Science-based tips to work with difficult emotions

Science-based tips to work with difficult emotions

The recent cascade of extreme weather events across NZ has been extremely disruptive for many. High winds, flooding, clean ups, cancelled plans and the uncertainty around closures; it’s enough to make even the most balanced among us feel a little off-centre!

Fear, worry, distress, anxiety, uncertainty, overwhelm; these are difficult emotions to navigate and regulate. Many of our learned coping behaviours may appear to work in the short-term, but endanger our health and wellbeing in the long run.

A better alternative for handling stress and pressure is to feel it, but not fuel it.

When you feel the rush - or crush - of distress or despair, stop and check out exactly what you are experiencing. It may not be comfortable, but what we resist persists.

It’s important to acknowledge how we feel and allow ourselves to experience and work with waves of strong emotion – however, we don’t want to get stuck in a loop as this adds more fuel (and further activates our stress response!)

The alternative? Mindfully bringing good-natured curiosity to your experience. 

Mindful attention training can help us notice when we slip into unhelpful thinking, so that we can begin to work with it more skilfully. Think of it like ‘mental armour’ protecting us from excessive mind wandering, rumination and catastrophising. 

Next time you have an intense and difficult emotion surface - notice what you feel, allow yourself to experience it, and then do what you need to take care of yourself in that moment. 

Check out our tips below and feel free to share it with others who might find this helpful.

1. Recognise what’s going on internally.

This sounds simple and obvious, but for some of us, this bit can actually be the hardest - especially if we have a tendency to avoid or ignore difficult feelings.

Recognising means stopping and creating space to notice feelings: worry, distress, fear, overwhelm and so on. Often, if we take a moment, we can notice how we are feeling in our body. Take a second to stop and check out exactly what you are experiencing. Is your chest tight, tummy queasy, hands clenched, shoulders hunched, breathing shallow?

2. Allow yourself to feel it

When you feel a rush of anxiety, a wave of fear, or the heaviness of despair, how do you react? Do you allow yourself to not only recognise, but allow yourself to fully feel what you feel? Or do you push it down, ignore it, or distract yourself?

Human beings are experts at bypassing emotions by suppressing them, or escaping from them all together (hello Netflix).

This is often done for fear that strong emotions will flood or overwhelm us when we feel like we need to hold it together or stay strong for others.

Sometimes these strategies can be a way to cope in the short-term, however, studies have shown that suppressing emotions endangers your health and wellbeing, both physically and psychologically.

As an active suppresser of emotion, I have found the question ’What am I not allowing myself to feel?’ very helpful.

3. Don’t fuel it

It's really important to acknowledge how we feel and allow ourselves to experience and work with waves of strong emotion.

However sometimes we get stuck in loops of worry or despair. We might catastrophise about the future, or replay past events over and over again in our heads. This adds an extra layer of fuel, often also activating our stress response and affecting our mental health.

We can end up trapped in the past and future. All this uncertainty makes us much more likely to play out various possible scenarios over and over again. We burn attentional fuel on imagined situations that may never come to pass. In fact, a recent study found that the more intrusive thoughts people reported, the more depressed they were, and the poorer sleep quality they experienced.

4. Finding a middle ground - bring a good-natured curiosity to your experience

In these times of uncertainty, it's good to take time to really notice how you react to stress and pressure - what patterns do you notice?

Stopping and deliberately bringing a good-natured curiosity to moments of high emotional intensity can help us to learn our healthy and unhealthy coping strategies and what we need in order to regulate emotions in a healthy way.

5. Find your anchor

Just like a yacht caught in the middle of a raging storm would take shelter and drop anchor to secure and stabilise, we too can have our own internal anchor.

This may be the feeling of your feet on the ground, or your hands on your lap, or noticing the breath. Anchoring your attention to neutral physical sensations can help you to disentangle from negative thought patterns that activate the stress response.

6. Skilful acts of selfcare

Sometimes it is skilful to tune into and be with difficult emotions, as I have mentioned above, however there may be times where the compassionate thing to do after allowing, is to move your focus to something else.

I love the phase “skilful acts of self-care” that I heard recently. What does that look like for you? Perhaps it is remembering to keep doing the things that you enjoy, and spending time with close friends and family.

Strong emotions and worry are very normal during this time but if you feel you would like some extra help, remember to chat to your GP, access EAP if you have it at work, or call 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor.  

We also have free online resources at