By Karyn Hall, PhD
Extreme emotions can be so painful. Who wants to experience intense pain? Avoiding them or trying to not feel them doesn’t work. For the emotions to pass, you have to experience them. When you experience them you are likely to feel strong urges to take immediate action that probably is not well thought out.
Managing intense emotions so that you don’t act impulsively or make the situation worse can’t be done just by willpower alone. Saying, “I’ll never do that again,” is unlikely to be effective. When you are in flight/fight survival mode, which is the case with extreme emotions, you cannot think clearly. If you make decisions when you are filled with anger, hate, or fear you most likely will make decisions the you later regret. You can’t accurately consider consequences when you are so filled with emotion.
You don’t want to build the emotions so they last longer or get more intense. Rumination is a primary way that you might keep the emotion hanging around and build on it. If you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Find a way to take a pause and step back from the emotion. That’s important so that you can make wise mind decisions about what action to take. Perhaps holding an intense mint in your mouth will help you take a step back.
Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, offers special skills that don’t require much thought to use when feeling extreme emotions. If you don’t have heart problems, try taking a cold shower, followed by intense exercise (70% of your maximum heart rate) for 20 minutes, and then progressive muscle relaxation. That should lower the intensity of your emotions.
Once you get the emotion down, then you can use more complicated skills to help you manage it effectively. You want to keep using skills until you can think clearly and make decisions from your wise mind. Here’s an infograph on extreme emotions that can be helpful as a reminder.