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Emotional Coping Strategies to Gain Greater Control Over Your Life

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If you have ever had a moment where you questioned who was actually in control of you - your brain or your emotions - then you might find this information valuable. When our unpleasant emotions come in small amounts, they can be helpful: a small piece of anxiety the day before a test helps spur us on to set aside study time, and a dollop of frustration in the way we speak to someone helps them understand the importance of paying attention. In small amounts, these experiences can be useful tools and indicators for understanding ourselves and interacting appropriately with others. In excess however, many of these unpleasant emotions can become overwhelming, sometimes pushing us to behave in uncharacteristic ways which we may end up regretting later.

Learning to manage our emotions is an effective way to gain greater control over our life. It not only helps us to minimize opportunities for unpleasant emotions to show up at inconvenient or unwanted moments, but also allows us a great degree of control over our behaviour. While no technique is able to eliminate unpleasant emotions from our lives, there is a lot we can do to gain mastery over this aspect of our experience. These emotions are also a functional part of our everyday lives, in small doses at least, and so we eventually aim to use our strongly developed skills for managing emotions, or emotional coping mechanisms, to help overcome our fear of experiencing unpleasant emotions. This frees us to connect with how we feel, and gain a greater understanding of ourselves.

The way we deal with emotions tends to fall into four broad categories.

Emotional Coping Mechanisms

  1. Problem Solving: Problem solving strategies recognize that the way we feel may be connected to a particular situation or set of circumstances, and we often default to trying to change those in order to make the emotion disappear. When your partner gets angry with you because you forgot to take the garbage out, you may default to going to take the garbage out immediately. You may have felt guilty in the moment, and much (if not all) of the guilt disappears after you resolve the problem situation.
  2. Avoidance: Some people prefer to avoid dealing with the unpleasant emotions, particularly as those feelings peak, and may go to great lengths to avoid them. Consistent efforts to avoid being confronted with the people or situations which are connected to how they feel may help them avoid the feelings for some time, but invariably they are either confronted with the experience they are trying to avoid, or a similar emotion comes up in a different scenario, and they find themselves giant reaction that often does not seem relative to the secondary situation.
  3. Emotional management: When the emotion is already present, and we are unable to resolve the situation that contributed to our current emotional state, and want to reduce the emotions as much as possible, while still dealing with them in a healthy way, emotional coping mechanisms are great. They involve focusing on the emotion itself, and learning how to reduce its impact on us as we are experiencing it.
  4. Preventative work: In the long term, there are a number of tools that we can learn to help us reduce the frequency and intensity of unpleasant emotional experiences. These often involve techniques advocated for in therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy. While these techniques are powerfully effective, they are typically best used as a preventative measure, and might not always be the ideal approach to use in the moment that we have a strong outburst of unpleasant emotions.

Most of us have been taught from a young age to problem solve whenever we experience strong unpleasant emotions, and we have often learnt indirectly from others that emotional avoidance is useful. But emotional management and preventative work are arguably some of the most powerful tools we can utilize to regain control of our lives from strong emotional experiences.

So what do we do in the moment of peak frustration, critical anxiety or irrational anger?

Here are four techniques to help you regain a sense of control, and reduce your fear of unpleasant emotions.

Short-term Techniques

1. Distraction

Distraction from our emotional experiences is a useful short-term tool for managing our emotions. Ideally we use it in a moment where addressing emotions in a more long-term oriented way is problematic. Your boss just said something that angers you, but you realize that throwing that anger at them may not be the best career choice? Distraction is here to help!

