Navigating a way forward: How to manage your emotions

Mar 30, 2021

Many of us have been living under a number of restrictions due to the pandemic. The transition back to a more familiar way of doing things is likely to take some time. As we navigate a way forward, we may begin to discover the complexity and enormity of the task that lies ahead as we begin to negotiate a new world and time.

In the space of just over a year, the world as we knew it changed almost completely. Most of the important and meaningful areas of our lives were turned upside down. Though we will all have been affected in some way, we have all been on a very different personal journey. And as we enter the next period of transition and adjustment, it’s important that we support ourselves and each other.

Emotional self-care is vital to help us navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead. And we have to start by accepting that we are likely to experience a wide range of emotions.

How are you feeling?

All of us began this journey in very different circumstances and with varying resources, capacities and levels of wellbeing. So, it’s no surprise that we will each be experiencing a wide range of different emotions as we continue to process how our lives have changed. Whatever our experience, it’s understandable and normal to feel overwhelmed by both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. How we respond to and manage those emotions will determine the impact on our health and wellbeing and our ability to manage this transition process and period of change.

Many of us may feel understandably anxious about the ongoing threat to our health and that of our loved ones. There will also be those who feel anxious about the easing of some lockdown restrictions because they would simply rather stay at home, having found their lives enriched in some way; more time with children, avoidance of the long and busy commute to work and a return to a slower pace of life.

Others may have experienced the difficulty of social isolation and loneliness and may be feeling overwhelmed at the thought of facing further restrictions in these winter months.

There will also be understandable sadness and grief as we try to comprehend the many different types of loss we’ve experienced and will continue to experience during this time. Some will have lost loved ones directly to Covid-19. Others are coming to terms with the loss of livelihoods, financial security and hopes and aspirations for the future. There will be ongoing financial challenges and the operating environment within the workplace is likely to be complex and challenging for some time to come. 

In addition, many of us will have experienced anger and frustration at the seemingly inconsistent and complicated messages we have received from authorities and other institutions in which we have placed our trust to help us navigate these times.

Of course, interspersed with the many difficulties we’ve faced, there have been precious and joyous moments which we might treasure. Many people have reconnected with family and friends and been reminded of the importance of loving and supportive relationships. We may have discovered things about ourselves that we never thought possible; new levels of flexibility, resourcefulness, resilience and compassion. You may have even had the chance to explore a new skill or hobby. These positive changes often give rise to feelings of love, joy and happiness, a new sense of direction and hope. Even amidst the challenges we all face. 

It’s complicated

Whatever our individual situation, our emotional response is likely to be complex, ever-changing and non-linear. And to top it all, we also tend to have feelings about our feelings. For example, perhaps you’ve felt guilty about feelings of happiness when others are suffering, or frustration about our increasing levels of anxiety and the effects it has on us and those around us.

One thing is certain. The situation is complex. We have no frame of reference and no clear-cut road map ahead of us. We are all trying to do the best we can in very challenging circumstances. 

Through all of this it’s important to remember that your emotions are valid, understandable, normal responses to a very abnormal situation. It can also help to keep in mind that although they can sometimes be distressing and difficult to manage, our emotions are trying to protect us and give us valuable information to navigate and understand the world. They help us assess situations and make decisions, and they add colour and texture to our experience.

However, as they get increasingly intense, our emotions can begin to cloud our ability to access our rational brain and make wise and discerning choices. Left unchecked they may prompt us to behave in ways that are unhelpful to us and those around us. Intense emotions can also have a significant impact on our ability to learn effectively, develop healthy and reciprocal relationships, remain physically healthy and be creative or innovative. It’s therefore vital that we learn and develop skills to manage emotions in a way that’s helpful; understanding how to work with them instead of resisting emotional experiences or blocking them out altogether. Unfelt and unprocessed emotions don’t just simply go away. Instead they reside in the body causing us pain and discomfort. 

So how can we learn to manage our emotions? Instead of letting them have power over us, can we learn to regulate our emotions so that we can make wise and kind choices about what we do next? The answer is yes. 

The RULER technique

Dr Mark Brackett, Director for the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, has dedicated his life to studying emotions and sharing what he has learned. His RULER technique, outlined below, can help you learn how to manage your emotions effectively and safely. 

Remember that emotional management is a skill that can be developed and learned over time, but like all skills, it takes practice and commitment. 

Recognise - Learn to recognise and identify what you are feeling.

Notice how a feeling manifests itself in your body. What physical cues tell you that you might be starting to experience anxiety, anger or frustration? How do your thoughts change? What behaviours do you notice yourself adopting when this feeling arises?

Understand - What are the causes and consequences of a specific emotion for you?

See if you can identify what triggers certain emotions. Keeping a mood journal for a couple of weeks may help you identify the particular circumstances that cause you to feel a certain way, whether they be external events or an internal trigger such as hunger, lack of sleep, changing hormone levels or lack of physical activity. Ask yourself what you typically do when these emotions arise and whether this behaviour is helpful or not to you or those around you. Our actions have consequences and it’s helpful to remind yourself of any benefits and gains to changing and modifying your behaviours to keep you motivated. 

Label - Build an emotional language

Labelling will help you differentiate and describe the full range of human emotions that you might be experiencing. This will make it easier to express your feelings and better understand the messages they’re conveying. 

For example, anger is often about dealing with perceived injustice. Sadness is usually an acknowledgement that we have suffered a loss of some kind. Disappointment can stem from unmet expectations. Once you’ve recognised an emotion and its meaning, labelling it can help you distance yourself from it. You might even say something like, ‘here is anxiety’, ‘there is some anxiety around at the moment’ or ‘I am experiencing some anxiety at the moment’. This conscious action will buy you some time—a pause in which you can reflect before you act upon what you’re feeling and decide whether that action is wise or helpful. 

Express - Externalise your feelings

Talk through your feelings with someone that you trust. Or if you prefer, keep a journal or try to find a creative outlet. Having a safe sounding board or space to share and express your hopes, fears and thoughts can give you perspective and a chance to reflect and learn. 

Regulate - Put helpful behaviours into practice

Identify the story you’re telling yourself and ask whether it’s helpful or true. Recognise the behaviours which influence whether you feel more or less of an emotion and adjust your actions accordingly. Practice skills which help you regulate what you’re feeling such as meditation, yoga, physical exercise, breathing exercises and guided visualisations. Regulating your emotions gives you time and space to make decisions and respond to situations in a healthy, positive way.  

Remember, developing these skills is a life-long process and we are all on different stages of the journey. But you’re not alone. Whether it’s sharing with your friends and family or talking with a professional counsellor, reach out for the help and support of others if you are feeling overwhelmed and your emotions are beginning to become unmanageable. Let’s face what’s next together.

Written by: Kirsty Lilley (psychotherapist and coach).

Article reproduced with the kind permission of CABA, the organisation providing lifelong support to ICAEW members, ACA students and their close family around the world.

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