Intense Emotions

Intense Emotions

worry-133021We are emotional beings – like it or not, our actions, decisions, and the quality of our lives are determined by how we deal with emotional information.

Unfortunately, most of us were not taught any skills for working with emotions, and for many of us, our parents didn’t provide much useful guidance as role models.

For many of us, intense emotion is a distressing and overwhelming experience.

Other people say things like “you’re too sensitive”, “you’re taking this too personally”, and “just calm down, it’s not such a big deal …”

None of this advice helps at all!

Sudden Impact

We often don’t get much warning that an emotional storm is on the way.

Something happens, and before we can even take a full breath, the emotion hits like a tidal wave.

It’s hard to think.

It’s hard to breathe.

And it’s not something that will respond to an instruction like “just calm down”!

Immediate Action

When we are in the grips of a strong emotion, whether it is anger, fear, or shame, our nervous system is in overdrive. We are flooded with adrenaline, and “non-essential functions” – like thinking, self-awareness, and decision-making – are simply shut down.

In this state, we can’t use all the helpful tools for long-term development of emotional intelligence.

At this point, we are having the emotional equivalent of a heart attack, and we need the emotional equivalent of first aid.

Fortunately, in recent years science has devoted serious attention to the workings of our nervous system, and has discovered that there are a number of actions you can take to instantly interrupt an emotional storm and “reset” your nervous system to a more comfortable and healthy level of activity.

To learn more about these techniques, get our online course Emotional First Aid – it’s FREE if you use this link.

The Permanent Solution

Of course, first aid can only address the symptom, not the cause of your intense emotions.

In our Members Area, we have a wide variety of resources to support you in learning new ways to balance your nervous system and process emotions, as an individual, and in relationships.

Access the Members Area here – it’s FREE!

There are a number of reasons why you may feel emotions more intensely than others:


Having a non-neurotypical brain can make you more sensitive to strong emotions. People on the autism spectrum can to be highly sensitive to all sensory input, including the sensations associated with emotions. People with ADD and bipolar disorder can have Rejection-Sensitive Dysphoria, which makes the emotions associated with rejection much more intense and painful than they are for a neurotypical person.

About 20% of the population can be categorised as “highly sensitive”, which means that they are much more aware of emotions, both their own emotions, and the emotions of the people around them.

In some cases, medication can reduce the impact of neurobological causes of intense emotions. Before resorting to medication, however, it is important to rule out other possible causes of intense emotion.

man-angry-painSuppressed Emotions

When we are prevented from expressing certain emotions, we “stuff” them down somewhere and carry on. But the emotion doesn’t go away, even if we are no longer consciously aware of its presence. The emotion will lie dormant until a situation happens which given it an opportunity to be expressed.

This is the most common cause of the emotional explosions that other people refer to as “over-reacting”. The emotional response is much stronger than would be normal in that situation, because you are bringing emotion from past situations into the present situation.

This often happens with anger, where a relatively small event can trigger a huge amount of anger. This is sometimes referred to by English-speakers as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. One straw is small and easy to carry, but if you are already carrying a full load, one more straw can break your self-control and spill the whole load on the ground at once.

attachmentAttachment Style

Only a minority of the population in the West have a “secure” attachment style. Securely attached people are happy to be with their loved ones, and also happy to spend time alone. They have no problem connecting deeply with others, and no problem disconnecting when it is time to separate.

Some people have an “anxious” attachment style. This provokes extreme fear at the thought or the reality of being separated from a loved one, and an intensely painful loneliness.

Others have an “avoidant” attachment style. They keep themselves emotionally separate from their loved ones, and find it difficult to let down their guard. If they are pressed by an anxious and emotional partner, they may explode in rage as a way to protect themselves from “invasion”.

A small group have “disorganised” attachment, which means that they don’t have one consistent style of attachment. They alternate between anxious and avoidant strategies, and suffer the negative consequences of both.

At first, it was believed that attachment style was set in early childhood and would never change, but recent research into neuroplasticity has shown that we can write a new ending to our attachment story at any point in our lives.

Resources and support for dealing with attachment styles and trauma can be found in our Premium Members Area.

Traumatic Events

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can produce intense emotions without warning. Healing from PTSD requires rewiring the brain and nervous system – it is very unlikely to happen spontaneously.

Resources and support for dealing with trauma can be found in our Premium Members Area.

girl sad angryChildhood Developmental Trauma

When parents are unable to meet the needs of a child, particularly their emotional needs, the normal development of emotional maturity is disturbed. People whose parents were kindly but emotionally neglectful can find themselves stuck at earlier emotional developmental stages, even into adulthood.

When parents were mentally ill, alcoholics or addicts, or suffering from PTSD themselves, the developmental disturbance can reach the level of trauma. In this case, it is called Complex PTSD, because there is not one specific traumatic incident to resolve. Instead, there is a lifetime of loneliness, emotional abandonment, shaming, and microaggressions, many of which you may never remember. 