We might use distraction as a way to completely escape the effects of an unpleasant emotion on us for a short period, or even to dial down the intensity of an emotion in a given moment. This often gets turned into a longer term approach, when the person realizes that they far prefer the experience of being “rid” of the emotion, than experiencing it. When the event that led to your emotional experience is a once off event (maybe an unwanted interaction with a person you are never likely to meet again), this can work fine. When we apply the same strategy to situations that we are likely to be exposed to repeatedly going forwards (e.g. trying to magically put an argument with your spouse “behind you”, even though you’ll be dealing with them again and again and again…), it most often results in buried emotions that surface again whenever a similar experience or emotion occurs. This can result in increasingly severe unpleasant emotions, and often a “tipping point” where the intensity of the experience is overwhelming, and the person engages in extreme behaviour which they later regret.

Imagine that your partner forgets your birthday. You feel hurt and angry, but decide to distract yourself from those feelings, rationalizing that “they won’t do our relationship any good.” A few months later, your partner forgets to buy something off the grocery list, and you find yourself yelling at them over a missed tube of toothpaste. The anger in the new situations tapped into the anger from the previous situation, and possibly any number of other angry moments that you had attempted to distract yourself from, leading to a massive outburst later that was completely disproportionate to the most recent triggering event.

Ultimately, distraction is a useful tool when applied in the short term, as a way of temporarily avoiding the impact of an unpleasant emotion, while still committing to address that emotion later. We achieve distraction by choosing to focus our attention on something else for a short period of time - usually the more attention grabbing that something else is, the more effectively it will blot out the unpleasant emotional experience in the moment. Some examples might include:

  • Diving into a work project
  • Mindlessly watching TV
  • Going for a walk around the block

2. Off-setting

Technically a subtype of distraction, off-setting is when we counteract a strong emotional experience with another emotional experience. People that watch horror movies often tend to eat snacks while they are watching, and the amount they eat at any given moment is typically directly proportional to the amount of distress they are experiencing at that moment. Eating the snack comforts them, and that experience offsets the unpleasantness of the fear they are experiencing. Once the movie is finished, their brain reconnects with reality, and most or all of the fear connected to the imagined reality disappears, and so the off-setting served its purpose.

Much like distraction, off-setting is best used in a short term way. Most methods we have to connect with a positive experience - comforting through eating, reconnecting with pleasant emotional experiences in reminiscing, etc. - are time limited, and the unpleasant emotion that they are counterbalancing is often still present when their effect runs out. Unfortunately eating chocolate 24/7 is not an option for most of us …

Off-setting is a powerful short term way to regulate unpleasant emotional experiences in the moment, and can often help to make them feel more bearable. Try to pay attention to the things you are able to do to create small amounts of pleasant emotional experiences in a moment. They might include:

  • Breathing exercises to create calmness
  • Watching a short comedy sketch to bring happiness and lightheartedness
  • Going for a short run to release endorphins

While these are very similar in appearance to distraction, the idea here is not to run from the unpleasant emotional experience, but to counter-balance it with a different (often positive) emotional experience.

Long term coping mechanisms don’t always feel as powerful as we are practicing them, and can be harder to enact than their short term counterparts, but they are the ultimate key to effectively managing our emotional experiences. We look at two long term emotional coping mechanisms which you can practice and develop.

Long-term Techniques

3. Expression

There’s a reason we use phrases like “getting a weight off your chest” - expressing our emotions can have a significant impact on the impact of unpleasant emotions on us. While talking to others about your emotional experiences is absolutely a great way to express emotions, it’s also possible that you don’t always have the right person available to talk to, or there may be some topics you don’t want to share with many others. In these instances, there are other forms of emotional expression that may be useful to you.

Many people find creative expression to be a helpful outlet of emotions. Singing, painting, dancing, writing, drawing, sculpting… there are any number of possibilities available to us. And importantly, the objective in using creative outlets for emotion expression is not to create a masterpiece of fine art - if you find it useful to grab a paintbrush and draw in angry circles to vent some of your frustration, that’s great! Although of course, if you can combine emotional expression and creative genius, good for you!

4. Acceptance

Imagine you are walking down the road with nobody around, except for one person you hear walking behind you somewhere. As you continue walking, the other person is slowly getting closer to you, but you aren’t really paying attention to them. Suddenly something smacks you in the back of your head, and you turn around to find the only person around standing right behind you. What do you do?

