5 steps to work through difficult emotions
5 steps to work through difficult emotions

5 steps to work through difficult emotions

Use mindfulness and acceptance to move through your pain toward clarity and peace.

Sometimes life feels overwhelming. We all have so much to deal with every day: family, work, social engagements and the latest world news. If you struggle to process it all, you’re not alone.

The good news is that, instead of exploding into anger or sinking into fear and loneliness, there’s a tool you can use to work through difficult emotions to experience a more peaceful outlook. The key is mindfulness.

Illustration by Joseph Moore

While the advice to “pay attention to your surroundings” sounds simple, actually achieving mindfulness requires time and effort. By practicing the following five steps, you’ll learn to deal with difficult emotions mindfully.

Step One: Stop and Turn Toward Your Emotions

As you become aware of emotion welling up, you may want to push it away or turn away from it. Physical reactions to emotions can be powerful—stomachache, a tightening of the neck, pain in the chest, or a sudden strong headache—and that can seem like reason enough to pretend your emotions simply aren’t there.

When you deny or bottle up strong emotions, they don’t just go away. They often fester and grow, becoming more deeply rooted and more difficult to control. They may bubble up unexpectedly and cause you to lash out at loved ones or melt down at work. They may even damage your physical health.

Instead of avoiding your feelings, take a moment to acknowledge them. Breathe deeply and sit with them. Notice where you feel tension in your body. If you feel overwhelmed, take a short walk around the house or get a glass of water, and then return to the emotion. Don’t allow yourself to shove it aside, no matter how much the feeling may hurt. Listen to your feelings – they are trying to tell you something important.

Step Two: Name the Emotion

After acknowledging your feelings, take some time to name them. Are you feeling guilt, anger, sadness, fear, shame, or something else? This may prove harder than it seems, as one emotion could mask another. For instance, anger could mask guilt. Sadness could mask shame.

By naming the emotion, you detach from it a bit. It hurts a little less and you feel able to sit with it and stay in the moment. By focusing on the present moment, you keep yourself from worrying about the future or regretting the past. Stay focused.

Step Three: Acknowledge and Accept the Emotion

By accepting that you feel these emotions, you can begin to embrace them. Very importantly, you must also acknowledge that you are not your emotions. You are not angry; you’re feeling anger. You’re not embarrassed; you’re feeling embarrassed. You’re not afraid; you’re feeling fear.

When you accept what you’re feeling and acknowledge that it doesn’t define you, then you begin to understand that emotions aren’t permanent.

Step Four: Realize the Impermanence of Your Emotions

When you feel intensely sad, angry or another strong emotion, it’s hard to remember that it will vanish with time. Trust that when you allow yourself to feel, your feelings will pass.

Sit with kindness and patience as you work through your feelings. Ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling?
  • Where do I feel it in my body?
  • What do I need right now?
  • What does this wave of emotion look like? Is it changing shape at all?
Step Five: Investigate and Respond

If you are feeling calmer now, it’s time to dive more deeply into the root causes of your feelings.

Ask yourself:

  • What prompted me to feel this way?
  • Did something happen? Did someone say something?
  • Did it come from someone else or my own critical voice?

Once you’ve identified the trigger, ask yourself what the trigger means to you. For example, if someone made a rude comment:

  • What does that comment mean to me?
  • What does it mean about me?
  • Could there be another explanation, like they didn’t mean it that way?
  • Is it true? What evidence do I have that it’s true?
  • So what if it is true, what does that mean about me or my future?

When you’re aware of what triggered your feelings, you can begin to formulate appropriate responses. In many cases, you may simply need to realize your thoughts are not your current reality, and therefore you don’t need to give them further attention. Your feelings may evaporate with this realization.

In other cases, embracing your emotion is all you can do for now. Time, further reflection, or professional help from a therapist may prepare you to address your feelings (and the thoughts that drive them) again in the future.

Next Steps

If you need help working through difficult emotions, we’re here for you. Our providers can help you engage in cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy or other therapeutic practices to gain freedom from the hold your emotions have on you. If you’re looking for a mental health provider in Tennessee, contact Athena Care and one of our care coordinators will help you get the help you need.

Photo of Rachel Swan
Rachel Swan, MS

Rachel has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University, where she spent 16 years as a Research Analyst in the Psychology and Human Development Department.