Symptoms of childhood development trauma may be misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder, ADD, borderline personality disorder, social anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder, and clinical depression. Treating trauma with medication may suppress some or all of the symptoms, but it will not provide relief, healing, and a return to normal functioning.

Some people may need medication to support them while doing the deeper work to relieve their underlying trauma. If your health professional is only familiar with a medication approach, it is wise to also seek a second opinion from a health professional with experience dealing with complex PTSD.

Burnout and Physical Depletion

The energy we have available for keeping ourselves balanced varies with time and circumstances. We may be completely fine in the mornings, and fall apart easily in the evening. We may be cheerful and upbeat in summer, and gloomy and pessimistic all winter.

Our physical wellbeing plays an important role in our emotional wellbeing. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, stress, lack of exercise, and lack of “downtime” – opportunities to do very little, or to do something we enjoy – can all reduce our emotional resilience, and make overwhelming emotional storms more likely.

For those who are managing PTSD, bipolar, and other disorders affecting mood, taking care of basic physical and psychological needs is a vital piece of the puzzle.

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After Separation

After Separation

The end of a long-term relationship is never easy. Immediately after separation, there are both practical and emotional challenges to navigate. No matter how clear it is that you need to part ways, separation is always a deep emotional process. Sometimes we have completed several stages of the grieving process before the official moment of separation, and sometimes events take us by surprise. Either way, the grieving process is unavoidable.

grief after separation

All of us grieve, even for the most painful and dysfunctional relationships. We may be grieving the relationship we thought we had, or the relationship we deserved and didn’t get. We might grieve the relationship we hoped for, rather than a relationship we actually experienced, but we grieve, just the same.

It can be tempting to bypass grief and jump right into a new relationship. The intoxicating chemicals of being “in love” make us forget about our previous partner. The new person has none of the infuriating issues that the previous partner had. There are many risks in this approach, which we explore in our “Real or Rebound?” series, available in the members area.

Some people avoid a rebound relationship by diving into a busy whirl of dating and casual sex. Sexual exploration is very healthy after ending a long-term relationship, but compulsive or addictive behaviour is not so healthy. You might be at risk of sex or love addiction if you find yourself seeking sex or love as an escape from unpleasant emotions, or if you can’t imagine life without it.

The more you can allow the grieving process to move through you, fully and cleanly, the faster you will be ready to embark on your next genuine, deep relationship.

Stages of Grief After Separation

Denial – when it doesn’t seem real

Anger – at anything and everything

Guilt/Bargaining – going over everything obsessively, trying to figure out what you could have done differently in your mind

Sadness – this may be associated with remembering good things that have been lost, or hopes which never manifested, or it may have no particular object

Acceptance – starting to appreciate the new life which is taking shape

Check out this post on grief for more guidance.

Rebuilding Confidence After Separation or Divorce

We don’t like to think about what comes next. “Getting back out there” can be a daunting prospect. Dating was stressful, painful, and exhausting enough when we were teenagers. The idea of putting ourselves through that again, with everything else we have to deal with …

Confidence often takes a beating as a relationship breaks down. Whatever the circumstances of the break-up, we tend to focus on the ways in which we have personally failed. If our ex was abusive or irrational, we can also become focused on the reasons not to trust anyone else ever again.

Crisis – Both Danger and Opportunity

changing after separation

Times of big life changes can be a blessing in disguise. When everything is up in the air, when we are changing living arrangements, working arrangements, childcare arrangements, and everything else – these are the times when it is easiest to also change ourselves.

Should you choose to, you can make this separation a “watershed moment” in your life. Looking back in a few years’ time, you could pinpoint this time as the turning point. This could be the moment when you stopped being a victim of circumstances and truly claimed your life as your own.

What will it take?

Taking back your life begins with knowing who you really are. Once you are connected with your authentic self, you have all the guidance and personal power you need to make the right changes.

Over the years, I have watched hundreds of people take back their lives. Some move swiftly and dramatically, while others make subtle adjustments that are barely visible to outsiders. All of them report feeling more freedom, power, and fulfilment.



Grief is a normal part of human psychology. You wouldn’t know that from watching how grieving people are treated, though. There is a growing trend to consider grief a pathology, and to treat it as though it was a mental illness, or a personal weakness.

Had a death in the family? You might get a day off work to go to the funeral. They might even let you take sick leave for a few days, or a week. Beyond that, though, you are expected to show up and be productive, as though nothing happened. 

Anything else that might cause grief – the end of a relationship, death of a pet, loss of a home, and so on – you don’t even get one day off work to process your grief. (Of course, there are caring and empathetic employers out there, who don’t follow these norms, but we are looking at the culture overall, on average.) 

Friends aren’t much better, often. They bring casseroles for the first few days, come to the funeral and say the right things, and then they expect you to get on with life as normal within a week or two. If it’s the end of a relationship, or the loss of a home, they might even start immediately with bypassing comments like “look on the bright side, now you can find something better …” 

When it comes to grief, we are expected to manage it in our own time, and mostly on our own. 

Remember that there is no statute of limitations on grief. You are entitled to grieve in your own way, in your time, for as long as you need. 

