Getting Unstuck When Difficult Emotions are Holding You Back

Getting Unstuck When Difficult Emotions are Holding You Back

Difficult emotions, such as sadness, fear and anger are a natural part of life.  Sometimes referred to as “negative emotions”, but pleasant or unpleasant, all emotions play an important role in our lives – motivating our behaviour, influencing our thoughts, preparing our body for action and helping us to connect with ourselves and others.

Emotions guide us.  Anger tells us we feel violated or badly treated.  Fear alerts us to potential danger.  Sadness informs us that we are missing something important.  In the main, difficult emotions are functional, helping us navigate our way through life, influencing our actions and responses.

However, when a predominant emotion takes over our life, such as, feeling sad all the time or where we are experiencing strong emotion that causes us to act in ways we would rather not act (for example anxiety that causes us to avoid situations), our emotions can become unhelpful – keeping us from living life fully or from moving forward.

We all know or have been the person that feels overcome by debilitating sadness a long time after a relationship breakup or death of a loved one, or the one who is reacting with uncontrollable anger when the situation does not merit it or perhaps the one who feels constant anxiety when in reality there is nothing to fear.  Difficult emotions are never easy but there are things you can do to get unstuck when difficult emotions are holding you back.

Feel the feeling, Drop the Story

When we have an emotional response to something it takes less than 90 seconds for the emotion to peak and dissipate totally. Jill Bolt Taylor, a brain scientist, well known for her Ted Talk and book “A Stroke of Insight” describes how the automatic physiological response associated with anger (raised heartbeat, heat, tightness in the body etc.) will have come and gone within 90 seconds unless we intervene in the cycle.  How do we most commonly intervene?  We think!  We tell ourselves a story about why we are so angry and in doing so keep regenerating the feeling anger.  We feel angry, we tell ourselves in the head why we are right to be angry, how awful the situation is and so on.  Each angry thought generates a new flood of the chemicals that make up the emotion anger.  The first 90 second response is automatic, but after that, our emotional responses continue because we feed them. This is the same for all emotions.

Pema Chodron, author and teacher on mindfulness also talks about the 90 second emotion teaching that if you allow an emotion to exist for 90 seconds without judging it or attaching a story to it, it will dissipate.  This is what’s called “feel the feeling – drop the story”.  Next time you have a strong emotional response to something, notice where you feel this in your body, bring your attention to that area and focus on it – just noticing what you feel.  Breathe in and out.  If your mind wanders to the story about the feeling just drop the thought and bring your attention back to the sensation you feel in your body and to your breath.  If you do this for 90 seconds the feeling will peak and subside.

Challenge your thinking

Our emotions, thoughts, physical responses and actions are all linked.  If you change one, it will affect the others.  It is not easy to directly change feelings or physical body responses.  It is much easier to change your thoughts.  Changing how you think about a situation, will change how you feel and respond to it.

There are always different ways of looking at a situation and if you are stuck in a difficult emotional state the chances are, your view of the world, may not be as accurate as you think.  At any moment in time our senses are being bombarded by masses of information.  Far too much to process, so our brains unconsciously select what to pay attention to.  This selection happens based on what you already know or expect and is influenced by emotional state, past experiences and by conscious and unconscious beliefs and assumptions.  If for example you are experiencing sadness, it is more likely that your brain will interpret the world around you in a way that compounds your sadness unless you make a conscious effort to challenge this.

Research also shows that people experiencing depression or anxiety are more likely to interpret ambiguous information i.e. information that could be interpreted as positive, negative or neutral as negative.  If you are stuck in a difficult emotional state, it is therefore helpful to challenge your thinking and to actively attempt to select a world view that creates more positive feelings.  To help you change your perspective on a situation, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the evidence that what I am thinking about this situation is true?
  • What is the evidence that what I am thinking about this situation is not true?
  • Is there an alternative explanation or way of looking at this?
  • If my best friend was thinking this way what would I tell him/her?

Take constructive action

The word motion forms most of the word e-motion for good reason.  The purpose of emotion is to move us and cause us to act.  Even when we hold our emotions back, they find a way of acting out.  Passive aggressive behaviour, addiction, depression as well as many physical body ailments and emotional challenges are examples of held emotions acting out.  When you are stuck in a difficult emotional state, it is likely that you are not taking constructive action.  Constructive action might involve telling someone that you are angry with them, reaching out to someone when you feel sad or reassuring yourself that right now you are safe. It could also involve going for a walk or having a nourishing meal.

With practise you can cultivate an “observer self”.  A part of you that observes in a caring and non-judgemental way what the rest of you is doing.  A part of you that can observe your own emotional reactions without getting carried away with them and that can discern what action might be helpful in the situation.  Mindfulness is a great way to cultivate this aspect of yourself and nowadays with a quick internet search you will find many mindfulness training courses that you can attend in person or complete online.

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Erica McKinney is a counsellor, psychotherapist, life coach and healing practitioner with over 10 years’ experience working with individuals and groups.  She currently has a private practise in Shankill, Co Dublin. |@EricaMcKinney00 |