A lot of people come to us with similar frustrations of – “I don’t know what to do when I feel complicated emotions! Or “I feel so lost and confused when I feel these emotions that I don’t even know where to start.” They’re asking a question that no one in our life explicitly prepares us for until we find ourselves right in the thick of it- How to process heavy emotions? If you’re here, you want to know too. Great, because we have a step-by-step answer for you. Pythagoras ain’t got nothin on us!
STEP 0: Installing the Mindset
This process is NOT a replacement for therapy. If done properly it will empower the individual to process heavy emotions in a better and more mindful way than they could previously, but not as efficiently, insightfully, and unobstructedly as when guided by and learnt from a professional psychotherapist.
Dear reader, we understand that some of you have come here in the heat of the moment feeling the deep emotion that you wish to process. Before we process, we need to go back to a relaxed state of mind. This process is not a quick fix or a fast shortcut to processing emotions. It will take a lot of mindful (sometimes even mind boggling levels of patience) and consistent effort, and a lot of patience with oneself. If your body is in a heightened state of emotion like anger, or in a lowered state of emotion, like depression or sadness, you will begin by bringing your body to a temporary neutral. You could do this using relaxation breathing techniques, guided meditation, splashing cold water on your face, or doing jumping jacks for five minutes. Some of these are available on youtube and may prove helpful, but be careful that you choose the professionally sound ones for it.
Once you’ve reached a temporary neutral, know that this process is a long term commitment to self-growth through insightful thinking and a lot of trial and error. A LOT. As long as you know this, you will not be deterred from this process. So, let’s begin!
STEP 1: What is happening with me?
If we don’t know where we are, how can we reach where we want to go? To start processing, it is best to know WHAT we are processing. Is it anger? Or shame? Or disappointment? Or jealousy? Or envy? Different emotions ask different kinds of processing from us. It’s like choosing a gift for someone without even knowing who they are, you may get them something that won’t be helpful! So we focus first on identifying what it is that we’re feeling in which an emotion wheel can be immensely helpful. Asking questions to yourself also helps with identification. Some questions that we can ask ourselves may look like:
- What did I feel like doing the most at that time? Like throwing and breaking something (possibly signifying anger), hiding under a blanket (possibly signifying shame or embarrassment), etc
- How do I feel it in my body? For example, doI feel it as a heaviness in my chest (as in regret or depression), or pain in my throat (as in grief or anger), etc.
- Or a simple, What am I feeling right now? You’ll be surprised at how intelligent your body and subconscious are, merely posing a question can elicit the answer right out of you!
STEP 2: Grabbing a cup of coffee with the emotion
Our natural instinct when faced with something we don’t understand, especially something that causes us pain, is to find a way to avoid it, distract ourselves from it, or completely get rid of it. But it’s like quick-sand, the more we try to avoid it, the more it shows up, the faster we sink. So what do we do instead? Take a deep breath and grab a cup of coffee with it! Sit with the emotion, allow yourself to FEEL the emotion. Once you know which emotion it is, we move on to figuring out what the emotion is trying to say. What triggered it? Where is it coming from? In this our inner dumbo must be channeled, all ears, all heart, and listen! It’s almost like having a mental conversation with your emotions where you play both the parts- the asker and the answerer. It may be an uncomfortable sensation in the beginning, but the more you sit with an emotion, the better you’ll know them! Like any good friendship, knowing your emotions takes effort, and patience. As that relationship without yourself grows, you can find more helpful ways to express the emotion AS you’re feeling it too! That’s nothing less than a superpower.
STEP 3: Being your own wingman
When on this coffee date with your emotions, a lot of other thoughts may come up. These thoughts may be about the emotions, or it may even be emotions about emotions! For example if you have a crush, and you feel anxious about interacting with them. You may also feel frustrated about feeling that anxiety- because after all it is stopping you from getting with your boo! It is important to acknowledge these emotions and thoughts like a good wingman that smooths things over so you can focus on getting to know your emotion! If we don’t it may end up distracting us from the entire process. Like when we can’t pay attention to anything else when we’re hungry, but once we have food we can magically focus again..
STEP 4: Pattern Recognition
Once the physiological aspects of the emotions have passed, you have a good understanding of the emotion, what triggered it, and what you need to do to express them healthily, you may look back on other instances where you’ve felt similarly. To view your recent emotions in a larger context so you can identify patterns and triggers, and prepare plans for the next time such intense emotions show up. Let’s say for example feeling helpless is something that comes up for you a lot. You want to feel like you’re in control and whenever you don’t, it brings up a lot of emotions for you. This data is crucial to safeguarding yourself emotionally. Once you have recognized the pattern, you will be better equipped to watch out for triggers and whenever you do come across them, you’ll be ready!
