Emotions Don't Have To Spiral Out Of Control—Here's How To Reel It In, According To Experts
Emotions are a fundamental part of our lives, for better and for worse. We tend not to have a problem with more "positive" emotions like relief, joy, and hope, but when it comes to the more "negative" ones, like grief, insecurity, and anger, we're quick to push them away.
But pushing those emotions away never got anyone very far—and usually just end up exploding out sometime in the future. Here's how to avoid that from happening by learning to control your emotions when they arise, according to experts.
Learn how to identify emotions
Before we even get into how to control emotions, we first have to learn to identify them in the first place—which can be tricky. Especially if we're used to immediately checking out when emotions get heightened, it can be difficult to understand what you're actually feeling and what's happening in your body.
As psychologist and licensed counselor Elizabeth Fedrick, Ph.D., LPC notes, "Emotions are specifically defined by the combination of these three elements: a unique internal experience, which often leads to a physiological response, and then ultimately a behavioral reaction."
Try using the emotion wheel to identify what you're specifically experiencing. From there, as therapist Genesis Espinoza, LMFT, recommends, "Notice what you are feeling. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Notice the physical sensations in your body (i.e., pressure on chest, stomachache, headache), then identify whether you are experiencing a primary or secondary emotion."
For example, you feel angry, which would be the primary emotion, but when you dig deeper, you realize you're actually feeling hurt, which would be secondary. (Check out our guide to the emotion wheel for more info.)
Understand how your emotions impact you (& others)
Once you've learned to identify your emotions, you can start looking at how particular emotional states impact you—and subsequently impact others based on your reactions to those emotions.
"Both positive and negative emotions can cause the body to react in different ways, like restlessness, jitteriness, headaches, muscle tension, and stomachaches," explains licensed mental health counselor, GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC.
For example, adds Fedrick, if the amygdala processes an event as exciting or enjoyable, there will be a release of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, etc., that will influence how the body reacts to this event. "If the amygdala senses something as scary, shameful, irritating, worrisome, etc., there will be a release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol, which are all responsible for our fight-or-flight response that is designed to keep us safe."
The more you get into the habit of identifying your emotions and staying present with what they evoke in you, the easier it will be to notice when emotions are spiraling out of control—and further, reel them in so they don't explode onto someone else.
Notice your triggers
We all have triggers, which are essentially particular things that rub you the wrong way or upset you more than they might another person, due to your unique lived experience.
"When we were growing up," explains relationship expert Margaret Paul, Ph.D., "we inevitably experienced pain or suffering that we could not acknowledge and/or deal with sufficiently at the time. So as adults, we typically become triggered by experiences that are reminiscent of these old painful feelings."
"I encourage you to be very honest with yourself about your triggers and how you react to them. Even if this approach feels harsh initially, it will help you learn to be more compassionate with yourself. Thinking honesty about your triggers is the only way to eventually heal them," Paul explains.
Get comfortable with not being OK
One of the greatest challenges of controlling your emotions is releasing some of that need for control in the first place. Because the truth is, it's OK to not be OK, and the very challenge you're running up against could be a denial (or at least a discomfort) with the difficult emotions you're feeling.
And according to therapist and relationship expert Megan Bruneau, M.A., that's when radical acceptance comes in. As she previously wrote for mindbodygreen, you don't have to like or support what you're accepting, "But by struggling against the pain—by resisting and rejecting it—we create undue suffering."
Brunea explains that with radical acceptance, you consciously choose to allow those feelings to be there when you can't change them in that moment. "Give yourself permission to be as you are, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you've experienced without creating unproductive shame or anxiety. The pain might still be there, but some of the suffering will be alleviated," she says.
Pause & breathe
As you get into the habit of identifying emotions and triggers when they happen, you'll be much better equipped to pause and take a breath before lashing out, spiraling, catastrophizing, etc.
Or, as clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. puts it, when you non-judgmentally attend to the feelings that often trigger an urge for control, "you won't be at the mercy of your emotional world." For example, she says, "If you feel the urge to over-control a trip with friends, notice if you are motivated by anxiety that things might go awry or perhaps a fear of not pleasing everyone."
Understand the root of where your emotion is coming from, and before you do anything else, pause to breathe.
Box breathing is a great, simple breathwork exercise you can do anytime to help bring your emotions back to baseline, and involves simply inhaling for four counts, holding you inhale four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding at the bottom of your exhale for four counts. You can repeat this sequence until you start to feel calmer.
Speaking of pausing and breathing, that's a good segue into our next point: Responding instead of reacting.
As psychotherapist and trauma coach Dylesia Hampton Barner, LCSW explains, each and every emotion we experience will be associated with an urge to act or express yourself, referred to as "action tendency." This action tendency is what motivates you into movement in order to attend to the emotion by exerting some level of bodily feedback in the situation.
And of course, this could look like yelling, crying, or any number of other outbursts—if you don't pause first. Sometimes all we need is one moment to check ourselves before engaging in a knee-jerk reaction, and then we can respond more appropriately. This is a practice that takes time and mindfulness, so be patient with yourself.
Keep a journal
Journaling is a great way to get your thoughts and emotions out on paper, while also offering you a good way to track your emotional state over time, and even be more mindful.
And for what it's worth, numerous studies show that journaling can help with everything from boosting your own emotional awareness, to increasing your mental well-being. As one 2018 study1 notes, in a web-based journaling protocol, participants showed less depressive symptoms and anxiety after one month of journaling along with greater resilience after the first and second month, relative to usual care.
Find ways to de-stress
No matter how mindful you are, if you're under a lot of stress, it's going to be a lot harder to reel in your emotions. As such, finding ways to de-stress (and subsequently get your cortisol levels down), will help you be less emotionally reactive on a baseline level.
When you exercise, for instance, your heart rate increases and your body pumps more oxygen to your brain. This process can affect your overall positivity, with multiple studies2 showing that a well-oxygenated brain helps manage anxiety and depression3. Other studies have found that exercise may help alleviate depression and anxiety overall4.
And if you're not feeling like working out, other mindful, stress-busting activities like meditation, taking a walk in nature, or spending time with people who make you feel good can all help you release stress.
Work with a professional
Last but never least, if you feel like emotions and your lack of control over them are taking a toll on your wellbeing, it's worth seeking the help of a mental health professional. A therapist, psychologist, or even a trusted mentor or guide can all help you learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with big emotions, as well as help you understand the root of where your emotions are coming from.
How can I control my emotional feelings?
To control your emotions, learn to identify the emotion you're feeling, any triggers you have, and where the emotion is coming from. Practice pausing before reacting, find ways to de-stress, and get professional help if you need it.
Why can't I control my emotions?
All of us are susceptible to big emotions, though if you're finding it particularly difficult to control yours over a long period of time, it could be indicative of a mood disorder, PTSD, or other mental health issue.
There's no escaping emotions, and the only way out is through. Repressing your emotions will only get you so far—and they'll likely just resurface down the road. As such, learning to control your emotions when they happen can help you not only shake it off faster, but ensure your reactions don't negatively impact your relationships.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.