Emotions can be hard to handle, especially when they’re intense or feel out of control. Many people struggle to handle hard feelings and even with the best intentions, end up making things worse. As a clinical psychologist and brain coach who helps people understand, process, and regulate their emotions, I see how tricky this area can be to navigate. It often goes something like this: you feel an intense emotion, try to ignore or avoid it, end up taking it out on someone or something completely unrelated. Sound familiar?
The people I work with want a better way. They want to learn how to express their feelings in healthy ways and to have coping tools to deal with the difficult ones. They want to stretch their comfort zones and to feel capable while doing so. And they want to participate in life and feel good about the choices they’re making.
When you don’t know how or are unable to manage your emotions, small obstacles become huge barriers. You’re stopped in your tracks and can’t move forward. You end up quitting the team or skipping auditions. You talk yourself out of approaching the crush or pretend you’re sick so you don’t have to attend the meeting. You’ve allowed your emotions to take control and now you’ve missed out on something important to you. You feel guilt, shame, and sadness about your choices and then blow up at anyone who asks what went wrong.
Anxiety tends to be a big one when it comes to losing control. Oftentimes, we don’t realize we’re anxious or see just how much the anxiety is holding us back. We end up missing out on great opportunities because we haven’t yet learned how to recognize or manage these feelings. I’ve listened to countless people justify how their anxious thoughts are 100% correct and list out the reasons why they can’t do the thing they truly want to be doing. But I also have helped these individuals realize how inaccurate these thoughts can be and watched them do the thing they want, even while feeling uncomfortable.
Researchers found that the stronger an individual feels an emotion in their body, the stronger it is in their mind (Nummenmaa et al. 2018). Let’s consider how this might look for you. Maybe you get nervous speaking in front of large groups and know you’ll have to share your perspective during the discussion in your English literature class today, otherwise you’ll miss out on major participation points for the semester. You have an upset stomach all morning as you wait for class, which you interpret as a bit of nervousness. By the time you sit at your desk, your stomach is churning, you feel hot, and have a lump in your throat. Because these physical sensations are so strong, you tell yourself you must be extremely anxious for the discussion, even though you were mildly nervous earlier.
How you interpret your physical sensations also has an impact on how intense those emotions become. When you interpret the upset stomach as nervousness, you’ll likely increase the intensity of the feeling. However, if you interpret the upset stomach as a normal response to a stressful situation, it might not feel as scary. And the same goes for how you interpret your emotions as well. When you think of nervousness as a normal emotion that comes and goes, you’re more likely to just let it pass through. In contrast, when you view anxiety as a sign that something is wrong or that the feeling needs to be avoided at all costs, you’ve just made the emotion even stronger.
Reframing means thinking of something in a different way or changing our mindset so that we view it in a more helpful way. When we reframe a situation, for example, we’re finding another way to look at it. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of thinking you’d made a fool of yourself in a work meeting, but then your colleague mentions how nice it was to hear your thoughts for a change. You find yourself feeling proud for speaking up instead of embarrassed for stammering. You just reframed your mindset on the situation, making it much more likely that you’ll speak up again.
We can also reframe our emotions. Instead of thinking of them as something that controls us or that dictates our behavior, we can view them as normal responses to stressful situations. They don’t have to mean there’s something wrong with us, the situation, or others, they’re simply the way our brain and body are responding currently. Just by observing what’s going on internally and thinking, “this is a normal response to a stressful situation,” we can completely shift how we interpret our emotions.
My absolute favorite emotion to reframe is anxiety. The reason? Because it’s so easy! Anxiety usually comes with physical symptoms of shortness of breath, feeling hot or flushed, jitteriness, and stomach butterflies. Guess what other emotion shares these same physical sensations? Yep, excitement. Because they share these sensations, we can get our brains to interpret them as excitement rather than anxiety. And when we do that, our mindset completely shifts as well. We’re no longer thinking of all the ways the experience could go wrong, like we do when we’re anxious. Instead, we’re focused on what’s fun about the situation.
Here's how to do it:
Reframing our emotions is a useful tool to learn. Practice doing it when the anxiety is small or when the situation isn’t too stressful. And the more you practice it, the easier it gets. Soon, you’ll feel more in control of hard feelings and ready to handle adversity.
Recognized nationally for her expertise, Dr. Melanie has been invited to the White House to discuss the paramount importance of teen mental health. To learn more about mental health and find ways to transform your negative emotions into positive energy, check out Dr. Melanie McNally's Therapy Bootcamp.
Nummenmaa, L., R. Hari, J.K. Hietanen, and E. Glerean. 2018. Maps of subjective feelings. PNAS 115(37):9198-9203.
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