What is grief? 


Grief is a set of emotional responses which happens whenever we are required to let go of a future we have invested emotional energy into. The more emotional energy we have invested in a future, the stronger the emotions of grief will be as we reshape our emotional landscape to erase that future. 

We invest emotional energy into a future by imagining it, making plans, or just unconsciously expecting it to happen. As an extreme example, we might hate and fear an abusive parent, and be planning to escape from home as soon as possible. At the same time, we unconsciously expect that parent to be there every morning when we wake up. If that parent dies, we might be relieved that the abuse is over, but we will still experience grief because of our deep, unconscious expectation that our parents will be around forever. 

The emotions which arise when we are grieving can be confusing, because they can appear contradictory. 

It is important to remember that the emotions of grief are markers for our process of letting go of a future, and they don’t need to match up to anything real that is happening how, or that happened in the past. The emotions of grief are “free floating” – they don’t need a particular object. In fact, the grieving process goes faster when we actively prevent the free-floating emotions from latching on to any person or event. 

Stages of Grief

While grief is described as having “stages”, we don’t pass neatly from one stage to the next. We switch around between 2-4 stages at any point in time. The proportions change over time. The early stages are a bigger percentage at first, and the later stages come to be the biggest proportion as time passes.


The denial phase comes first, and generally passes within a few days. In this phase, we simply forget that the loss has happened. We repeatedly remember, with the same force of shock as when we first heard the news.

The denial phase can be extended indefinitely if the loss isn’t due to death. We can remain in denial about a relationship break-up for much longer than a few days. While we hold the belief that our lost future may still happen, we maintain that future as an object in our emotional landscape, and the grieving process slows down. It may even stall completely.



Free-floating anger is a significant element of the early stages of grief. When someone has died, particularly if they did nothing to cause their own death, it can be disturbing to find ourselves being angry at them for dying. This is completely normal, and it will pass.

When a relationship has ended, it is easy to attach the anger to our ex, and make lists in our mind of the ways in which they wronged us. While this is a seductive process, it is not a healthy way to grieve. The anger will move through much faster if it remains free-floating, without any particular object. In truth, we are angry that our anticipated future has been taken from us, and it really doesn’t matter how that future was taken.


Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the grieving process which takes place when a person is told they have a terminal illness. She described a stage she called “bargaining”, where people construct “deals with God”. If I become vegan, my cancer will go away. If I forgive all my enemies, I will be cured.

When someone has died, we can’t bargain with God in quite the same way. This stage manifests as obsessively going over the past in our mind, over and over. On some level, we are hoping that we can find a way to make it turn out differently. Of course, we can’t.

However, if we happen to find something specific we did, or didn’t do, we can attach this emotion to that memory. Again, as with anger, it is much more healthy to allow the guilt/bargaining energy to remain free-floating. Punishing ourselves emotionally for doing or not doing something gives us the illusion of having control over the loss. These illusions are temporarily comforting, but they keep us trapped in unresolved grief.



When we think of grief, it is the sadness we most easily understand. The sadness can last for a long time. It will appear from moments in the early stages, amongst the more intense denial, anger and guilt. As time goes by, if we don’t attach the more intense emotions to anything, sadness will become the dominant emotion.

Sadness can manifest “out of nowhere”, when we have been moving through acceptance for quite some time. This is normal. Reminders such as birthdays, holidays, and objects with personal significance can trigger sadness, even decades later.


Acceptance is the emotion which manifests when we have reclaimed enough emotional energy from the lost future to start creating something new.

Even after we have felt acceptance, we will still cycle back through the other stages. Over time, we will spend a greater and greater proportion of our time in acceptance.

Grieving a Relationship

When we have ended a relationship, we will be required to carry on living as normal while we grieve. We may be pressured to throw out mementos, start dating again, or make other radical changes.

It is very important to give yourself time and permission to grieve fully before starting to move forward. In the chaotic emotions of grief, we may not make the best decisions for our long-term future.

That’s not to say you should be a hermit for a year or two. By all means have a rich social life, including dating and romance if it feels right for you. Just be prepared to excuse yourself if you find yourself doing things that aren’t yet comfortable for you.

Often, in the course of a relationship or a break-up, we lose touch with our true self. Some people are completely out of touch with their true self from childhood, and rely on partners to give them direction and certainty. Others have a good connection to their true self, but find it is disrupted by stress, conflict, too many compromises, or betrayals.

true self

What next?

Whatever else happens after the end of a relationship, it is essential that you re-establish your connection with your true self. This is your “inner wisdom”, the guide which will help you navigate the next stage of your life. The relationship or the break-up may have disrupted that connection, and you will need it for the next stage of your journey.

If you are someone who has always struggled to “find yourself” or to “go within”, times of grief are a golden opportunity. When everything is thrown into chaos, you have an opportunity to rewire your brain in new ways. Rather than going back to coping strategies from earlier in life, you can find your core – your inner strength – and create a new life which suits you much better than anything you have experienced in the past.