Tools for Managing Unpleasant Emotions

October 09, 2019

No one wants to feel unpleasant emotions (that’s why we call them “negative”) right? We all prefer feelings of happiness, excitement, and joy to feeling sad, or afraid. However, unpleasant emotions are a regular part of life, and sometimes they’re even a good part of life — it’s healthy to experience a full range of emotions, not just the most pleasant ones. Read on to learn some techniques to recognize and cope with the less pleasant feelings in a healthy way.

Unpleasant Emotions 

At some point in our lives (usually multiple points) we all experience some less than pleasant feelings, including but not limited to: 

  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Helplessness
  • Anger
  • Vulnerability
  • Embarrassment
  • Disappointment
  • Frustration

These emotions are the most common reactions when something does not go our way or when our needs are not being met (or when we feel they aren’t). When they occur, especially over a prolonged period of time, and you don’t know how to deal with them, they can affect both your physical health and your outlook on life. 

When you avoid feeling any sort of unpleasant feeling, you may stop taking risks in your life — and we’re not talking about sky-diving or taking up bungee jumping — we’re talking risks like entering into a relationship, learning a new hobby, or asking your boss for the raise you deserve. If doing those things could potentially cause you embarrassment, frustration, or disappointment, you might be too afraid to take the leap or do something that could end up being great.

Believe it or not, experiencing unpleasant emotions can actually be a good thing — in fact, it’s often a very good thing in the long run, if we learn how to process these feelings properly and allow them to contribute to our emotional growth.

What Unpleasant Emotions Mean

We talk about inflammation a lot at Smarter Nutrition. Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to bacteria, a virus, infection, or some sort of toxin in the body. It helps the body heal, and is perfectly healthy when it occurs in the right place, and doesn’t stay for longer than it should. When inflammation becomes chronic, that’s when it becomes unhealthy, and leads to serious health conditions and diseases.

Unpleasant emotions are similar in some ways. Often, an unpleasant emotion is a warning sign that something is off in your life. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s not working, or a difficult work situation, a family crisis, or even something about yourself that you have been avoiding dealing with — guilt over something wrong you’ve done, or fear of failure, for example. When you find yourself experiencing the same unpleasant emotion over and over again, you should listen to what it might be trying to tell you. 

The act of dealing with and overcoming unpleasant emotions can be a very difficult journey to embark on, and it can be even more difficult to see it all the way through. Humans are incredibly complex, and there’s no behavior modification that will deal with the root issue of what may be going on in your heart and mind. You may need to seek spiritual help, or talk to a therapist, or both to really get to the bottom of it if your unpleasant emotions are chronic, or you are recognizing patterns that you haven’t been able to overcome. 

The following tips and tricks are not meant to address the root issue of all unpleasant emotions, but to give you a few tools to process the feelings as they come, and learn new ways to respond to them.

Tools for Understanding and Responding to Difficult Emotions

Feel What You Feel

Are you someone who balls your fists and tenses up when you’re angry? When you’re sad, do you swallow that lump in your throat because you don’t want to start crying? Do you shut down when conversations get emotional, or even when you’re alone and don’t want to acknowledge that you’re feeling sad or angry?

While we shouldn’t always give full vent to our emotions it’s also important not to pretend they don’t exist. If you can learn how persist through potentially unpleasant or painful experiences, you’ll find the feelings pass more quickly than they do if you try to hold your breath and swallow them. This doesn’t mean giving in to an angry outburst or letting your emotions rule you. It just means it’s not healthy to ignore what you’re feeling or let it build up inside you. 

Did you know that the body has three different types of tears and when you cry, those tears make you feel better? That’s because, when you cry out of sadness, the body is physically releasing toxins. 

It is so important to allow yourself to feel whatever emotion you are feeling, so you can choose how to respond to it instead of responding reflexively. Try to stay present and feel the sensation in the body associated with the unpleasant emotion you are feeling for 60 to 90 seconds. This may help you take control rather than letting your emotions control you. When you feel them, deal with them, and release them, you’ll be more likely to see situations from a different perspective, with more clarity and confidence.

You should also pay attention to whether you have a tendency to react in a non-physical way to an unpleasant emotion arising. In other words, do you withdraw from friends and loved ones? Do you shop or eat excessively? Do you distract yourself with TV or social media? Do you turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate? These are all ways of pushing your feelings aside and avoiding dealing with them head-on. They can all be tempting, but can stunt your growth and prevent you from learning to really process whatever is going on. 

Recognize and Question

It’s really important to recognize exactly what unpleasant emotion it is that you’re feeling. Sometimes our emotions can fool us… we can respond with anger to something that’s not that big of a deal, because we’re truly angry or scared about something else in our lives. So try to learn to recognize what you’re feeling, and then ask yourself a few pointed questions to try and figure out what the body might be trying to tell you:

  • What’s hurting? Where in the body do you feel a physical sensation when you’re angry, embarrassed, disappointed, or sad? Do you feel a heaviness in your chest? A tingling in your arms? Does your throat start to constrict?  
  • What are the thoughts going through your head? When an unpleasant emotion arises, do you start to talk negatively toward yourself or others, or resort to venting or name-calling?
  • What am I really upset about? When you are feeling really angry about traffic, could it be that the real source of your anger is a different situation? Are you actually afraid, rather than angry? Is it because you feel helpless? 
  • Is it true? Are the thoughts in your head really representative of the situation? For example, you might be thinking something uncharitable about someone who hurt your feelings, but know deep down that it’s not really true. Or you may think “I always fail at everything” when the truth may be that you’re finding excuses not to reach your goals. It’s important to tell yourself and others the truth, and doing so will help you learn to better understand and respond to what you’re feeling.

