5 steps 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).
What are emotions?
Before we talk about how to process emotions effectively, a super-quick overview of what emotions are.
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.
In fact, 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).
How do you process tough emotions effectively?
As a therapist, I wanted to come up with easy-to-remember, simple-to apply, go-to-steps to process emotions when those difficult feelings come creeping up. The steps create an acronym “PELAR” which I learned means “to peel” in Spanish. The translation is fitting when we think about peeling back the noise of the experience of tough emotions to process them effectively and to find peace within yourself.
Here are my go-to steps for processing emotions (keep reading as I expand on each below!).
As cliche as it may sound, breaking chains of reactivity is the first step of any sort of emotional or mental change. What I mean is that 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, where, as Viktor Frankl taught, lies your power to choose.
So, 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.
The second step is to allow yourself to experience the emotions as they are showing up in your mind, your body, and your energy. In fact, breathing is my favorite tool to guide this experience, Because breathing is a tool that is always available to us and naturally grounds us in our bodies and nervous systems. This is sort of an extension of the pause, with the added layer that you are fully allowing 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.
After you have paused and noticed your discomfort, try taking 10 deep breaths in the following format:
Inhale (count to four)- small pause- exhale (count to six)-small pause- repeat x 10
As you are breathing, pay attention to the sensations happening in your mind and body and then remind yourself that you are safe.
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 (like this one from 2018) have shown that describing your emotions, or affect labeling, leads to emotion regulation, which is your ability to impact the intensity of duration of what you are feeling. This means that individuals who went through the process of labeling their emotions around an event later on reported lower levels of that same affect.
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.
Overall, this step may sound something 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 issue is, sometimes our systems are trying to protect us in moments we do not require protection, leaving us feeling dysregulated and confused.
For example, maybe 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. However, in our modern world, being disliked is usually not such a threat to safety.
I find that an important and self-healing step in how to process emotions includes acknowledging the way our mind and body are attempting to keep us safe in the world. This step can even include exploring how our natural tendencies (emotions and resulting behaviors) were formed and served us at some point in our lives- I write all about this deep work here.
Continuing with the anxiety example, this might sound something 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.
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 this life. What could be more rewarding than that?
As we navigate our lives, instead of suppressing our emotions, we can learn to better understand how this system is attempting to serve us and how we can respond to this messages effectively and ultimately, have a full, aligned human experience.