Working with intense emotions can be really tricky because, frankly, it is difficult to remember when you’re really distressed that you have skills, effective coping mechanisms, and the ability to get through an emotional crisis. This post is all about why self-compassion is a good idea when you are really distressed, and the next one gives you some ideas about how to get started. I already posted about taking your emotional temperature and if you haven’t already read that, I’d recommend that you do before reading this. It is all about getting more familiar with how emotionally activated you are, and noticing your activation level. For many of us who have suppressed or avoided emotions, practising the skill of just working out our level of activation is an important step towards being kinder to our emotions. Another article that I wrote recently was about how it can be helpful to think about emotional activation in zones so we can figure out the most effective actions to take given our present level of emotion. This one is all about why and how to give yourself choices when you have realised that you’re at an emotional 8-10, but there is no crisis that means someone might be in immediate physical danger (like a kid running in front of a car).
Very intense emotions are often very painful and feel really urgent. Many of us experience a need to get rid of them as soon as possible, and that can mean feeling the overwhelming urge to resolve whatever problem you are currently attaching to the emotions, or to avoid feeling the emotion at all. This is usually especially intense in conflicts with partners or family. A few years ago I had a really difficult argument with my partner. In retrospect it seems pretty trivial, but at the time I was distressed for days and it nearly ended our relationship. I spent hours trying to get them to see that they had deliberately and with malice abandoned me emotionally. They tried to listen, but felt very defensive and tried to explain their point of view to me because they felt very judged and defective. Needless to say, we weren’t able to really listen to each other because both of us were too caught up in our own distress. We stayed in this cycle for 3 days – with very few breaks. It was horrible. I desperately wanted them to understand that it was all their fault – and they wanted me to understand that it wasn’t. Of course, looking back it was mostly a miscommunication and there was certainly no malice at all. But we couldn’t get to that while we were both so distressed. The conflict we were having was certainly part of the problem, but the biggest part of the problem was how intense our emotions were. A problem of being human is that when we are intensely distressed our problem-solving abilities shrink dramatically. We lose the ability to communicate our own point of view effectively and we find hearing other perspectives almost impossible. This means that if you’re in an interpersonal conflict that has escalated until you are at this stage of distress it is highly unlikely that you’ll resolve it by continuing to talk (or yell) with another person. Even if the problem isn’t interpersonal, you’re still less likely to solve it when very distressed.
Very often the event triggering the distress is related to some older button. This can be the case with interpersonal conflicts, but it is also an issue when you are facing an event that you’re anxious or distressed about. Personally, I find medical appointments very difficult. The anticipation of difficult medical appointments brings back memories from my childhood and more recent experiences of having difficulty persuading doctors that my health problems are not about my weight. It makes sense that I have this problem, I had a large mass on an ovary and endometriosis and it took me 10 years to get a doctor to take my problems seriously, when I told them it hurt a lot more than a broken wrist. But that doesn’t mean that my next doctors visit will be like the ones I had in the past. I have more skills these days, I can advocate for myself, I have more compassionate doctors. Yet, sometimes I find the fact of an upcoming doctors visit very distressing, and it can feel like I need to be prepared for every possible eventuality. While some preparation is useful, spending many hours preparing for a routine visit isn’t very effective. Sometimes I’ve done everything I reasonably can, and the thing I need to work on is calming my distress rather than addressing the situation. This is especially the case when my emotions are very intense, because my preparations are much less likely to be effective when I’m so emotional. So, focusing on addressing the level of distress first is really useful.
Avoidance is another thing that people that have emotions that are difficult to manage often use. This ranges from avoiding being in your body and with any feelings at all, to numbing yourself with so many things to do that you don’t have time to feel anything. This is an important coping strategy that a lot of people use, but it has some big problems and limitations so it can be useful to add other strategies too. Avoidance can mean that you spend all of your life trying to get away from feelings and problems, which can make them bigger and harder to deal with. It can mean that all your energy is sapped by suppressing things, and you don’t have the energy to create a life that you experience as worth living. You deserve a life worth living. Some of what I talk about here is about moving away from difficult emotions, but that is not the same as avoiding them. These are tools to use WHILE you have the emotions, to teach your body that you can have big emotions and comfort at the same time. You can have big emotions while grounding yourself. You can have big emotions, and be in your body without disappearing, you can have big emotions and write about them. You can have big emotions and do things with your body to reduce their intensity.
So, what is the alternative to focusing on the situation causing the distress?
Focusing on managing and reducing your distress first.
I know, it sounds so simple when I just write it out like that, but it is anything but easy. Actually, it is a lot of emotional work, and it takes a lot of practice to make any of the skills that you’ve learned available to you when you’re very distressed. But it is worth it, because life gets SO MUCH easier when you are able to cope with your own distress and de-escalate your own emotions and emotionally charged situations. The next post will give you my favourite 5 ways to work on reducing distress with compassion.
If you are interested in learning a lot more distress tolerance techniques from me, join me for a DBT distress tolerance course. You can find out more about my DBT courses here.