Managing strong emotions? Try these exercises to help you out [infographic]

Woman faced with difficult green emotion ghosts in vector form for my article on managing strong emotions

Managing strong emotions is a serious topic – be aware I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist. If it’s serious get medical help.

Keeping your eye on emotions is important, because we all know that to some extent they can run rampant.

How strong emotions seem to burrow their way in kind of reminds me of the movie Inception. If you haven’t seen Inception, the idea was the protagonists go into people’s dreams and implant thoughts that then replicate like a virus, getting the person to carry out a particular action.

Strong emotions are often like that, but in waking life. They start out like a thought or an idea, but then they meld in with a whole boatload of emotional reasoning. It’s like a viral effect. What seemed like a simple, rational thought quickly self replicates over and over until it becomes a worry.

Don’t believe me? Let me ask you if you shut the fridge properly – or if you’re sure you locked the door when you went out this morning.

See? Doesn’t take long before a reasonable thought can become beholden to a bunch of imagined consequences.

And these strong emotional forms of thinking often do more damage to us than we realise. What many of use don’t appreciate is that a part of us takes what we think, feel and imagine and interprets it as something that actually happened (I learned that from this guy). You may remember that episode of Friends where Phoebe dreams she had an argument with Ross and holds it against him for the whole episode? Well that’s based on reality.

So the good news is that I’ve come up with a bunch of ways that assist me in managing strong emotions before they get the better of me. I think they could help you, too.

A handy infographic on managing strong emotions before they get out of control

Now, I’m about to go into tonnes of detail about how to manage strong emotions. But, before I do, I thought it would be handy to share with you an infographic I made on the subject. I love infographics and this is my first go at creating one – so be kind! If you find it useful, feel free to copy and share it around – just drop a dofollow weblink wherever possible to say where you got it from and don’t make any alterations (including cropping).

An infographic on managing strong emotions. The title says "how to spot when difficult emotions are on the rise. They then use a variety of symbols against a blue background to describe each step. They are "watch your thoughts", "have a warning system", "take breaks",  "keep a diary" and "use an app". All of which have short explanations, but these are also explained in detail throughout the rest of this article.

Managing strong emotions Technique #1- Watch Your Thoughts

This is the most hardcore and enlightening method, so I thought I would put it at the top.

One of my most fun forms of meditation comes from Ekhart Tolle. In his bestselling book The Power Of Now he explores that age-old meditation technique of monitoring your thoughts. However, he explains this is something we can do all the time for our psychological benefit.

You simply observe your thoughts, as well as the gaps in between. That’s it.

You’ll spot the less constructive thoughts, and you will not become too emotionally engaged in what they are trying to relay to you.

Now keeping this up is simple, but paradoxically that also means it is easy to forget. It’s not like my other meditation methods where you get up in the morning and sit down for ten to fifteen minutes and meditate.

No.

So, to combat this, set aside ten minutes a day to treat this as if it is a meditation. I mean, that’s ultimately where it comes from, so you’re not breaking the cosmos if you do. Set a timer for ten minutes and just chill out in a chair or on a sofa. Watch your thoughts passing through. Just observe them.

What this does is help draw attention to this mode of thought. So then it becomes much easier to tap this mindset as you go about your daily business and not forget to do it.

Results

I find myself enjoying my thoughts when I do this. Managing strong emotions in this way is almost like reading an interesting book. And without too much effort we pull back from the strong emotional impact some of these thoughts might carry.

Ekhart Tolle says we are not our thoughts … I’m not too sure about that myself but each to their own. What I do think is that we have different parts of us doing different things. Different areas of the brain working like different departments in an office building. That way, the rational observer part of us can oversee the more emotionally-driven narratives devised over in the next office.

What?!

Try it, and I think you’ll get what I mean.

Managing strong emotions Technique #2- Have a warning system in place

This is a particularly helpful one if you have a particular mindset you don’t want to drift into. One which you find yourself returning to again and again. It could be anxiety, or very mild depression. A bugbear, a chimp on your back. Again, seek medical help if it’s serious.

So how does this all work?

Well, I know I’m getting depressed if I don’t take care of my appearance. If I let my beard get dishevelled its not a good sign.

