consider utilizing some of the following strategies as you begin the process of rewriting the story you are telling yourself about your overwhelming/intense emotions. Allow room for acceptance of the possibility that you can be free from those problem-saturated stories.

  • What major themes stand out to your in your current life narrative? Try taking the time to actively build on and thicken the descriptions of themes that may not stand out right away. The idea is to reach a richer narrative that allows room for new parts of your life story that may not fit with the current dominant theme (e.g., “I’m just a failure”).
  • Notice exceptions to the dominant story you may be telling yourself. For example, reflect back on times when you were decidedly not a failure. No matter how small these exceptions may seem at first, allow your mind to open up and investigate past experiences that go against the negative dominant story.
  • Try to externalize the “problem.” For example, rather than internalizing a sense of failure by deciding that you are a failure, allow those real or perceived experiences of failure to become less fused to your identity and self-worth. Remember, the problem is the problem… the person is not the problem. You are much more than any label; the goal is to allow greater separation between your true identity and the problem/negative belief. You can even give the problem a name – however silly – such as “Mr. Failure.” During those times when the dominant negative story feels real, try a new approach by thinking, “Oh, here comes Mr. Failure again in my mind. Do I really want to let him in again and give him control over how I feel?”

Your true self is not at the mercy of overwhelming emotions, no matter how many experiences may have convinced you that is “who you are.” Your authentic identity is waiting for you to step outside of the emotional intensity, mindlessness, and impulsivity. Your true self continues to wait patiently for your calm embrace, mindful presence, and realization of your potential. Today is rich with possibilities to step out of self-defeating patterns and attachment to a problem-saturated identity. Repetitive negative thoughts and harmful behaviors become like a poison to your authentic self, which wants to be seen, nurtured, and to be free. It is simple, but it is not easy… let go.

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White, M. (1996). Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company, Inc.

Hall, K. (2012). The Agony of Being Emotionally Overwhelmed. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 24, 2012, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/emotionally-sensitive/2012/05/the-agony-of-being-emotionally-overwhelmed/

Featured image: A really really bad day by TheeErin / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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