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Working with Overwhelming Emotions

Why we need emotions

Sometimes you may feel overwhelmed with life. You might feel under pressure, think about what you should have done, or you're upset about how some things are developing. However, all emotions have their purpose. Not only do they provide us with motivation but they are also proof that we are actually alive (just try to imagine a dystopian world without emotions!).

Emotions play an important role in completing tasks – they are critical for our decision making. Yes, that’s right, for our decisions! We rarely have all the information available or the time to gather it in order to make an informed decision. That’s why sometimes we need to rely on our gut feeling.

When emotions take over

So, emotions are a good servant, but a bad master, to use an old cliché. In situations when bad emotions take over and you lose control over them, you can lose control over the situations themselves.

It is completely normal that you cannot always prevent thinking about the past or worrying about the future, which makes you feel stressed. Equally normal is to feel stressed in situations that you haven’t anticipated or experienced before, or which are mentally demanding.

If you struggle with too much stress too often, you might need to work hard on overcoming such states and psychotherapy could be helpful in this regard. But there are also some simpler life hacks that you can practice to gain more control over your emotions.

What to do

First of all it is necessary to mention that each person may find different tips and procedures helpful. What some people find calming, others might find enormously irritating, and vice versa.

Most of us have idiosyncratic responses to certain things which differ from one person to the next. Therefore most lists of tips that ‘guarantee’ making you happier work only because there is a fair possibility that from a list of five tips two or three could work for you. Sometimes you might even find all of the tips helpful, and other times they can all turn out to be virtually useless. So here are some tried techniques, hopefully at least some of them will work for you. Some of them are basic, others more sophisticated.

Be aware

… of the fact that your emotions are taking over. Often this is the hardest part because overwhelming emotions themselves tend to be the reason why we are not capable of reflection. However, we can train ourselves by regularly stopping during the day in different situations and trying to name the emotions we are feeling in those moments. Being aware of your emotions and coping with them in difficult situations will become much easier. But the usefulness of these tips is not limited to emotionally challenging situations only. They can help you be more in touch with your feelings in general.


Yes, I know. We breathe all the time, so how should that help? Well, how we breathe is also important. When we are under stress we take shallow fast breaths, when anxious we are usually not aware of our breathing at all. If you need to calm down, focus on your breath. Take slow, deep breaths. Repeatedly.

5-4-3-2-1 technique

Overthinking past events may trigger anxiety. One way to get over it is by the so-called grounding. Grounding techniques help us stop mind-wandering and focus on what is here and now. There are a number of grounding techniques. You can use for example the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. First, name five things you see. Then name four things you can hear. Then three things you can touch from where you are, two things you can smell, and finally one thing you can taste. This makes you focus on the present moment.

STOP technique

You can combine more techniques into one, like the widely used STOP technique. Besides involving actual stopping, STOP is an acronym that stands for the first letters of the four steps you can take to calm down. The first step is Stop – stop whatever you’re doing. You need to acknowledge that something negative is going on: “I have negative thoughts”, “I have overwhelming emotions”, “I feel anxious”, etc. 2. Take a deep breath. This will help you get in better touch with your emotions and get better control over the situation. You can even take a physical step back if possible. 3. Observe your thoughts, feelings and body. This might seem hard to some people but if you have done step 3 properly, it should be easier. What are they telling you? 4. Proceed. After you have stopped, observed and reevaluated your situation, you should find it easier to have your emotions back under your control. Now you can proceed in your activity with a new perspective and focus.

When we re-evaluate past situations, we often tend to overthink them or get stressed by expectations (of other people or our own). We might find ourselves in emotionally difficult situations triggering negative thinking or anxiety. When we are stressed or in panic we can feel scared about what’s to come. Each of these feelings is connected to thinking about the past or the future. But the thing is, we don’t live in the past or the future. We live here and now. That’s all that really matters. A big research in 2010 (with 2250 subjects) showed that people who live in the present are happier than people with a tendency to overthink. Of course, happiness does not rely only on coping with emotions. What this study shows is the importance of focusing on the present moment. Even though mind-wandering can be useful by helping us prepare for the future or analyze past events to adjust our behavior, sometimes it may become too overwhelming. However, don’t panic, there’s plenty of ways to cope with such situations. Here are just a couple of them which you will hopefully find useful.

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