Processing Emotions: Things You Can Do

Many people in therapy express that they feel disconnected from their own emotions or have difficulty processing the emotions that they are feeling. The breadth and depth of our human emotions add so much to our life stories and can also bring great suffering and pain. It is not uncommon for people to struggle with their emotions, particularly those that are powerful, such as joy, anger, and sadness.

One of the things we have in common as human beings is our emotions, our feelings- are energy within ourselves that tell us what we need from ourselves and from others. They are our warning signs and our life enhancers. Emotions drive us to get what we need. When we ignore our emotions, we can become stuck, and even worse, we can become unwell.

We may have learned during our lives to minimize, hide, change, or ignore our feelings.  We may have learned to put other’s feelings before our own, or we may have learned how to manage our feelings in healthy ways. How we understand and respond to emotions comes from many different sources, including our parents, family, culture, religion, school, work, relationships, media, and our life experiences, which is why we respond to emotions in unique and different ways.

  1. Acknowledge emotions. If you are wanting to do a better job of processing your emotions, the first step is to learn some of the language of emotions. Did you know there are approximately 150 words to describe emotions? The six primary emotions are anger, fear, joy, love, sadness, and surprise. Having the words to describe how we are feeling can help us and others to better understand our experiences and improve our relationships. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the “feelings wheel”, which is a nice visual depiction of many shades of the primary human emotions, as well as the meanings of the words, to help you better attune to your own feelings. Notice where you feel your different emotions in your body- is it your gut, your head, your shoulders? Emotions create energy that can be held in the body, especially if not released.
  1. Notice negative self-talk when it happens, and the emotion behind it. What is the need beneath the behaviour that you are condemning? Is there an unmet need that you are ignoring? Feelings, thoughts, and our behaviour are inextricably connected. Take some time to notice how your thoughts and feelings fuel your behaviour, and vice versa. Consider that your body and brain may be signalling to you that there is a situation that requires your attention. At times, it may be a “false alarm” such as in the case of recurring anxiety. Sometimes there is a physical need that is being signalled, that takes an emotional form, such as the need for rest, movement, and nutrition. Sometimes it may be an unmet emotional need, a part of you that has been hurt, needed love or acknowledgement, that is being signalled.
  1. Have self compassion. Catch yourself when you are minimizing or dismissing your emotions and take a moment to consider what part of the experience you might be overlooking. Considering other’s feelings is important, however, not at the expense of ignoring your own. An aspect of self care is paying attention to your own emotional responses and what they signal to you about what your needs are in the moment, and how you can respond to that need in a healthy way. Self compassion is not self indulgent, it is critical for positive mental health.
  1. Respond to the needs that emotions signal. As you become more attuned to your emotions, pay attention to what helps you to cope. Perhaps you’ve notice that physical activity helps you to process feelings of anger, listening to music or cuddling with your dog always helps when you are sad. It is the small things that we do to take care of ourselves in moments of distress that can help us to cope with the challenges in life. Know who your support people are, and who you can reach out to when you need help with processing emotions through talking.
  1. Consider accepting the emotion you are experiencing, instead of resisting it, or trying to change it. By accepting the emotion for what it is, we stay in a state of flow and create the opportunity for emotions and thoughts to move forward naturally, vs. becoming “stuck” in any one feeling. Develop a “mantra” for responding to things that are hard- such as- “it’s all part of the adventure”. Acknowledging the emotion’s presence while also acknowledging that “this too, will pass”, will allow you to remain open and flexible. Pay attention to your breathing and give yourself positive affirmations of safety and love “this is hard, but I am safe right now”. Accept that emotions are human and natural and suspend judgement from the emotions you are experiencing.

If you are finding that processing your emotions is challenging, finding a therapist who can support you to do this can be helpful. Processing emotions helps people to live a more full and healthy life. At BMHS we encourage you to take care of your mental health as you would your physical health. If you would like to meet with one of our therapists, please contact the office at 519 304-0701.