Life goes through a lot of ups and downs. It’s normal for our emotions to fluctuate along with them. You may feel on top of the world at times, and at other times as if things are utterly hopeless. Most of us like to land somewhere in between.
Emotions are a normal way that the human body responds to positive and negative experiences. This is due to how parts of the brain function, such as the amygdala, which evolved to help alert us to threats and opportunities.
Researchers believe some people are more prone to have higher emotional sensitivity. Others may be affected by their environment growing up, or current circumstances.
Being more emotional isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. If you tend to be a more feeling person, you may better recognize when others are having difficulties. Or, it may make you particularly good at certain professions or activities that require emotional awareness.
At times, however, being more sensitive to emotions can make life more difficult to handle. When these fluctuations begin to negatively affect important areas of your life, such as work or relationships, there are some strategies that may help.
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Causes of Emotional Struggles
One of the first steps in feeling more in control of your emotions is to understand what’s happening. First, identify why you may feel overwhelmed. Consider these possible causes of emotional regulation struggles.
Most people will experience trauma during their lifetime, if not more than one. And past experiences may trigger events in the present. For example, if you have lost a loved one in the past, you may feel more insecure when your partner leaves town, or when they don’t answer your texts right away.
Childhood experiences also affect most people later on in life during intimate relationships. Any feelings they tended to have as a child, such as feeling neglected, abandoned, or controlled, may come up in a current relationship.
Your reaction to relationship dynamics, with partners, friends, or at work, will largely depend on these childhood experiences.
Traumas in adulthood can also affect how we deal with certain triggers. This may be particularly true if you are struggling with processing a trauma, which may lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Borderline Personality Disorder
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is another common cause of emotional difficulties. This is a specific diagnosis given to some people with a pattern of certain responses or behaviors. Experts believe this condition develops partially because of emotional trauma, such as abuse or neglect, during childhood.
When a child doesn’t feel validated or safe expressing emotions, they may not learn to do so in a healthy way. They may tend to stuff emotions down and then explode. Or, they may begin to function with emotions right on the surface, feeling everything intensely much of the time.
Symptoms of BPD can include:
- A frantic and common fear of abandonment
- A pattern of unstable personal relationships
- An unstable self-image
- Self-harming behaviors
- Episodes of depression, irritability and anxiety
- Frequent feelings of emptiness or boredom
- Episodes of intense anger, sometimes followed by regret
- Dissociative or “out of body” experiences
Note that many of these symptoms can show up for anyone on occasion. However, with BPD there is an ongoing pattern that leads to problems dealing with emotions and triggers. Dialectical behavior therapy is typically the first line of treatment for BPD.
Mental Health Conditions
If you’re struggling with another mental health issue, such as depression or general anxiety, this is likely to affect your daily functioning.
You may feel numb, sad, or more easily overwhelmed if you’re dealing with depression. With general anxiety issues, you may be more prone to react to things that may cause you to worry. These conditions can make it feel as if your emotions are all over the place.
In this case, you may find it much more difficult to regulate emotions than before you were struggling with one of these conditions.
We can all look back on times when life was particularly hard. For example, if your workload has doubled lately, or your child is having a hard time at school, this can cause more stress in your life. When things aren’t going well, much of our energy goes into handling these problems.
This includes emotional energy, and it can be difficult to cope with much else, leading to emotional struggles when dealing with everyday conflicts or problems.
While it’s not recognized much, numerous physical and health conditions might affect one’s emotions. Chronic pain, for example, may make it difficult to deal with any other stressors.
Hormonal conditions such as thyroid disorders or changes in reproductive hormones can also impact how we feel and cope. They can make us react in ways we otherwise wouldn’t. These conditions may be missed during mental health assessments, especially in the beginning.
Ways to Cope
So if you tend to struggle with emotions in general, or are having a difficult time lately, what can you do? Fortunately, there are coping skills that can help. Here are some common ones that many people find effective.
First, it’s important to validate your own feelings. There are many stigmas about emotions, and this may make you particularly judgmental towards yourself.
Regardless of what’s causing it, anything you’re feeling is okay. Humans are wired to have emotions, and experiencing them doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.
Rather than telling yourself to “Get it together,” or thinking “I shouldn’t cry,” replace those harsh statements. Instead, try, “It’s been a tough day,” or “No wonder I’m overwhelmed with everything going on.”
Once you’ve validated and accepted yourself, then you can move onto soothing those strong feelings.
Sometimes it can help to get your feelings out. This is particularly helpful if you’re dealing with an ongoing issue, such as grief or low self-confidence. People use various ways to express emotions. Here are some ideas:
- Journaling, about anything that comes to mind
- Creating art that depicts what you’re feeling
- Talking to a supportive friend
- Opening up to your partner
- Taking a walk while you process your day
Anything that provides relief or helps you better understand yourself and your situation is an effective way to express.
Grounding and mindfulness skills can also help you develop skills to manage emotions. Regular mindfulness practice is shown to help people cope with stress more easily.
Grounding techniques can also be used in the moment to help you calm down during difficult situations, such as a difficult work meeting or fight with your partner.
