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  • Writer's pictureHeather Cowie

Dealing with feelings - tips for those that struggle

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As a nation, us Brits with our “stiff upper lip” and keep calm and carry on attitudes are not renowned for being great with feelings. We have a reputation for being reserved, unemotional and repressed. 

I meet a lot of clients who struggle with feelings; from those with overwhelming feelings, to those who struggle to access or talk about their feelings.

Personally, I have not always found feelings easy to cope with, but my life and counselling experiences have taught me to embrace feelings and to understand how vital they are to our wellbeing.

So I thought I would write a blog about feelings. What they are, why we need them, the problems with feelings and how to handle them.

You may not have had great experiences growing up with feelings or had good models for dealing with them. That’s ok. You can learn to do things differently. 

What are feelings?

Firstly, it’s worth noting the difference between emotions and feelings. There are only 5 main emotions; fear, joy, sadness, anger and disgust. We experience these as a result of a specific stimulus, a gut response and they relate to our survival, such as the fight, flight response. 

However we have thousands of different feelings that can range from frustration, confusion, and boredom, to excitement, pride, and love. 

They are subjective experiences that emerge as a result of us reacting to the situations in which we find ourselves. 

As the word feeling suggests there is a physical element to feelings, and we often notice how we feel by connecting to the physical sensations that arise in our bodies. For example, when we feel angry we might recognize that in our body as feeling hot, with tense muscles, and a sense of restlessness.

Where we notice our feelings in our body can vary, but research shows that people tend to experience feelings in a broadly similar way, regardless of their culture. People often feel:

  • anger in the head or chest

  • disgust in the mouth and stomach

  • sadness in the throat and chest

  • anxiety in the chest and gut

  • shame in the face and chest

  • happiness in a diffuse pattern all over the body

Why do we need feelings?

We can consider feelings like bits of data coming into the system. These feelings, or bits of data, give us important information that help us figure out how a situation is affecting us. We can then use this information to change things for the better. For example, If someone is treating us badly, we might feel angry or sad. These feelings highlight that something is wrong and we need to take action; put boundaries in place, have a discussion or perhaps even end the relationship.

Feelings help us learn from our experiences so we don’t make the same mistakes. That is why repressing feelings can be damaging. Our feelings bring a message that needs to be heard.

This quote from Stephanie Foo in her book, What my bones know, sums up well the positive benefits of feelings;

“They are purposeful. Beneficial. They tell us what we need. Anger inspires action. Sadness is necessary to process grief. Fear helps keep us safe. “

So what’s the problem with feelings? 

The problem with feelings is not so much the feelings themselves but how we react to them. 

It’s not about being angry, for example, it’s about how we think, feel and behave when we feel angry. We might feel angry and then as a result get into an argument or a fight. This perpetuates the belief that anger is the problem. But that’s not true. It’s the behaviour that is the problem, not the feeling.

Societal expectations can play a part in our reactions to certain feelings. For example, the attitude of “boys don’t cry”, or being told to “stop being so emotional” can create shame around being sad or anxious. The shame stops us wanting to experience the feelings or let anyone else know how we feel. This in turn can lead to frustration when the feelings recur and we don’t want them to. We say to ourselves, why can’t I stop feeling like this? There must be something wrong with me. This leads to increased frustration and shame, creating a vicious cycle around emotions.

Our defence mechanisms often lead to repression of emotions. This behaviour can be an autopilot reaction to just ignore the feelings. We go through a feel, ignore, repeat cycle. If we feel an emotion coming up we ignore it, push it away and carry on. People often talk of putting emotions into a box or bag and leaving them there. However, the longer this pattern goes on the more the feelings build on each other. Avoiding feelings means we are not getting the messages that we need and we are not processing the emotions. The feelings don’t go away, they just fill up the bag. Eventually the bag starts to feel really heavy and we need to put it down and get out the contents. Many of my clients talk about coming to counselling because they realise that their bag is very heavy and they are tired of carrying it around. 