It’s small, obvious things like that which often get overlooked. But they are excellent warning signs that strong negative thoughts and emotions are threatening to overwhelm you.

You will have your own “tells”. So the best thing to do is – next time you feel bad – take note of those things which come wrapped up with your anxiety, depression or other recurring unwelcome feelings.

Then make a note of them. If you work from home then this is easy. Put them on a sticky note or a card and put that on your monitor. If you work in a conventional office, here’s a more subtle solution for your sticky note reminder: put it in code. Something that looks work-like but which actually has nothing to do with work.

Results

It’s deceptive but works really well. Normally it’ll flag things when the negative thoughts and feelings have set up camp – but before they’ve really dug in for the foreseeable future. You can then do something about it. At the very least you can put yourself and others on notice and appreciate that now is a good time to be kind to yourself.

Managing strong emotions Technique #3 – Take regular breaks

Get a Pomodoro timer – there are plenty of free phone apps. The Pomodoro Technique gives a five minute break every 25 minutes, and then a 15 minute break every two hours. The beauty of the apps is that once you have tried out this technique for a  while you can then adjust your break times accordingly. You may want to stick things out for longer or shorter periods. You may feel like you need a little more than five minutes break.

But the main thing is that this is a great time to let the subconscious settle a little. You’ll find your brain makes some more sense of your day if you get regular breaks. What’s more, you’ll also notice if you are getting bogged down by negative thoughts and strong emotions.

Results

I use this all of the time. In fact, I’ve found that there’s no difference in productivity between when I have taken liberal breaks and when I have shackled myself to my desk. It’s all the same.

But I’ve also noticed if I have unpleasant aches and pains. Those could be from posture, or they could be from colds and flu. That might sound like it has nothing to do with negative thoughts, but when were you last overjoyed whilst having a cold? The two do seem to be connected.

And here are two that work less well for me, but might go like gangbusters for you…

Managing strong emotions Technique #4 – Keep a diary

I’ll be honest – keeping a diary is one thing that I’m not so great at, at least over the long term. It works short term for me, but for you this might be different.

What’s great is that you can use the diary to track things such as diet or specific triggering events. By looking back each night and plotting through your day you can see what makes you feel bad emotionally.

It’s often best to have a bit of a reason for the diary. That’s when I’ve been able to sustain it. I’ve done it for digestion, for instance, and I’ve also had a Chimp diary – click to see what I mean by that – as part of a structured approach to negative emotions. In other words, find some sort of programme to work through, or some greater purpose, to keep yourself on track.

My only advice on this one is to make sure you fill out your diary like a scientist. Be dispassionate about the emotional thoughts. This is not Adrian Mole time – this is time to take control of your thoughts.

Managing strong emotions Technique #5 – Set a mindfulness bell app to go off

A mindfulness bell phone app is a really handy thing. It helps you to keep track of when you are getting bogged down in your thoughts. You could use it to regularly remind you to keep an eye on your mindset, as per the Ekhart Tolle-style methods I mentioned above. Or you could use it to run a quick audit. In that way it becomes a reminder to step back and take a look over what you are doing, what you are thinking about and how that is making you feel. It gives you a chance to re-calibrate.

It’s on the latter part of the list only because I’ve not got around to regular use. When I do, I’ll give proper feedback.

Where to go from here … and one more important thing

Well, that’s my suggestions for managing strong emotions. What I would say is that you should pick what works best for you. I have not had a huge amount of success with the diary, and the mindfulness bell is something I haven’t explored fully. But both on paper sound good to me. Meanwhile the others are tried and tested on me and work well.

Just make sure that you have a decent support network. That’s the most important thing as far as I am concerned. It’s fine to keep track of my difficult thoughts and emotions, but it’s doubly important to have someone who is there for you when you need them, and who can point out if you are acting like a bit of an ass. Finding that rare person is important. If you find that person then you have found an ally in life for any number of things. If you’re like me, you’ll provide the same support to that person. Hell, like me you might even love and marry that person.

Just remember, isolation is good for two things – fictional hermits and crazies. You can’t crack this one alone.