How to Process Tough Emotions Effectively (5 Steps)

how to process tough emotions effectively

Experiencing Tough Emotions

Emotional distress, or experiencing tough emotions, can be one of the most uncomfortable experiences we go through as humans- managing things like anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, or depression can be overwhelming and confusing.

The ability to process tough emotions effectively is crucial to individual peace and relationship health. Sometimes they come up out of nowhere and we don’t even know what is happening in our body, suddenly overwhelmed with a pit in our stomach or flashes of heat and anxiety.

Maybe they are more persistent in nature and no matter what we try, feelings of helplessness and despair continue to linger, no matter what we try to process them effectively.

To make things more difficult, oftentimes the instinctual ways we think will be helpful in our ability to process emotions actually cause more emotional discomfort in the long run (things like suppressing emotions with substances, ignoring them, or trying to distract ourselves). 

I’m going to demystify what emotions are and how to feel emotions so they loosen their hold over you. This information will be helpful whether you apply it on your own or with the support of a therapist.

What Are Emotions?

Let’s start with a quick overview of the emotional system.

Emotions are part of an internal messaging system that originate in the middle layer of the brain. The communication mechanism of emotions is typically from this layer of the brain into the body- you may notice changes in heart rate, muscle tone, or activation of the nervous system.

These changes are meant to keep us safe by preparing us for action when threats are perceived from this area of the brain. These perceived threats could be things like conflict, disconnection, or harm to our physical bodies.

Most therapists and psychologists agree on five core emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise) that each have many nuanced and secondary versions.

Sometimes, parts of our brain may perceive threats where we actually are safe. Even though there is no threat to our survival that requires action, the emotional response system is activated, leaving us with physiological sensations that can be disorienting.

The emotion system is energetic in nature- if we process and allow the emotions, they will transform and release. If we try to resist or suppress them, they will hold us in discomfort even longer, and can manifest in other ways (like constriction of the body or further emotional dysregulation).

processing emotions

How To Process Tough Emotions Effectively

Here are easy-to-remember steps for processing emotions so you can release them + move on.

As cliche as it may sound, breaking chains of reactivity is the first step of any sort of emotional or mental change.

Instead of instinctually feeling something unpleasant and reaching for methods to quiet those feelings- maybe drinking them down with alcohol or projecting them out at someone else- take a moment to pause and notice what is happening. Create a space in between the stimulus and the response and find your power to choose.

When you notice feelings of anxiety cramping in your stomach or overwhelm that makes you want to crawl into your hole, simply stay there for a moment, and notice what you are feeling. 

how to process tough emotions effectively pause

Next, allow yourself to experience the emotions as they are showing up in your mind, your body, and your energy.

Breathing is a helpful tool to guide this experience. Breathing is a tool that is always available to us and naturally grounds us in our bodies and nervous systems.

Fully allow yourself to feel what you feel, no matter how uncomfortable it is in the moment. Remind yourself that all emotional experiences are temporary, and you are safe in this moment as you allow yourself to receive the messages of your emotions. 

how to process and regulate emotions

Once you have done the difficult work of pausing and experiencing your emotions, you are ready to further distill your experience by labeling your emotions.

Take a moment to identify the emotion you are feeling, and specify any sensations this emotion translates as physiologically in your body (see if you can identify colors, temperatures, and locations).

Studies have shown that describing your emotions (AKA affect labeling) leads to emotion regulation, or your ability to reduce the intensity or duration of what you are feeling.

If you can’t find the word for what you are feeling, use an emotion wheel, read through the different labels, and see what resonates.

–> What this might sound like: “I am feeling anxious. I notice this feeling in my body when my vision blurs, I feel faint, and my breathing speeds up. I feel heat and these sensations are mostly in my chest and stomach.”

Emotions serve an incredibly necessary and useful survival function in all of us, and they have for a very long time. The challenge arises when the nervous system is stuck in a past moment of threat.

Here’s an example:

  • You feel anxiety when you perceive that someone does not like you
  • This feeling of anxiety irks at you and makes you feel totally panicked
  • Evolutionarily, this could make total sense- being disliked, and exiled from an in-group, could literally have lead to cut-off from resources and death
  • In the modern world, being disliked is usually not such a threat to safety.

For emotions to reduce their intensity, they must be acknowledged. If we try to suppress them, they only try to get the message across louder.

–> What this might sound like: “I am having anxiety about not being liked. My mind is trying to keep me safe from the threat of exclusion. I thank the part of me that is trying to protect me, and I am able to assure that part of me that I am able to handle this situation and keep myself safe.”

Once you have taken time to go through the steps above (maybe even cycling through them a few times, especially if you notice nuances to what you are feeling that you would like to give separate attention to), you have opened yourself to an experience of natural processing and release of your emotions.

Maybe you have found yourself crying, screaming into a pillow, or dancing around your room, only to find yourself feeling a lightness in your body once you are done. By this point, you will likely already notice the intensity of your experience becoming more manageable.

how to process tough emotions effectively

Processing Emotions

Emotions are an adaptive, highly-advanced information system we are fortunate to have as humans. By nature, their effects on us physiologically are temporary, but their wisdom is essential. If you are able to allow your emotions to exist through the steps outlined above, you open yourself to the natural ways they release (e.g. crying, running, shouting, talk therapy, etc.).

On the other side of this release is deep understanding of your experience and yourself as a human being navigating life.


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