Published on August 2nd, 2013 | by Kristen Kansiewicz
What to Do When You Can’t Cope with Your Feelings
“I avoid looking at my feelings because I’m too afraid of what’s in there.”
“I know I feel overwhelmed on the surface, but I have no idea how to figure out all the things I actually am feeling deep down.”
“Most of the time I’m fine, but I go from zero to sixty so fast when I get angry!”
“If I think too much about how I’m feeling, I can’t function in my day, so I just have to ignore it.”
If you find yourself nodding in agreement when you read those statements, you probably have trouble facing your feelings. Avoidance (or masking) of your feelings may be your preferred way of dealing with them. Sometimes when we avoid our feelings, we cover them up with substitutes like food, shopping, the Internet, or addictive substances. Unfortunately, these ways of coping have negative side effects like gaining weight, going into debt, or getting trapped in addiction.
There are two parts to the solution when you have been avoiding your feelings: self-awareness and coping.
1. Self-awareness. You need to be able to accurately identify your emotions and figure out what is causing you to feel them.
2. Coping. Once you are aware of your emotions, you need to learn and practice positive coping skills that improve your life rather than causing problems.
Learn how to identify and name your emotions
Let’s start with self-awareness. If you find that you are only noticing your feelings when they are strong and overwhelming (like suddenly getting very angry or dropping quickly into depression), you are probably missing a lot of little red flags along the way. You are waiting to pay attention to your feelings until your body FORCES you to notice them. By that point, you will have a hard time coping because the feelings are so powerful.
At times, this can cause you to feel powerless and you may find yourself just giving in once again to the negative coping patterns mentioned earlier.
The key to breaking this cycle is to notice your emotions sooner, when they are not as strong. This requires you to pay attention at frequent intervals to how you feel at any given moment, so that you can catch feelings like sadness, anxiety, frustration, or anger early. You can then respond to a much less overwhelming feeling and deal with it.
Here are some specific steps if you are ready to “C.A.R.E.” about your feelings:
• Check-in. Check in with yourself at least three to four times per day, not just when you are overwhelmed (by then it’s too late!).
• Assess. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Sometimes it is helpful to write down a list of all the emotions you think you are feeling. If you aren’t sure, look at a chart of human emotions.
• Rate. On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong is the emotion?
• Evaluate. What events contributed to this feeling? What is making the feeling get stronger? Is there something I can do to regain or maintain control of this feeling?
If you are going through these steps multiple times each day (using a notebook, journal, or worksheet to record your assessment, rating, and evaluation each time you check-in), you will likely find that you are more aware of your thoughts and feelings. You may even start to notice negative thoughts you didn’t know you had, or you may be surprised to find that you understand more about the triggers of certain feelings. You may see patterns in what you record and hopefully you will begin to understand your feelings more accurately.
Learn how to experience your emotions in a healthy way
Now a word on learning how to cope with your feelings. Understanding your feelings is a great start. Usually, however, people still need to actually DO something about the feelings to resolve them. Although simply writing out your feelings and processing them in a journal can be a great coping skill, you should not stop there. If at any check-in point you rate your feelings at a 5 or higher, that is a signal for you to use coping strategies right away. At your next self-check-in, if your rating has gone down, great! You have successfully gained control of your feelings. If your next check-in results in a HIGHER number, you need to pause right away to use all of your possible coping strategies before the feelings take over any more.
So what are some examples of healthy coping strategies? In order from quick and easy to more intense, here is a list of ideas (to which you can and should add your own ideas):
- Take five slow, deep breaths. Focus on releasing any negative feelings as you exhale.
- Make sure you have had enough water and healthy food today.
- If you take medications, double check to make sure you did not miss your prescribed dose.
- Take a break. Go to a quiet place (no one ever argues if you head to the bathroom!) and take a five-minute mental vacation.
- Imagine a relaxing scene like the beach or a meadow.
- Encourage yourself with positive, true statements. (For example, “My feelings do not own me,” or “How I am feeling right now is temporary,” or “I am okay.”)
- Call a friend who encourages you or makes you laugh.
- Read mental health blogs and websites (like Wyn!) to know you are not alone.
- Distract yourself with a fun hobby, like reading, painting, gardening, or just about anything else you enjoy that does not harm you.
- Call your counselor (if you do not have one, you might want to check out this article on how to get mental health care help).
- If you take psychiatric medications, call your doctor or psychiatrist. You may need a dosage adjustment or to try a new medication.
- Call a crisis line. (crisis lines in the UK; crisis lines in the USA; mental health resources in Australia; or search online for “mental health helpline” in your area)
- Go to the emergency room. If you have tried coping but do not feel better, and you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, get emergency help right away. A mental health professional can help you evaluate whether or not you might need hospitalization.
In most cases, increasing your awareness and consistently responding with healthy coping strategies will make your feelings more manageable. If you are following the C.A.R.E. steps and trying the suggested coping skills several times per day and find they still do not help, seek an evaluation by a psychiatrist or another mental health professional to assess what your specific obstacles may be.
To download a free worksheet that you can use for a personal emotional check-up, go to the blog post Free C.A.R.E. for Your Feelings Worksheet Download.
Image by Metro Centric. Used under a Creative Commons license.