Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

2 Tools to Help You Manage Overwhelming Feelings

Feelings can be HARD. The ones that are uncomfortable or painful are just so … uncomfortable and painful. They feel bad and can be overwhelming to the point that we can’t feel or focus on anything else. We get stuck in them.

So, how do we manage overwhelming feelings? We can’t just make them go away or decide not to feel them. Feelings don’t work like that.

The trick is to make room for them. Our instinct is to do the opposite – we want to squash painful feelings, but when we try, they tend to get more intense. If we make room for them, we can get distance from them so they’re not so in our face.

What does it mean to “make room” for a feeling? How do we actually do that?

I’ve got two strategies to keep in your back pocket.

Impartial Observer

  1. Start by identifying the feeling (e.g., sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, anger, etc.).
  2. Identify where in your body you feel the feeling (e.g., chest, throat, head, neck, whole body).
  3. Close your eyes and imagine yourself as a microscopic explorer. Imagine that your microscopic self enters your body and stands in front of the identified feeling.
  4. Imagine that this thing you’re standing in front of is something you’ve never seen before. You know nothing about it and are here simply to observe it. As you look at this thing in front of you, notice…
    a) How big it is. Does it take up all the space in that area of your body, or is there some room around it?
    b) Whether it’s 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional.
    c) Its shape. Does it have any edges? Are they rounded or sharp?
    d) Its color(s). Does it have any shading?
    e) If it moves or is static.
    f) Its texture. What would it feel like to touch it?
  5.  Now walk all around the thing, to see if it looks the same from the sides and back or if there’s anything different.
  6.  When you return to the front, leave the microscopic you for a minute and center yourself in your mind. Take five slow, deep breaths. Each time you exhale, imagine directing the breath to the feeling in your body, the thing you were observing. Imagine the breath flowing around the feeling, almost massaging it.
  7.  After five slow breaths, return to your microscopic self. As you stand in front of the feeling, go through all of the same observations you went through in Step 4. See if anything has changed. Walk around the feeling and see if anything looks different from a different angle.
  8. When you return to the front, take a moment to see if there is anything you want to do to the feeling before this exercise ends. You might want to kick it or push it over a cliff. You might want to hug it. You might want to tell it something. There’s no wrong answer.
  9. When you are ready, open your eyes. Gently notice how the feeling feels. Notice if the overwhelm has softened.

How It Works

This is an acceptance exercise used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It reminds us that they are “just” feelings. They are not us, and they are not bigger than us. We are always bigger than they are, even when it doesn’t feel that way.

When we identify a feeling, we automatically take away some of its power. Naming the feeling is always helpful.

When we locate it in our body, we are getting ourselves out of our analytical brains – important for working with feelings.

When we stand in front of the feeling and observe it, we automatically have some separation from it. We’ve put some room between us so can see its edges. We have found a way to have perspective about it.

When we ask ourselves those six observational questions, we’re putting our focus on something besides the discomfort. We’re moving away from experiencing the feeling as a problem and learning a different way of engaging with itus – just noticing.

When we pause and breathe, we are pairing relaxation with the feeling, which reduces some of its intensity. When we imagine massaging the feeling with our breath, we are creating some compassion for the feeling. It is no longer an unseen, unknown, enormous, all bad, overwhelming force.

Size Matters

  1. Start by identifying the feeling (e.g., sadness, grief, anxiety, fear, anger, etc.).
  2. Close your eyes and imagine the feeling “standing” in front of you. You may see it as a shape or color.
  3. Imagine that you and the feeling are in a small broom closet. It’s tight in there. There’s just enough room for you and it, so it’s almost impossible to concentrate on anything else. It’s literally in your face and all around you.
  4. Now change that broom closet to a huge warehouse. Suddenly there’s tons of space all around you.
  5. Imagine moving away from the feeling, walking to the furthest end of the warehouse. Though the feeling doesn’t change in size, the feel of it changes. From this perspective, the feeling looks smaller. You have distance. It’s not so in your face.
  6. Look around and see what else is in the warehouse. Perhaps it’s got pallets and pallets of pink stuffed elephants in it. Perhaps you see people in the distance, working. Or perhaps it’s empty.
  7. When you’re finished looking around the warehouse, open your eyes and gently notice how you feel about the feeling.

How It Works

It’s not about changing the feeling itself but changing your relationship to the feeling. When we imagine lots of space around it, we create a way to get distance from it. This distance allows us to notice other feelings or thoughts. We’ve made room for the feeling to be there without it being the only thing we can see.

By looking around and noticing what else is in the warehouse, we’re actively taking our focus off of the feeling. This is how we get unstuck, and it’s much easier to do once we have a little distance.

In Short….

We can’t make an overwhelming feeling “go away,” but we can lessen its intensity by making room for it. Start by naming it. Take three giant steps back and observe it. Look for its edges and notice its characteristics. Then look around and find other feelings, thoughts, sights, or sounds to take your attention. I promise you they are there.

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