How to Work With Difficult Feelings

Oct 18, 2020 | Change, Stress

Lots of difficult feelings these days

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of reasons to have some negative feelings these days (hello, pandemic?).

Most of the time, we tend to think we can’t do anything about our negative feelings, except maybe ignore them. But the feelings – from anxiety to anger to depression – often stick around.

And holding onto emotions uses up our energy, so it’s no wonder if you’ve also been feeling exhausted.

The good news is that we can shift our feelings if we tackle the myths and change our approach.

Myth #1: ignoring a feeling can change it

When we have a negative feeling, we want it to go away – naturally! But we usually don’t know how to do that.

We may think that if we ignore it, suppress it, or distract ourselves from it, it will go away. While we might get our mind off of it, the emotions don’t really go away. They remain in the neural pathways, the nervous system and body (see Myth #2 below).

Maybe we try to numb the feeling or distract ourselves with t.v., comfort food, alcohol, or some other activity – totally understandable.

When I was a teenager and had a difficult emotion, I would call a friend. If that friend weren’t available, I’d try another until I could talk to someone. I just needed to get my mind off of them. But afterwards I would feel unsettled because although I succeeded in a temporary distraction, the emotion didn’t go away.

These days in Covid, many of us have been trying to “hold it together” a lot, but this often means not fully processing emotions.

This holding in or resisting feelings can take a toll on the brain and nervous system. In fact, research shows that controlling our emotions takes effort and can deplete our energy. So while it might seem counter-intuitive, holding in or suppressing emotion is the opposite of what we need to calm the emotion and improve self-regulation.

Fact #1: accepting a feeling can change it

A review of recent studies found that the act of accepting a feeling (of the “Monitor and Acceptance Theory”) – that is, allowing a present-moment experience to “arise, unfold and pass”  – is key to improving difficult emotions as well as improving our emotional regulation.

Another study looked at the brain activity of negative feelings. The study found that neural activity in the area of the brain associated with strong emotions and reactivity (the amygdala and limbic area) calmed down when people put their negative feelings into words. And at the same time, a part of the brain associated with cognitive control (in the prefrontal cortex) increased.

So naming and accepting the emotion can help us, and our brains, to calm it and change it!

Myth #2: we are powerless to change our feelings

If we are powerless to change our feelings, it makes sense that we might want to dismiss or devalue them.

But a growing body of research shows that this is simply not true. Psychology Professor Lisa Barrett Feldman at Northeastern University and her colleagues have published findings that essentially say that our emotions are what our brains make of them.

And since our brains have the ability to change neural pathways (i.e. neuroplasticity) – and we can direct that change with our focus and attention – we can change how are brain creates our feelings.

Fact #2: we can change feelings with awareness and choice

To understand how we can change feelings, let’s look at the 2-part process of how the brain creates emotions.

First, the brain processes information through the nervous system about changes in the state of the body such as a raise in heart rate, a holding of the breath, or sweaty palms. Nothing we can do about these automatic processes, but read on…

Second, in order to make sense of the automatic physical changes, the brain scans its neural networks to find relevant pre-existing ideas, beliefs, or experiences – essentially prior information to help it interpret the meaning of the body’s changes. With this interpretation and connecting to prior neural pathways, a feeling arises.

For example, someone walks into the room and my heart rate raises, my jaw clenches, and my breath becomes shallow. I heard a rumor that this person was a bully. Without awareness, I predict this person will be a jerk, and my brain says I am afraid.

But if I pause in the moment, breath (which helps to calm the nervous system) and become aware of my assumption and prediction about this person, I can choose to be open to the possibility that this person will be kind. With this, the feeling shifts from fear to something like cautious but open.

I can also change my posture and expand my body as that signals to the brain that the emotion is not fear (which contracts the body).

In some cases, if I can shift my feeling and response, I may even change the outcome of the interaction.

Bottom line

Who isn’t dealing with some difficult feelings these days? That’s the bad news, which you already knew.

The good news is you can do a couple things about those feelings when you follow the facts instead of the old myths.

But first, check in with your energy level. If you’re exhausted, your brain probably isn’t going to be up for changing a lot of neural connections right away. So you can just work with fact #1: accepting the feeling and naming it.

Later, when you’re up for it, you can start to work with fact #2 by exploring the process of choosing a different prediction and perspective from the signals the body is sending your brain. You may also change your body’s posture. With that, you just might change your feeling and an outcome.

Either way, the difficult feelings we have are part of the brain’s job of predicting and protecting us. And if we give them some attention, the brain doesn’t have to do the tiring job of holding on to them.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash


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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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