Working With Difficult Emotions: An Emergency Toolkit

Working with difficult emotions is probably the one skill that will determine your happiness in life. It is so important to acknowledge our deep wounds and learn skills for working with difficult emotions if we want to move on from them. I've spent many years learning tools and practices to work with the emotional fallout of my parent's divorce when I was a child. Those tools saved me - helped me come to terms with the pain and confusion of difficult emotions.

The thing about emotions is that they are just a set of sensations. When you can experience intense emotion as simply bodily sensation, you can move it through the body to release it. So the most important practice you can do to work with difficult emotions is to learn to read--and tolerate--them in the body.

Staying with the sensations is challenging, but imperative as the first step to being able to work with difficult emotions.

We store unresolved emotions in the body. These emotional memories keep re-enacting themselves as stories in our lives. These stories repeat themselves until we finally work through emotional residue. We essentially invite habitual scenarios into our life again and again until we learn our lesson. It can be incredibly humbling, and sometimes embarrassing.

We are all given a set of unique circumstances to work with in this life. The task: to remain steadfast on the journey and keep your heart open, to others and (maybe hardest of all for some of us) to yourself.

Change Your Story

We are creating the story of our life as we live it. What is the story you tell yourself? If you change your story, your life will reflect the new story.

You may work hard to achieve noteworthy things, lead an interesting life, accomplish lots and be a good girl (or boy.) It's human nature to look for a functional fix that feeds you with worldly prizes. It can work in the short term and on the surface. But no matter how much we cover over core wounds, the deeper scar is always there, ready to burst open again with the perfectly aimed jab. A cutting remark, and angry tone, the wrong look, delivered at a vulnerable moment can set us off, and we may have no idea why.

What worked for me was learning to get in touch with my emotions by developing a daily practice of meditation, yoga and creative expression. Identifying difficult emotions as they arise give you the power when working with difficult emotions, instead of being "worked on" by them.

Once you are able to see clearly what is going on in an emotional moment, you put a bit of distance between you and the emotion. It's like being able to watch a rip-tide: if you are far away enough from it to identify it, there is not much chance of getting swept away in its deadly pull. The simple act of seeing it protects you from the danger of getting lost in it.

Working With Emotions Is  A Lifelong Journey

Even though these tools do work to lessen the damage done by those triggers--I am living proof to those who have known me throughout this journey-- there are deep reservoirs of residue. I am still occasionally catapulted back into those depths, left to thrash about in a murky dark despair. It’s not that yoga and meditation practice will make life less intense. On the contrary, they might even make things more intense, but they also teach you how to tune your system so that it is more capable of tolerating the voltage of this intensity.

Here’s another thing. No matter how skilled I get in managing these difficult/painful emotions, (the turnaround time these days is measured in hours, rather than months or years) they never stop being painful. Pain is part of life. You can’t avoid it. What you can avoid is the layering of suffering you add on top. Sort of like adding insult to injury—you can skip the insult part.

Next time your inner demon--anxiety or depression for example-- rears its ugly head, try this emergency repair kit to gently guide yourself back from the abyss.

Emergency Tool Kit for Working with Difficult Emotions:

1. Stop everything. Don’t act. Sit with it and see if it can be tolerated.

2. Breathe and connect to your body. Walk in the woods if possible. Get on your yoga mat.

3. Express yourself –writing is what works for me. Just purge on the page and get it all out. No one has to read it, so be as immature and whiny--or as mean and embittered--as you want. If you are lucky enough to have a good and trustworthy friend to do this with, go for it.

4. Connect—call close friends, even if you don’t necessarily talk about what’s going on. Spend time with your community. Sometimes just being with others can shift the energy.

5. Take care of your body and mind. Be kind to yourself. Tend to your physical body and environment. Eat good food. Take a bath. If you have to go somewhere to feel more protected and nurtured for a while, do it. A retreat in nature can do wonders to shift a state of mind.

6. Know your limits, and when to ask for help. We all need help from time to time, and a professional coach or counselor can often show us things we may miss. Click here to learn how counseling can help.

Working with difficult emotions is a life-long journey. Developing the skills to manage the storms as they arise is the key to emotional balance and stability.

Need help working through your own emotional storm? Download your free checklist below, 10 Daily Habits for Mental Health + Emotional Equilibrium.