Intense Emotions: How To Cope

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:

grief-897817Neurobiology

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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