Another problem with feelings is that they can sometimes be overwhelming. Particularly if we have ignored them for a long time, they can build up and then overspill. A bit like a volcano erupting. When we have intense overwhelming feelings they are more difficult to cope with. As a result, we often then behave in unhelpful ways. Behaviours might include drinking, gambling, OCD behaviours or self harm. They help us cope with the feelings in the moment, but long term these behaviours are damaging to our lives. Many people seek the support of counselling to deal with the unhelpful behaviours, without realising that they are using these behaviours as coping mechanisms to deal with unprocessed emotions.

So, how can we deal with our feelings? We need to process them.

How to process feelings - 3 Steps

We often talk about “processing” emotions. This basically means that you

  1. Identify and name your feelings, 

  2. Give yourself and space to feel your feelings without judgement.

  3. Decide how you’re going to deal with the information they bring you. 

1. Recognize the signs and label the feelings

Particularly if you're used to ignoring your feelings or changing your mood by using alcohol or other behaviours, it can be difficult to identify your feelings. Noticing them and working them out can take a bit of time and practice.

Start to focus on building awareness by reading the signs that you are experiencing emotions. For example, ask yourself are you getting more snappy with those around you? Are you overreacting to situations you would normally be ok with. How are you sleeping? 

Putting a name to a feeling helps you acknowledge it. Often feelings can be complicated as there is not just one feeling present. We may feel sadness, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, shame, all as a result of one situation. So it will take time to really think through all the different ways you are feeling and name them all.

2. Feel your feelings

We often talk about “sitting with your feelings”. This just means noticing all the thoughts and physical sensations that are coming up and trying to work out what they are telling you. The expression observe don’t absorb is a useful way to think about experiencing your feelings without getting caught up in them. As humans we have the ability for metacognition; being aware of feelings and thought processes as if looking from outside or above. This is easier sometimes after the event when strong emotions have calmed down but you can also use this concept to help calm you if you are feeling overwhelmed.

If you notice you are feeling annoyed for example, reflect on how that feels in your body, take your attention to those parts of your body. Take some time to experience the physical sensations and observe how they change as you focus on them. Think about what thoughts are going through your mind. What is your anger saying? Does this feel familiar to other experiences you’ve had? Are you maybe responding to another situation as well as this one?

There isn’t one way to process your feelings, so experiment and find what works for you. You could write things down in a journal, talk things out with a friend or counsellor. You can process your feelings sitting down quietly and reflecting, or on a walk or any other activity, as long as it isn’t so demanding of your attention that you can’t focus on your internal processes.

3. Decide how to respond

Finally, consider what you need right now, say a hug or a kind word that you can give yourself. Then reflect on what you could maybe do in the future to change things. That might be resolving problems, or working out better ways to cope with a situation going forward. If for example, you realised your anger came from not feeling able to say no to your boss and taking on too much work, you might be able to work on this and think through how to respond next time.

3 Other top tips on dealing with feelings

1. Process as you go

As life and emotions are unpredictable it can be helpful to set aside some time every day to reflect on what has happened, how you felt and how you responded. Try to observe like a detective rather than making judgments. If you get into the habit of doing this, you will get better at spotting your emotions and spotting common patterns that come up for you. When some big feelings turn up one day you will be ready and better prepared.

2. Compartmentalize but don’t repress

When strong emotions strike it might not be an appropriate time to deal with them. You might be at work on a Zoom call and you can’t drop everything and tell your boss you need to go and process your emotions! Of course in these moments it's ok to put your feelings into your bag so you can get on. As long as you do return and unpack your bag at the end of the day and don’t keep putting it off.

3. Try acceptance

Sometimes we seem stuck in a particular feeling that comes up again and again, and even after reflection, there isn’t an obvious solution to the problem. There are some things in life we can’t control and ultimately the best solution may be acceptance. That doesn’t mean that the situation is desirable or pleasant, but rather that we are better off accepting that it is happening rather than wasting our energy ruminating on it. Also if it's impossible to change the situation it might be possible to change your attitude.

Counselling can help to give you the space and support to process emotions and work out how to respond. So if you’d like to learn more about how we can work together, get in touch. I work online throughout the UK, at the Dragonfly Well-being Centre in Plymouth and the Wellness Rooms in Tavistock.

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