Sometimes we don’t even notice the negative or untrue things we repeat in our minds — it’s more of a reflex than a conscious process. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about examining these thoughts and becoming aware of them. That gives you the opportunity to take a step back and ask yourself whether what you’re telling yourself is actually true. 

Keep in mind, however, that once you start to recognize, question, and then sit with unpleasant emotions, if they become too much to handle or you start to feel unsafe, you should reach out to a therapist or licensed mental health professional. There’s nothing at all wrong with needing help learning how to process things. None of us are perfect or perfectly equipped with that knowledge. 

Write it Down

Many people have found journaling to be an effective method of learning to process emotions, and it can really help with that examination process we talked about above. Journaling is an excellent tool to help us understand the root cause of difficult emotions, because it forces us to both reflect on the things going on in our minds, and put words to them. Sometimes just seeing something written down brings a lot of clarity. 

The Physical Toll of Not Dealing with Unpleasant Feelings

If you continually hold on to unpleasant emotions or ignore them when they start to arise, they may start to have a physical effect on your body. Ignored over a long period of time, they could lead to things like:

Additionally, some of the unpleasant emotions that are a bit milder in nature, such as annoyance or frustration, can increase over time until they have become rage, resentment, or bitterness. Instead of letting your emotions get the best of you like that, examine them as soon as they arise, and try to understand what it is they might be trying to tell you. From there, you can choose a course of action to improve your situation, or if you can’t control the situation, you can choose a healthy response to it. 

Other Methods for Managing Difficult Feelings

Other things you can do to prevent unpleasant emotions spiraling out of control include:

Exercise

Going to the gym or stepping outside and taking a bike ride or a walk is a great way to release pent up tension, as well as increase endorphins and release serotonin — a neurotransmitter that boosts your mood. Exercise is an excellent way to relieve stress, increase energy, and give you an overall mood lift. 

Eliminate Excess Stress

Sometimes we can’t eliminate all stressful situations — there are so many things that contribute to stress including work situations, relationships, daily obligations, illness, and more. That’s why it’s incredibly important to work some kind of stress-relief into your daily routine. That might include forcing yourself to take a lunch break, making a commitment to leave work a little earlier, taking a relaxing bath or a short walk, listening to music, or squeezing in a yoga routine. 

Be Assertive

Instead of lashing out when you’re angry, or saying something you might regret, learn to communicate clearly and with confidence. According to studies, people who are assertive have fewer conflicts with the people in their lives. 

The ability to be assertive doesn’t mean being aggressive or selfish. It means you know how to express yourself clearly without disrespecting other people. It also means you will have more of your needs met, which results in decreased stress. For example, you may be experiencing stress because of your workload, but you might be afraid to say anything. But it’s possible your boss really doesn’t know what kind of stress you’re under. In that case, being assertive would involve communicating your needs to your employer.  

There are a number of skills associated with being assertive, but a few include being polite and kind, while also being factual and firm, and looking people in the eye with good posture while you address them. Another great assertiveness technique is to try and find a win-win solution for all parties involved if possible.

Be Social

Socializing with friends and loved ones offers a great opportunity to talk through your frustrations and get new perspectives. It’s important to do this with people you trust to be wise, and to keep things in confidence if necessary. Socializing can also present good opportunities to laugh and focus on things that aren’t weighing you down. One caveat though: some people are naturally introverts, and that’s okay. We all need community, but if you find that social gatherings drain you instead of energize you, feel free to get that community you need through a phone call with your mom, or coffee with a close friend. If a social commitment is adding to stress, it may be okay to skip it.

Laugh 

The old proverb is true! Laughter really is like medicine. Like exercise, laughter will give your mood a boost and will serve as a way to release tension and negativity. People who are able to honestly assess difficult situations and respond with humor may find themselves less bogged down by feelings of resentment, anger, or sadness.

Practice deep breathing

The power of breath is incredible. Just getting oxygen into your body can help calm the central nervous system, and give you a chance to think through things more calmly and with more clarity.

First, find a comfortable seated position, on the floor, on a chair… it doesn’t matter where, just get comfortable and relax. Wherever you are, allow your hands to rest gently on your knees or in your lap. 

Take a nice long, slow breath in and when you exhale, open your mouth and let all the air out. You can even make a sighing sound. Do that a few more times. Then just sit quietly and breathe for a few minutes. You might be surprised how calming this is, and how much easier it is to approach and handle difficult situations when you’ve taken a few moments to breathe first. It’s especially helpful if you’re tempted to respond to something in anger. Before you say anything, pause, take some time to breathe, and then choose your response. 

Supplement

Because our bodies and our emotions are linked, our emotions are impacted by a lot of physiological factors — diet, inflammation, and levels of key neurotransmitters and chemicals just to name a few. Taking a daily supplement can really help keep your mood regulated naturally. The Smarter Multivitamin, for example, includes organic, food-sourced minerals such as magnesium, which is key to mood, and helps keep your body and mind functioning at their optimal best. The Smarter Sleep supplement can help you get a good night’s rest, which is absolutely essential to regulating your mood, and Smarter Vitamin D3 can help ward off things like seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder that can occur if you don’t get enough sunlight.

Wrap-Up 

We all experience difficult situations and difficult emotions. Remember that feeling these unpleasant emotions is not necessarily a bad thing, and can even be a really good thing. 

Too often, we want to squash feelings of unpleasantness without dealing with them. When that happens, they either fester and bubble over as some other negative emotion, or they manifest physically as some sort of health issue. They can also lead to avoidance of things you love doing, and harm relationships if you don’t learn to process them in a healthy way. 

We recommended a few tools for understanding and dealing with these things as they come up, to avoid long-term emotional or health problems. So take a deep breath, get a workout in, and have a great day.

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