7 Ways to Deal with Emotional Distress - dummies

By Christopher Mogan, Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith

When emotionally distressed, your mind struggles to see and think clearly. The appraisals you make affect the emotional response that follows. If threat, uncertainty, doubt or fear predominates, the emotional response will be underpinned by anxiety. If loss, rejection or deprivation predominates, the emotional distress is characterised by depression. Here are some key tips for coping — for you or a loved one.

Accept that all thoughts (good and bad) come into your mind

Intrusive negative thoughts and feelings are both a part of normal experience and a feature of anxiety and depression. They seem to ‘pop in’ and ‘pop out’ in normal experience, but are more persistent and disturbing when your mood is low.

Accepting that thoughts of all kinds constantly enter your mind is one key to dealing with the distress associated with particular thoughts. Another key is learning to slow down your mind and body to allow healing from within.

Take a step back

Step back metaphorically from the distressing experience. This isn’t easy as thoughts create reactions within us — emotional and critical reactions. Some ways of ‘stepping back’ include:

  • Using cue cards to read key ideas to yourself. For example, ‘I am not my thoughts. I am separate from my thoughts.

  • Trying a breath exercise like observing the rise and fall of the diaphragm in breathing to steady yourself.

  • Creating a space that slows down your immediate reactions and helps you to focus on what you’re doing at that moment rather than feeling overwhelmed. Such a space enables you to process the upsetting thoughts.

Pause and self-soothe

Even a brief pause connects you back to longer moments when you’ve had more time to take a broader perspective. You start to notice things like how worrying thoughts and feelings cause tension in particular parts of your body. How long do they last? Do they stay the same or do they shift over time? Can you ‘soften’ that impact by shifting your attention back to the present moment or breathing into the tension or blockage to create a different response, like more ‘space’ or even a healing response? Self-soothing is a good skill to develop. Think to yourself, ‘I don’t like this, but I’m learning to handle it. I can let it pass. I can just sit with the feeling…watch it fade over time.

Be open

Be open to your experiences — negative and positive — and don’t shut them down. It’s the continual connection with unresolved issues that brings both the unhelpful thoughts and feelings that destabilise you. Over time, you might notice shifts in your response — more awareness, ability to shift attention away, etc. This is the path to inner peace. You focus on what is important to you (what you value), stay in touch with the things that engage your attention (interests), absorb you (‘in the flow’) and help you regain your stability.

Think clearly

Use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with its emphasis on clear thinking, balanced feelings and taking action. In response to intrusive thoughts or feelings, the first action step is to create pause or space to enable you to sense what is happening. Ask yourself, ‘Am I more irritable?’, ‘Do I not want to see people?’, ‘Am I not eating or sleeping sensibly?’, ‘Am I giving up on my curiosity about trying things — exercise, hobbies, new experiences?’, ‘Am I not opening mail, using the telephone or checking emails?’ These may be your relapse signatures or fingerprints. These feelings will pass, just sit with the anxiety and it will gradually fade. It will pass more quickly as you increase your tolerance for anxiety.

Move away from negativity

You know that rumination, negative thoughts and criticism don’t help with anxiety. Try to move away from those reactions, and shift attention to things that do help. Stay close to those who care about you, do something kind for yourself, set a small goal and complete it. No matter how small it seems, you’ll feel you’re doing something to help.

Live in the present

Keep practicing present-moment living, not only by being able to accept the suffering part of life but also by being able to respond to the fun and learning experiences in life; whether they’re fun experiences with nature, events, people, animals or life experiences in general. You only live once (YOLO) is a very profound maxim, especially when you’re clear about what is really important in life.