Many clients come into therapy because they find their emotions overwhelming. In particular, anxiety, anger, and pain can be hard to manage and can severely interfere with people’s lives. As a result, we tend to want to avoid these negative feelings. Unfortunately, the more we try to avoid them, the louder they will typically speak: Often the reason they have become overwhelming is because we have been trying to run away from them so long.
Emotions hold valuable information for us. Even as babies, before we can speak, negative emotions can help us to recognize threats in the environment. Fear can alert us to danger and urges us to change our behaviour. Anger can tell us that our boundaries are being violated and we need to defend ourselves. Sadness can show us that we are experiencing loss of someone or something that we had a strong connection with. Although we may not realize this, emotions guide our decision-making and our social interactions on a daily basis. Our memory capacity is limited, which means we cannot store all the details of our past experiences. The gaps is filled by emotion: We may feel uncomfortable in a certain situation or dislike someone we just met without knowing why. This may result from something triggering the negative emotion of a past experience and reminding us to protect ourselves, even when we cannot access the storyline of the memory. Brains that could encode memories this way helped us to survive and were passed on to the next generation.
Given this link to our survival, emotion mechanisms are persistent and strong. Emotions will find a way to get our attention, especially when we are trying to avoid them, because they have messages to give us. So ironically, one way to release unwanted, dysfunctional or persistent negative emotion is to walk toward it. A key element hereby is observation. We tend to engage with our thoughts in ways that increase the emotion and enhance the hold it may have over us. Focussing on the emotion itself will therefore take us away from those thoughts and can help to weaken its effect.
What does the feeling look like if we had to visualize it? What thoughts are connected to this feeling? What does it feel like inside our bodies? And, importantly, what is it urging us to do? Exploring our unwanted emotions can help us discover where they come from, how they developed and why they are weighing us down. Not only can that make us experience greater control over these emotions, but we can also identify areas for behavioural change that may alleviate their source.
So when emotions start to build up, it can be useful to turn toward them and see what information they may hold. Observe them like you are trying to analyse them without immersing yourself in them, creating space between you and the emotion. Get to know the emotion and begin to regain control over it.