It is normal to experience a broad range of emotions. In fact, emotions are what make us human! Common emotions include sadness, joy, excitement, fear, guilt, anger, shame, and anxiety, to name a few. Experiencing a broad range of emotions is natural and unproblematic. However, intense emotions or rapid fluctuations between positive and negative emotions can be a source of great pain and distress for you and for those around you.
If you or a loved one struggle with intense emotions or extreme emotional shifts, you may be wondering, “Why?”
Reasons Why You May Experience Emotions More Intensely than Others
Due to biological factors, some babies are born more emotionally sensitive than others. These children may continue to experience heightened sensitivity as they grow — even as adults.
Insufficient Prior Learning Opportunities
You may lack certain skills to cope with difficult emotions (like anger, anxiety, and sadness) because no one ever taught them to you. As with learning any other skill (like golf, for example), learning to manage your emotions takes time, practice, and a good teacher.
Perhaps you have the skills to cope, but your emotions become so extreme at times that you have difficulty figuring out how to use your coping skills. Intensity of emotion makes it harder for us to manage our feelings and the situations that created them.
So, How Can You Cope?
While you can’t change your biology or prevent yourself from ever experiencing painful emotions in the future, you can change the ways in which you respond to your intense emotions. This will help you effectively manage them, which helps to alleviate emotional suffering. Here are some tips on how to manage difficult and intense emotions:
Identify the kinds of situations that tend to trigger your intense emotions. Anticipate these situations, and plan how you will cope through them in advance. This means proactively selecting the skill(s) you will use to get yourself through a difficult situation. Sometimes it means avoiding the situation altogether if you can.
Check the Facts
Inaccurate or extreme thinking can play a large role in activating negative emotions. Consider the example of a person who thinks, he hates me, in contrast to someone who thinks, he is pretty annoyed with me. Which of the two will be more upset? Or consider someone who thinks This job is terrible, I can’t stand it vs. someone who thinks Some parts of this job are difficult, but others are not so bad. I can tolerate this. Who will have a rougher time emotionally?
When you feel intense emotions, try to take a step back from the situation and try to identify any extreme or inaccurate thinking that’s happening in that moment. Next, assess the facts. Checking the facts will likely help you to form more accurate interpretations about the event. This will decrease the intensity of your emotions and help improve your mood.
Act Opposite to an Emotion’s “Action Urge.”
Each emotion is associated with an action urge. This means that emotions urge us to act in certain ways. For example, when we feel sad, we have the urge or impulse to withdraw or isolate. When we feel angry, we may feel like attacking something (or someone). Fear and anxiety are associated with the urge to run away and avoid. Guilt is associated with the urge to apologize or repair. Shame is associated with the urge to hide.
Research shows that when we give in to our action urges, we reinforce painful emotions and often end up feeling worse. Acting opposite to an emotion’s action urge can help. It’s difficult to do, but it can help you change your negative emotions. This can mean getting active when you feel sad, or being a little nice to those who frustrate you. It can mean approaching scary situations or confiding in those you trust when you feel ashamed.
Distraction methods are particularly useful when your emotions become so intense that it’s hard to carry out the above strategies. They help you direct your attention away from painful thoughts and feelings.
Some distraction techniques include:
- engaging in neutral activities
- focusing on your senses
- filling your mind with neutral thoughts (e.g., sing a song in your head; count to 50)
- contributing to someone else’s well being.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective tools there is for those looking to manage their emotions in a healthy way. It helps us get some distance between ourselves and our emotions so that we are in charge, not our emotions. You can learn more about it on our mindfulness page as well as this page specifically about applying mindfulness to your emotions.
As mentioned above, learning how to effectively manage your emotions requires time and practice. Be patient with yourself, and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can!
When Should I Seek a Therapist?
Not everyone who struggles with their emotions needs professional help. Those who struggle more deeply may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These treatments help people better understand and control their emotions through the use of concrete treatment strategies. I recommend consulting with a therapist if:
- You frequently feel out of control or crazy
- You experience frequent mood swings or are easily triggered
- Your emotions cause problems in your work or relationships
- You have a difficult time bouncing back and coping with difficult events
- You struggle to communicate your feelings in a productive way
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