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Key Takeaways:

  • Processing emotions matters because it helps make people better decision-makers, manage dangerous situations and connect with others.
  • Failing to process emotions can cause anxiety, depression, stress-related illnesses, unhealthy relationships, and substance abuse.
  • Some activities for processing emotions include practicing mindfulness, journaling, physical activity, and speaking with a therapist.

Emotions occur in the brain and affect the rest of the body. When these emotions are overwhelming, they can be challenging to control and process.

Processing emotions involves working to identify and understand feelings positively and productively. In this article, you’ll learn to overcome feeling disconnected from your emotions and be present with yourself.

Why is it Important to Process Emotions?

Emotional expression matters because it makes decision-making and problem-solving easier. When faced with a conundrum, processing emotions can bring about new perspectives, reduce anxiety, and ease depression.

Emotions can also prepare the body to protect itself from danger. Physiological responses lead us to face or escape specific threats [*].

In addition, processing emotions can lead to the following benefits:

  • Understanding and connecting with others
  • Motivating positive action
  • Responding with care

The Impact of Unprocessed Emotions

Suppressing emotions can lead to anxiety and depression, stress-related illnesses, and alcohol/substance abuse.

Children and adults often suppress negative emotions to avoid distress. Someone might be more likely to repress emotions if their caregivers rarely showed their emotions, shamed or punished them for expressing emotions, or denied their experiences.

Repressing emotions requires significant effort that can eventually take a mental and physical toll on the body.

When someone bottles up their emotions, they become at risk of developing aggressive behaviors and even stress-induced cardiovascular reactivity [*].

Helpful vs. Harmful Ways to Manage Emotions

No two people deal with emotions the same way. However, some management habits are more productive than others. Some helpful ways to manage emotions include:

  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Physical activity and sports
  • Boundary-setting
  • Deep breathing and relaxation
  • Journaling
  • Going to therapy
  • Healthy distractions (hobbies and activities)

Suppose you receive critical feedback on a project, which may trigger frustration and self-doubt. A healthy way to manage these emotions is to acknowledge your feelings without judgment and then step back to objectively analyze the feedback. Consider how mistakes are only a part of growth and constructively plan to how to address the feedback, focusing on actionable improvement plans instead of dwelling on the negative emotions.

Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms include:

  • Avoidance
  • Self-harm
  • Emotional eating
  • Rumination or overthinking
  • Escapism
  • Aggression
  • Substance abuse

Take the scenario we listed above. An unhealthy way to deal with this feedback would be to dwell on the criticism, lashing out at the person who provided the unwanted comments. You might become overwhelmed by self-doubt and become defensive, negatively impacting your performance on future projects.

helpful vs harmful ways to manage your emotions

How to Process Emotions

There is no “right” way to process emotions. Still, having a roadmap to abide by can make it easier to manage overwhelming emotions.

Step 1: Recognize and identify your emotions

Studies have shown that labeling feelings can help individuals de-personalize their experience of the emotion, allowing them to feel more in control [*].

When recognizing these emotions, create some distance between them. For instance, instead of saying, “I am sad,” say, “I am feeling sad.” Removing yourself from the emotion ensures you aren’t defined by it.

Consider where in your body you feel this emotion. Is it in your throat? Your chest? Your head? Identifying where you feel this emotion in your body can make it more tangible.

Step 2: Accept and acknowledge your emotions

Accepting and acknowledging your emotions entails listening to them. Consider what they’re telling you.

Perhaps the emotion tells you you need physical rest or emotional release. Whatever the case, don’t judge the feeling. Don’t overthink it.

Step 3: Process and feel the emotion

Feelings will not kill you—not even the most uncomfortable ones! When experiencing a challenging emotion, practice mindfulness and deep breathing exercises to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Use the circle of control to practice coping. Allow yourself to feel curiosity about the feeling while considering what is in and out of your control.

Step 4: Address the emotion

Once you understand why you feel a certain way, it’s time to decide what to do about it. The answer won’t always be obvious, but you can start letting go by allowing yourself to get comfortable in the following ways:

  • Re-establishing a boundary
  • Allowing the feeling to pass
  • Expressing the feeling to a friend, a therapist, or in a journal
  • Apologizing or making amends with someone
  • Addressing distorted thinking
  • Meeting an immediate need
  • Doing the opposite of a harmful urge

List of Activities to Help You Process Emotions

Practicing emotional expression can help children and adults overcome stress—but what can you do? Here are a few activities to practice.

Journaling

Journalizing allows individuals to identify and control emotions while prioritizing fears and problems. You can learn to recognize patterns and triggers and counter them by tracking symptoms daily.

Sleeping

Something as simple as getting enough sleep can help challenge the urge to ruminate. When you’re exhausted, navigating and understanding your emotions will be more challenging. Getting enough sleep can provide the clarity you need.

The 90-Second Rule

The first 90 seconds of being exposed to external stimulus causes a primitive and automated response in the body [*]. Sometimes, these responses can trigger aggressive behaviors. Thus, allowing yourself at least 90 seconds before responding to your emotions can prevent you from becoming unmanageably angry or frustrated.

Dialectical and Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) equips individuals with the skills for emotion regulation. It aims to reduce vulnerability to negative emotions through mindfulness, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.

A simple way to begin DBT with teenagers is to practice PLEASE skills, which encompass treating physical illnesses, balancing diets, avoiding mind-altering substances, getting enough sleep, and getting regular exercise.

Another form of therapy effective for managing emotions is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A common CBT tool is the CBT triangle, which illustrates the relationship between thoughts, behavior, and feelings.

Worksheets

Some young children struggle to manage emotions effectively because they don’t know how to identify them. Using feelings worksheets can encourage them to talk about their feelings and learn to recognize emotions better.

When to Seek Professional Help for Processing Emotions

Seeking professional help for processing emotions can be beneficial when you experience:

  • Persistent emotional distress
  • Difficulty functioning and carrying out daily tasks
  • Consistently unresolved issues
  • Negatively impacted interpersonal relationships
  • Negative behavior patterns (substance abuse, self-harm)
  • Inability to stop feeling overwhelmed

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if I can't identify the cause of my emotions?

If you can’t identify the cause of your emotions, Consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who can help explore and understand the underlying factors contributing to your feelings.

How long does it usually take to process emotions?

How long it takes for someone to process their emotions depends on the complexity and depth of these feelings. Some individuals can identify, acknowledge, and process their emotions in a matter of minutes, whereas others can take months to address more significant trauma.

Can processing emotions improve mental health?

Processing emotions can significantly improve mental health by promoting self-awareness, reducing stress, enhancing emotional regulation, and fostering healthier coping mechanisms.

The Bottom Line

Managing your emotions is not as easy as people think—but it isn’t impossible. With the appropriate tools and support, controlling your emotions can lead to better decision-making skills and healthier interpersonal relationships.

If you or your child struggle to process emotions, our collection of worksheets can lend you a helping hand.

Sources:

  1. Kozlowska et al. “Fear and the Defense Cascade.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 2015.
  2. Quartana PJ, Burns JW. “Emotion suppression affects cardiovascular responses to initial and subsequent laboratory stressors.” British Journal of Health Psychology, 2010.
  3. Lieberman et al. “Putting Feelings Into Words.” Psychological Science, 2007.
  4. Stone AM. “90 Seconds to Emotional Resilience.” Alyson M. Stone, PhD, CGP, 2019.