4 signs of healthy emotion coping
Emotion-coping is hard. Most of us are never taught how to do it. Instead, we learn to avoid emotions and see them as negative. We fight them. We run away from them.
Developing a healthy relationship with emotions is vital for good mental health. The good news? Emotion-coping is like any other skill. We can learn to do it with practice, patience, and self-compassion.
There are four signs of healthy emotion-coping.
1. Normalise emotions.
Emotions have an important evolutionary function – they developed over millions of years to aid our survival and well-being. If they weren’t helpful, they would have dropped out of the gene pool. There is no such thing as a bad emotion.
There are five universal human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, disgust, and happiness. There are several combinations thereof (e.g., guilt, shame).
Emotions help us to communicate quickly and efficiently via facial expressions and body language. They are also like data processing shortcuts – they help us to think quickly and act quickly if needed.
- Fear is our early warning system, stopping us from taking unhelpful risks and signalling the need for vigilance
- Anger is our protection system, energising us to defend ourselves from threats and telling others we need some space
- Sadness is our care and problem-solving system, showing people we need help and orienting us towards reflective thinking
- Guilt is our re-alignment system, helping us to learn from mistakes and act in ways that are more consistent with our values
- Happiness is our approach and bonding system, motivating us to do new things and have fun with others
So please stop judging your emotions! They’re just trying to help!
2. Tune into emotions.
Tuning into emotions makes logical sense as they can help us adapt to our environment and monitor our inner experience. There are four steps to emotional harmony:
- Label your emotion simply: Are you experiencing fear, anger, sadness, disgust, guilt, shame, or happiness? Naming the emotion decreases its intensity. Try saying “this is (insert emotion)” rather than “I’m (insert emotion)”. We aren’t our emotions, they are temporary
- De-arouse: Emotions make us want to think quickly and act quickly (‘emotional mind’). This is helpful if we are in danger or if the problem is simple, but when the problem is complex, we can misperceive things and make mistakes. Emotional thinking is quick but dirty (i.e., error prone). Turn on your ‘wise mind’ by slowing down and doing something relaxing. Try deep nose breathing, tracing your lips with your fingers, making yourself cold, and/or isometric exercises (squeezing and releasing your major muscle groups). When you’re feeling calmer and can think in more considered ways, you’re ready for the next step.
- Do you need to solve a problem?
- Are you experiencing sadness because you’re disconnected from your social network and need to reach out for support?
- Are you experiencing anger because you’ve been disrespected by someone and need to be assertive?
- Are you experiencing fear because you’ve taken a risk and need to reflect not react?
- Are you experiencing guilt because you made a value-inconsistent decision and need to make a different choice next time?
- Do you need to change your thinking?
- Are you experiencing sadness because you labelled yourself with an unhelpful word (e.g., “I’m unlikeable”)?
- Are you experiencing anger because you blamed others for your own pain or expected them to know what you were thinking?
- Are you experiencing fear because you are catastrophising?
- Are you experiencing guilt because you placed unrealistic expectations on yourself?
In other words, ride the wave of emotion until it passes and then decide what to do. Emotions peak in intensity and then subside – much like a wave – unless you feed them with negative thoughts or unhelpful behaviours. Hold on, label the emotion, de-arouse, tune in and learn from the emotion, decide if you need to solve a problem and/or change your thinking, and then make a wise (not emotional) mind decision
3. Intentionally induce emotions.
We all have an emotional kryptonite. For example, you might find sadness particularly overwhelming or struggle with anger. Scheduling emotions can help us tolerate them better.
Close your eyes and intentionally produce your emotional kryptonite. Sit with it for ten minutes without reacting. What thoughts and physical sensations does it spark? You might like to write it down afterwards.
Over time, you will grow more accustomed to the emotion and become less afraid of it
4. Seek support.
We all need help from time to time. Emotion-coping is hard. You don’t have to do it by yourself.