To do this, start with a few slow, deep breaths. Then activate your senses in some way.
For example, look out the window and see how many colors you can see from where you’re sitting. Or, become aware of the physical sensations in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up.
You can also activate your senses through touch, taste, and smells. Anything that brings you back to the moment and your environment is helpful.
Soothing skills can overlap with mindfulness, but can also branch out into other activities. For example, many people find it relaxing to take a warm bath. Others relax by taking a run, cuddling with a pet, or playing outside with their kids.
You might also listen to music, color in an adult coloring book, or use essential oils. Whatever works for you, make a point of doing it often, or during moments that are stressful.
Unfortunately, many of us have a negative inner critic that tends to be pretty hard on us.
That critic may never be satisfied, giving you trouble even when things are going well. However, over time you can begin to challenge this voice, and replace it with a more supportive one. Sometimes this is referred to as self-parenting, or “reparenting” yourself.
To practice this, think of what you might say to a friend you care about, or to a child. This tends to be kinder and more accepting when compared to what you may think internally. If you wouldn’t say it to someone you care about, don’t say it to yourself.
Self-help can go a long way, but many people find it helpful and necessary to talk to a therapist as well. An outside, experienced person can help you see things from another perspective. They can also offer education and guidance through issues that many other people struggle with.
If you’re dealing with a particular problem, like depression or BPD, a therapist can help you work through specific challenges that come up.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Practices
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach that connects thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT therapists believe that you can challenge your thoughts, or perspective, in a given situation in order to feel better.
You can learn CBT techniques in therapy, and/or practice them on your own. To get started, try to challenge thoughts that make your life more difficult. For example, if you think your boss doesn’t like you, look for evidence to the contrary. Perhaps your boss tends to be grumpy towards everyone and actually gave you a compliment last week.
By looking for evidence that challenges your negative belief, you may begin to feel more relaxed and confident in such a situation.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, is a branch of CBT therapy that helps with issues like BPD, depression, and other mood disorders.
This type of therapy includes specific activities, including group meetings, therapy sessions, and learning unique skills to deal with life. Many of these skills specifically focus on emotional regulation. They were developed by expert Marsha Linehan and her colleagues.
Here are a few examples of helpful DBT techniques relating to emotions.
This DBT skill stands for:
S: Stop and pause for a moment
T: Take a breath, and notice your breath for a few moments
O: Observe what you’re thinking, noticing, and physically feeling right now
P: Pull back your perspective. What’s the bigger picture of what’s going on? Could things be interpreted differently?
P: Practice what works. What really matters in this situation? What response would be best for you and your goals?
This skill helps you change negative patterns. For example, if you tend to storm out of a situation rather than calmly working through the problem, do the opposite. Choose to react calmly and try working through whatever is going on rather than leaving.
Through practicing this you can learn a lot about yourself and how to deal with certain triggers or problems.
Check the Facts
When our emotions are in control, we might not have an objective view of what’s going on. However, understanding a situation more clearly may help calm our emotional reaction. In DBT, you’re encouraged to ask questions such as:
- What am I feeling?
- What contributed to me feeling this way?
- Is my interpretation of this event accurate, or are there alternative possibilities?
These are just a few of hundreds of DBT skills that have been developed over the years. You can practice skills on your own, or look for a certified therapy program in your area.
Many people are hesitant to try medication for mental health struggles, which is okay. If you continue to struggle, it may be helpful to talk to a doctor about options. Medications such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers have made a life-changing difference for many people. Others find certain medications cause difficult side effects, so be sure to discuss it with your provider fully, and weigh the pros and cons.
Sometimes mental health conditions and stress get significantly better when people add exercise into their life. This might involve going to a local gym, taking up yoga, or training for a half-marathon. Pick an activity that you actually find enjoyable, so you’re less likely to give it up over time. Exercise is even shown to be effective against specific disorders such as major depression.
If you tend to get overwhelmed with work, parenting, or daily stressors, you may need to add more fun to your life. If it’s been a while, consider what used to be enjoyable. Do you enjoy art, sports, reading, or gaming? Add some of these things back into your life, or take a class in person or online. These can help distract you from stress, while also increasing positive emotion in your life.
If you can’t think of any hobbies that are fun, consider charitable work. Would you find particular meaning in helping the local animal shelter, or through volunteering for a food bank? These can give you a larger picture to focus on, putting stressors into perspective.
Personalize Your Plan
While there are plenty of ways to cope with emotions, everyone is different. Your own solution may be unique. You may find certain hobbies, spiritual practices, or routines make you feel better.
Notice the behaviors you tend to have when you’re feeling better, and make a point to practice these when you’re feeling down, or overwhelmed. If certain therapy techniques aren’t working, try mixing things up, or look for another approach.
Remember that having emotions is normal. Feelings themselves aren’t the problem. They only become an issue when they interfere with your overall life, and are distracting from your general happiness.
Fortunately, you can work through many of the issues that tend to cause dysregulation. If you can’t neutralize this struggle completely, you can still create regular enjoyable moments in life in spite of it.