Many people respond with a phrase like “What the hell?!” and I think it addresses two forms of emotional coping wonderfully. First, it expresses anger, and second, it seeks understanding. We often ask a lot of questions around strong emotional experiences - why did it happen, why me, what did I do wrong, etc. This type of understanding can be helpful in being able to accept the unpleasant emotion.

In one consequent scenario, let’s consider that the person responds with “Oh goodness, I’m so sorry! I tripped and fell! Are you OK?” What happens to the emotions (anger? fear?) that you experienced a moment before? It’s tempting to say that they disappear, but the reality is, we are likely still angry that we were hit in the back of the head (who would want that!), but that instead we readily accept the presence of this anger, and choose to focus on other things.

While understanding can be valuable to help us accept emotions, it isn’t essential. Consider a second scenario, where right after we’ve expressed our anger and sought understanding, the person vanishes in a puff of smoke. Shocking, disconcerting, and confusing perhaps, but what happens with the anger and fear? I don’t imagine that we will fixate on those emotions for the rest of our lives, and so it seems likely that we are able to accept those emotions in time too.

Changing this acceptance of emotions from an unconscious act that conveniently happens at times to a conscious act that we choose to engage in is no easy feat, and can take a lot of practice to successfully apply. But it is also probably the most powerful tool we can use to manage our emotions - accept that they are an unavoidable part of our existence, and that we cannot typically control them or switch them off. In doing this, we choose to free ourselves from constantly trying to struggle to rid ourselves of them, which in turn opens up our ability to focus on other parts of our lives that are more important to us.

There are whole therapy models (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) devoted to mastering acceptance and its related concepts, but it is also a concept that pays dividends for every step in the acceptance process you take. Perhaps the most important piece of acceptance to understand is that it is rarely a past tense “I have accepted my emotions” thing - it is most often a “I am currently, right now, this very moment, accepting my emotions” thing, where we choose to continually shift our attention away from a struggle against unpleasant emotions, and towards our values and the action that is aligned with those values.

Bonus Technique: The Passage of Time

I know I said there were 4 emotional coping mechanisms, but this is a useful one to be aware of. We know that many emotional experiences fade over time. Unfortunately we can’t fast-forward time to help ourselves with these emotions (although sleeping can come close to this at times!), but it does serve as a way to create hope about our experiences. Perhaps one way to offset our emotions?

Of course, many people know well that time does not heal all wounds. For survivors of trauma in particular, one of the most difficult parts of their experience is that the emotions don’t seem to fade at all over time, and seem instead to spread to situations which at first glance have nothing to do with the original event. Our brains seek to create patterns that are useful to us, and the more emotionally distressing an event is, the wider a net our neurons will cast to try to help us avoid similar experiences again in future.

Trauma is a complex enough issue to merit its own separate investigation, but the good news about this is that, the better we learn to manage our emotional experiences, the less likely our minds will connect those emotions in an overgeneralized way in future. This helps us in the long term to lessen the impact of unpleasant emotions on our daily lives, further strengthening the benefits we receive from practicing healthy emotional coping mechanisms.

Conclusion

The next time you experience a strong unpleasant emotion, ask yourself these questions:

  • What can I do to distract myself from this emotion?
  • How can I offset this experience with another emotional experience?
  • Have I got a good way to express how I’m feeling?
  • And how can I work to accept this emotional experience right now?

If you would like help in mastering these emotional coping mechanisms, or would like to explore other ways to work with your thoughts, emotions and behaviours to help you lead a better quality of life, consider contacting us to set up an appointment with a Calgary Psychologist or Psychotherapist. It can feel overwhelming at times to navigate this kind of knowledge in the midst of life carrying on around you, but together we can explore where you are in life right now, where you are hoping to move yourself towards, and how best to move you in that direction.

Author: Gregory Eccles, Registered Psychologist (Provisional)

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