How and why to address emotional distress

Jane came to see me because she was worried that the intensity of her negative emotions was starting to interfere with her daily life.   She was about to enter a Ph.D. program and worried that she would not be able to control her emotional reactions.

Early on in therapy, we learned that Jane had successfully used coping strategies as a teenager and young adult, but these she realized were not working anymore.

Jane volunteered that during her teenage and early adult years, she used coping strategies, which she eventually recognized to be maladaptive – maladaptive coping strategies help to alleviate the immediate distress.  For Jane, her initial strategies included smoking and eating in excess, which allowed her to distract herself from her emotional plight.  However, such maladaptive coping strategies only cover up stressful emotions as opposed to actually dealing with emotions effectively.  While this may sometimes be an appropriate response (distracting oneself), if it is the sole approach to dealing with stressors or stressful situations and one’s own emotional reaction to it, distraction is not the most effective strategy to successfully deal with life’s situations.  In addition, keeping negative emotions bottled up over longer periods of time can result in harmful consequences to a person’s functioning in society.

Upon coming to Canada and entering graduate school, Jane began to change her approach to include constructive strategies- these strategies refer to coping mechanisms that help a person to deal with stressors successfully by addressing stressful emotions and situations in ways that allow resolving these emotions, thereby supporting a person’s mental health.  For Jane, these strategies included going to the gym and losing weight, and stopping smoking.

However, although Jane changed her approach to dealing with life stressors now using constructive strategies such as going to the gym, she continued to experience difficulties understanding how to manage her emotions.  For example, she exercised excessively to the point of injury.  She feared the intensity of her emotions and was worried that her inability to decrease the intensity would also lead her to engage in excessive drinking. Her emotional distress arose from the intensity of her emotions and her secondary worries that she might not be able to stop her behavioral reactions. Again, she began responding to her intense feelings by attempting to suppress them.  For example, she told herself that the emotions and/ or the underlying issues did not matter.  As a result, her intense emotions expressed themselves in increasing stress, which showed up in her physical health.  She began experiencing difficulties with sexual arousal, sleeping quality, and a general sense of anxiety regarding her future ability to deal with life demands.

Interpretation of emotions

Again, the latter response suggested that the emotions and the underlying drivers of these intense emotions were not addressed, and therefore could not be resolved.

Thus, when Jane came to see me, it became clear that the two challenges that continued to plague her were related to a) the interpretation of emotions, and b) the regulation of emotions.

All emotions are part of normal life! We all experience emotions. When these emotions are positive emotions such as excitement, happiness, satisfaction, gratitude, pride, interest, or other such emotions, we enjoy them.  However, when we experience negative emotions such as grief, guilt, sadness, anxiety, anger, remorse, or other negative emotions, we usually do not enjoy these, and we, therefore, attempt to resolve them in ways that oftentimes are learned from our environment through observation.  Like Jane, people may interpret negative emotions as not worthwhile in general or may fear them.  Importantly, how we deal with these emotions depends on how we interpret emotions in general, and how we interpret the specific emotion.

So, how did I help Jane?

First, I provided Jane with education surrounding how emotions generally work in order to provide her with a framework from which she could address her emotional experience independently, whenever she needed to.  This approach also allowed her to learn to accept all emotions for what they are: a tool in our toolbox to observe and utilize in a deliberate fashion such as not stepping too close to a cliff without a fence. Have you ever noted fear when stepping too close to the edge of a cliff?  If so, your fear likely cautioned you or made you step back, and thus helped you to make a decision to survive- a positive outcome! Secondly, I listened to Jane’s story, validated her experiences, and intervened when appropriate to suggest more appropriate and effective strategies.

In general, all emotions, the positive as well as the negative ones, are worth our attention because they are a normal part of the human experience.  Emotions have evolved in evolutionary time in order to guide behavior.  It is their function to guide our behavior, independently of whether the experience emotion is positive or negative.   In short, emotions allow us to make decisions that ensure and support our survival.   In other words, attempting to ignore or suppress negative emotions will not eradicate them but rather will rob us of the helpful information that an emotional response is trying to signal to our consciousness.  As a result, rather than fighting to not experience an emotion, it is more helpful to accept our emotions and investigate them as needed (see emotional regulation below). 

Having said that emotions have a function, we can ask ourselves what are these functions or the benefit of our emotional experience?  For example, the function of anxiety is generally seen as keeping us safe from danger.  The function of anger is to right a wrong. Emotions of course come with their physiological counterpart.  The short-term physiological response that is connected to the experience of anxiety includes an increase in heart rate, dilation of pupils, and increase in muscle tension, among others, allowing the body to respond effectively to an environmental threat.  So, there are many circumstances, in which negative emotions are justified; in those circumstances, emotions help us make decisions and may drive or focus the energy and motivation for taking necessary actions as in the case of justified anger or anxiety.

The need for emotional regulation and what happens when emotions go rogue?

As mentioned above, emotions can be misinterpreted or misjudged, or, at other times, clients may fear, reject or ignore their negative emotions.  Both of these challenges can happen because people may not have had the chance to learn to accept emotions as a normal part of life.  The latter also likely precluded learning how to interpret, and regulate one’s emotions appropriately in the face of a specific situation or given stressor.  As such, misinterpretation or rejecting and ignoring one’s own emotions can lead to generalizing the emotional signal to other environments and thereby lead to impaired decision-making, impulsive behavior, and miscommunication, which in turn can cause increased stress and decreased quality of life.  A vicious cycle ensues with long-term consequences that can include physiological, cognitive, and emotional difficulties that eventually can interfere with successful functioning in life.

Emotional regulation:

How did I help Jane to learn to regulate her emotions? 

Initially, I met Jane with the acceptance and reassurance regarding the normalcy of her emotions, which in itself decreased her apprehension about her emotional experiences (e.g. intensity of emotions); and with it, the consequences of her stress: her sexual arousal, as well as her sleep quality, improved.   

However, it became clear that what was needed was an approach that allowed her to understand when to use which coping strategies to regulate her emotions as appropriate to a situation or stressor, and assist her in becoming aware when she was falling back into using old patterns of rejecting her own emotions instead of investing time into investigating her emotions by asking herself questions.  So, instead of telling herself “It does not matter!” when she found herself in emotional distress, I guided her in learning how to investigate her emotions that would allow her to correctly interpret them, and then implement an appropriate coping strategy or techniques to address unhelpful thinking patterns.   Questions could include:  ‘What is driving my feelings or emotions?’ and ‘Is my emotion giving me accurate information about the state of the world right now?’.  

Given the complexity of our society, there is a myriad of different possibilities and situations in life that a person may interpret as stressful.  Accordingly, there are different ways to approach such identified stressors or situations.  Allowing oneself to observe and investigate one’s emotional response is the key to effectively and successfully directing one’s actions consciously and identifying appropriate strategies. With this new level of awareness can come more satisfactory outcomes, and eventually improved emotional well-being.

Jane is now successfully engaged in her Ph.D. studies.

If you would like to learn more about emotions and their functions in guiding our behaviours, you could read on Emotions- why do we need them, and what when things go wrong

Heike works as a clinical therapist in Vancouver, offering services online.   She also offers a free consult to explore your challenges and possible solutions.  If you would like to book a consult, you can contact her at heike@mindyourbrain.ca

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How and why to address emotional distress
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Dr. Heike discusses emotions and emotional distress, and why and how to address it.
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Mind your Brain
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