Managing Emotional Distress: What to do when life hurts

Posted on October 2, 2016 in Uncategorized - 0
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By Kylie Layton, Clinical Psychologist

Have you ever heard anyone say “Everyone else seems to be able to cope, why can’t I”? It is a question that people repeatedly ask as they struggle with the emotional distress that life brings, and their comparison of this distress with their perception of other’s lives. Social media and media in general provide constant access to images highlighting the success and happiness of other’s lives and delivers messages about the things we should be doing for our health, careers, and relationships. This constant stream of information sets us up for emotional distress when we find our lives fall short of these expectations.

Emotional distress is, in fact, a part of everyday life, and is usually the result of a difference in our experience of what we want or expect and what we’ve got. When we encounter these differences emotions naturally arise and, the more our reality differs from our expectation, the more intense the emotional experience. Our quest for happiness and success, coupled with availability of other’s lives for comparison, will continually produce this unpleasant emotional experience. So how can we improve our ability to navigate our unpleasant emotional experience?

1. Acknowledge our emotional experience. Without a conscious awareness of our emotional experience we tend to act on ‘autopilot’ and unconsciously choose familiar actions to allow us to move through or avoid our emotional experience. If these behaviours are unhelpful this process is likely to lead to further distress. By acknowledging our emotion we take the first step to creating the space we need to choose how we would like to respond.

2. Understand what the emotion is telling us. Our emotions are our instincts and our insight into our needs, desires and values. Emotions provide information about the situation and direct our behaviour in the future. Guilt, for instance, is the emotion we feel when our actions are different to how we feel we should have behaved. By understanding that this is what we are feeling we can recognise a need to behave differently in the future.

3. Validate our emotional experience. By reminding ourselves that this is what human beings feel when faced with this difference in expectation and reality, that this feeling is here because there are things that matter to us, and that this feeling is here to help us navigate life, we provide ourselves with permission to have this feeling as well as acknowledge that life can be painful.

4. Allow our emotion. Because of the unpleasant nature of emotional distress, we often have a desire to get rid of the emotion we are experiencing; it is unpleasant and we don’t want to feel it, so we try to do things that get rid of it. Sometimes this works, but often it makes things worse by increasing our distress. For example, we may experience anxiety and then start to worry about having a panic attack thereby becoming anxious about our anxiety. Research indicates us that emotions tend to come and go like waves, if we resist the urge to avoid them or fight with them, and try to give them a space to be, then they will run their course naturally.

5. Choose how to respond. By acknowledging, understanding and validating our emotion we create the ability to consciously make a choice about how to deal with our emotion. We can consider what the ideal outcome is in the circumstances; think about our values, what we stand for as a person, and aim to make a choice that is in line with the life we are wanting to live. This is still possible to do even while we are experiencing emotional distress.

If we can learn to view ALL emotions as a normal part of life and recognise that life is going to be messy, painful, and disappointing at times then our expectations are likely to be more in line with reality and thereby produce less distress. As health practitioners, acknowledging and validating a patients emotional experience, and helping them to understand the informative nature of the emotion, will not only make the patient feel heard und understood but encourage them to experience and run the course of their emotion rather than avoid it or fight with it. This in turn allows the patient space to make decisions that are in line with their personal values and goals for their lives.

For more information on Kylie Layton and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit the Psychologists page of our website.

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