You know when you have one of those days when emotions overwhelm you? They can be scary days, can’t they be?
Fortunately there are ways to get through those emotional days without totally falling apart. It takes a little bit of attention and effort but if you are willing to do the work it will prevent those breakdowns that leave you exhausted and spent and unable to function.
So what do you do when emotions overwhelm you?
#1 – Breathe.
The first, and most important, thing to do when emotions overwhelm you is to BREATHE. I know it seems simple and obvious but it isn’t.
Most of us, when put into an emotional situation, forget to breathe. You know when you are driving past an 18-wheeler on the highway? You are gripping the steering wheel super tight and hoping that you won’t get smooshed between the truck and the guardrail. When in that spot, most people hold their breath. Next time, try taking a deep breath as you pass the truck. You will see how much easier it is when you do.
When emotions overwhelm you pause and take a deep breath. Put your hand on your tummy and breathe in for a count of three, filling up your belly as you do, and then release for a count of three. Do this repeatedly until you feel calmer.
The benefits of deep breathing are significant. Deep breathing slows your heart rate and improves your cognitive functioning so that you can think more clearly. And thinking more clearly will allow you to deal with those emotions.
#2 – Identify the emotions.
The next important thing to do, after you have taken a few deep breaths, is to identify what exactly you are feeling.
Are you feeling sadness? Anxiety? Anger? Fear? All of those are emotions that manifest themselves differently in each person and, if you know what emotion is overwhelming you, it will be easier to manage it.
Last year, at my daughter’s graduation, I learned that my ex was bringing his new wife and her family down to NYC for a big post graduation celebration. I flipped out. My heart started beating and my thoughts were racing. I wanted to pick up the phone and yell at him. Or break something.
After some deep breaths I asked myself what exactly I was feeling. Why was I reacting this way? And then I realized: I was jealous. Jealous that I couldn’t give my daughter some big family graduation celebration and that she would be having one with my ex’s family. I was very, very jealous.
And you know what? I was surprised that that was how I was feeling. But knowing that jealousy was the emotion overwhelming me changed everything for me.
First of all, there was a huge sense of relief naming my emotion. When the feeling was just some random anger and hurt I didn’t know what to do with it. Once I knew it was jealousy I was able to process that jealousy. I knew that it was okay that I was jealous. Who wouldn’t be? And knowing that it was okay that I was jealous, and that I was not some woman still bitter about her divorce, helped me process those emotions quickly.
#3 – Feel Them.
I remember the morning after my mom died. Her husband was walking around the house muttering to himself Get over it. Stop being so sad. The day after my mom died.
Emotions are hard to feel. They are painful and confusing and scary. But it is important that we allow ourself to feel them. If we stuff them down, cover them with beer or food or drugs, then we will never be able to learn to deal with them and they will just come roaring back, bigger and fiercer than ever.
So if you are scared to feel those feelings that you have when emotions overwhelm you it’s okay. But fight through that fear and feel those emotions. It will help you let go of them.
#4 – Process them.
So you have done your deep breathing, you have recognized your emotions and you have felt them deeply in your body. What’s next?
Processing your emotions. I know! It’s easier said than done, but it’s very important that you do.
For me, knowing that I was jealous allowed me to ask myself why I was jealous. To figure out the source of the jealousy. For me it was that my kids had a new family, one that I wasn’t a part of. That made me very jealous and very sad. And, to be honest, a little bit angry.
But I knew what it was and was able to tell my kids what I was feeling. They got it and were relieved that their mom wasn’t still bitter about their dad but feeling some genuine, completely understandable emotions.
The same situation has happened again, more than once, and it has been much easier for me to process because I know exactly what emotion is happening and why.
#5 – Let them go.
The final piece to dealing when emotions overwhelm you is to let your feelings go.
Holding onto emotions that overwhelm you is not good for you on many levels.
Holding a grudge or keeping a feeling inside can cause physical illness. It can cause constant bitterness and anger, which isn’t good for your mental health. It can make you unpleasant to be around which could chase your friends away.
So feel your feelings. Process them. And then let them go. It’s okay if they come back but if they do they won’t be as powerful because you will know what to do to handle them.
Knowing what to do when your emotions overwhelm you can be very difficult in the moment. It is hard to think clearly when you are angry or sad or exhausted or hurt.
If you do nothing else on this list, just remember to breathe. If you do you will go a long way towards regulating those emotions and not letting them get the best of you.
And when your heartbeat calms down and your head clears after you breathe, you just might find the others steps easier to manage.
Imagine what it would feel like to not hold onto those overwhelming emotions. Pretty amazing, right?
I am a NYC based Certified Life Coach and mental health advocate. My writing has been published on The Huffington Post, Prevention, Psych Central, Pop Sugar, MSN and The Good Man Project, among others. I work with all kinds of people to help them go from depressed and overwhelmed to confident and happy in their relationships and in their world.