Managing emotions in difficult situations

Person drinking tea in front of computer

It’s the night before your exam, and you’ve been studying for longer than you’d care to admit. You can’t focus on the page anymore but you feel like you need to keep going. You feel unprepared, anxious, and afraid of failing. In this situation, your emotions might take over causing you distress. 

Emotions are natural reactions to positive and negative events that happen in our day-to-day lives. Sometimes our emotions can feel out of control, which is a normal reaction to have in distressing situations. So, what can you do when you feel overwhelmed? This post will talk about some emotion-focused strategies to help you feel in control in stressful situations.

  1. Distraction – You can distract yourself by doing an activity you find comforting, or calling a friend or family member for a quick talk, or by doing something for someone else. You can distract yourself with positive memories, by focusing on nature or by counting things, like your breath or the geese outside your window.

    Distraction is different from avoidance, in that it should be a time-based way of getting your mind to readjust your thinking until you can get back to the situation at hand. Whereas, avoidance is staying away from the activity that is distressing you entirely, and doing something else, like playing your favourite video game all night instead of studying at all.
  2. Self-soothing – Self-soothing is the process of comforting, nurturing and being kind to yourself. There are a variety of self-soothing techniques you can use to engage your senses, like looking at nature, listening to music or the voice of a friend, baking cookies, having a hot bath, or petting an animal. For a list of distracting, self-soothing activities you can try, see the Managing Emotions Handout.
  3. Improving the moment – Improving the moment means changing the way you are thinking about the distressing situation and living in the present moment.

    Remind yourself of where you are now: Are you in the present or reliving the past? Notice where you are and bring yourself back to the present. Notice how you are breathing: Are you taking deep, full-breaths, or short, distressed breaths? Notice how your body is feeling and where your tension is. Try to release it with deep, full-breaths.

    We all need to hear positive messages to help us cope sometimes. Examine what your thoughts are telling you. Try to think self-encouraging coping thoughts like “I can be anxious and still deal with what is happening right now” or “This situation is temporary and will be over soon”. For a list of example coping thoughts, see the Managing Emotions slide transcription.

Want to learn more about managing your emotions and skills for dealing with distressing situations? The Managing Your Emotions seminar is available in person or online to help you develop a healthier relationship with your emotions and ideas for self-soothing in difficult times.

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