STEP 5: Dealing with distortions
So now you know your patterns, your emotions, your triggers, all that good stuff. Look at you go! Once you have recognized patterns, find out why they’re important for you. They are important, and they’re valid BECAUSE they matter to you. Because they affect you. Maybe it is important to not feel helpless because you want to take care of yourself and you don’t want to be in a position where you can’t do that. The final step is to ensure that your reasons are not affected by cognitive distortions. Some cognitive distortions that you may look out for are as follows:
- Mental Filter: The brain is an information processing device and a lot of times we subconsciously filter that information like we use filters on online websites. Sometimes this filter may be faulty and bring into focus only the negative parts of the entire situation. When this happens otherwise positive parts of the situation may be overlooked and the situation perceived as unrealistically negative and hence, distressing!
- Jumping to conclusions: We jump to conclusions when we assume what someone else is thinking, like a mindreader, and when we make predictions about what is going to happen. Like when we think the coin is gonna land heads next just because it came down as tails a moment ago. In reality we don’t have the kind of data to enable us to make any predictions!
- Shoulding and Musting: Sometimes by using statements like “I should..” or “I must…” we can put unreasonable demands and undue pressure on ourselves and others. They can prove useful in certain situations but often they create unrealistic expectations.
- Personalisation: This is where you blame yourself for everything that goes wrong or could go wrong even when you may only partially be at fault, or sometimes not at all!
- Catastrophizing: This is where we are unable to realistically gauge how bad a situation is and perceive something mildly annoying as EXTREMELY TERRIBLE! Our personal experiences are valid and our pain is real, but sometimes through the very act of perceiving something as super bad, we suffer far more than we would have if we accurately assessed a situation’s annoyance.
- Black and White Thinking: This is an extreme style of thinking where a person only sees black or white, no shades of gray. Either something is good, or bad. Either someone is wrong, or right. In life, things aren’t as clear and plain and this thinking leads to a lot of unhelpful thoughts and beliefs.
- Overgeneralization: This happens when we take one instance in the past or present and apply it on all current or future instances. So if someone makes a mistake, overgeneralizing it would mean thinking that they always commit this mistake. Overgeneralizing statements may start with “ You always” or “Everyone…”, etc.
- Labeling: Using inaccurate labels that take one small aspect and apply that label to the entirety of someone’s personality. For example if you fail at one task and then proceed to call yourself “a failure”. Realistically speaking, you only failed at that one task at that time! It can just as easily be labeled as “pre-success”!.
- Emotional Reasoning: This thinking style involves basing your view of situations or yourself based on how you’re feeling. For example the only evidence of something bad is gonna happen is that you FEEL like something bad is going to happen.
- Magnification and Minimization: In this distortion, we enhance others whilst simultaneously putting ourselves down. We all know someone who waves away a compliment saying “oh XYZ does this even better, I didn’t do anything”. It’s like not acknowledging how awesome and amazing all of us are!
Cognitive distortions start off with good intentions of protecting us from pain, disappointment, despair, etc., but end up becoming counterproductive. They may end up hurting us more than anyone else possibly could. All these cognitive distortions skew our thinking in different ways and hinder our emotional processing systems. They can be identified and dealt with through multiple techniques like cognitive restructuring, limiting belief breaking, etc. Sometimes exposing a line of thought is in itself therapeutic and affects a change in thinking pattern. Like knowing there’s an elephant in the room may protect us from being caught under its giant elephant feet. But if this doesn’t happen, and you notice the destructive powers of your cognitive distortion stay in place, please reach out to a professional for personalized and scientific support.
No one told you life was gonna be this way. Seriously, no one did. We’re taught mathematics, science, geography, etc and they’re all important in their own ways. Other important life skills like emotional vocabulary, emotional processing get left out. The good news is that we can always learn, and it may be difficult and effortful, but it’s also worth it. Especially when we are able to process and handle something that affects us emotionally with gentle kindness. Understandably, the journey to this goal can be triggering, confusing, and exhausting. So you may always reach out to a trained professional to get some much deserved support on this arduous journey. Lastly, it is possible that even after this entire process you’ve only reached 50% towards processing the heavy emotions you feel. This may be due to unforeseen personal blocks, lack of know-how, or just simple overwhelming life. If that happens, we recommend you reach out to a professional to help you take the rest of the way. They will be able to assess and give you a more personalized form of support and inform you of better ways to cope and process. Happy processing!