Any emotion can be felt intensely, although we tend to think of some strong emotions as more problematic – especially anger, sadness and fear. However, it is helpful to bear in mind that positive emotions, including excitement and euphoria, can also be difficult to deal with when experienced to an intense degree.
While the phrase “intense emotions” can conjure images of angry outbursts and even violence, it’s important to note that experiencing intense emotions does not mean it’s inevitable they will be expressed in inappropriate or abusive ways. Often, they can be difficult to express at all.
Intense emotions are associated with a variety of mental health conditions, but anyone can experience intense emotions and they are not necessarily a symptom of mental illness. In some situations, intense emotions are completely normal: grief when you are bereaved, for example, or fear when you are faced with danger. However, for some of us, intense emotions are part of life and we have to cope with them on a daily basis. If experiencing intense emotions is having an impact on your life, please visit your doctor – they can advise you on what help and support is available.
These four steps will help you to cope with situations where intense emotions play a part, whether you are the person experiencing the emotion or someone who has a personal or professional relationship with them.
Please note that this advice is not intended for people in crisis, who need immediate medical help. If someone is endangering themselves or other people, contact the emergency services straight away. Likewise, if the person experiencing intense emotions has a specific mental health plan in place which involves other strategies, for example, contacting their doctor, social worker or another mental health professional, you should follow that plan.
1. Identify and acknowledge the specific emotions.
What are you/the person who is experiencing intense emotions feeling? Is it a mixture of emotions? Did it start as one emotion but has since become another, such as despair changing to anger?
Sometimes it’s difficult to identify specific emotions when you are experiencing them. Ask yourself/the person experiencing intense emotion where it is located in their body. Do you feel it in your gut, head or chest? Somewhere else?
Acknowledge that this emotion is valid: the fact that it’s being experienced makes it valid. Don’t question whether you/the person experiencing intense emotion are “right” to feel this way. Simply acknowledge how you/they are feeling.
In addition to being necessary for processing emotions, trying to identify and acknowledge them stops immediate reactions (including your own reactions if you are not the person experiencing intense emotion) and encourages mindfulness. It opens up the possibility of taking a more objective, practical approach to processing the emotions.
2. Express and explore the emotions.
If you are the person experiencing intense emotions, try to find non-destructive ways to express how you feel. You don’t need to verbalise your feelings: some people find it more helpful to draw, write, play music or use props to express emotions rather than speaking out loud. Think about what has triggered these emotions – if anything – and what memories or thought patterns they have brought up for you.
If you are not the person experiencing intense emotions, try to guide them to express their feelings through any non-destructive methods which work for them. Listen and try not to react. Ask questions for clarification, but don’t contradict what they say or express your own opinions.
Note: expressing emotions isn’t an excuse for being abusive. If you cannot express your emotions without being physically violent or verbally abusive, remove yourself from the situation and go somewhere where you can be alone. If someone is being abusive towards you, remove yourself from the situation. If anyone is in danger, contact the emergency services. Protect yourself.
3. Avoid advising or seeking advice.
It is very difficult (often impossible) to think logically when experiencing intense emotions. This is not the time to try and solve problems – if anything occurs to you, make a note and consider it later, when you/the person experiencing intense emotion are calm.
Well-meaning advice – including advice we try to give ourselves – can trigger further emotional reactions when you/someone else are already experiencing intense emotions. It can also be easily misinterpreted, making it seem like the person experiencing intense emotions is being blamed for experiencing them.
Moreover, it’s difficult to give good advice in this situation. It’s easy to lose focus and perspective, meaning you will tend towards unhelpful thought patterns and assumptions. Remember when I said to make a note and consider it later? One of the reasons for this is to give you an opportunity to filter out bad advice.
4. Be prepared in future.
If you or someone close to you regularly experience intense emotions, having plans and strategies in place is very useful. Consider what you could do to improve the situation in future – what would be effective and beneficial?
Try to empathise with the other person/people in situations where you/another person are experiencing intense emotions. If you were in their shoes, how would you like to be treated? Discuss it with them, if you can. What has worked well in the past? What would be best avoided in future? Sometimes simply asking can bring up simple but surprising answers. For example, when I experience intense sadness, fear and panic attacks, being hugged is very helpful.
Bear in mind that different responses may work with different people. The best approach for the same person can also vary over time and/or according to different situations. You may need to develop several strategies depending on the particular emotions experienced and your/their current mental health.
Reading about any prominent issues can also be useful. These might include developing listening skills, learning calming techniques and setting (and enforcing) boundaries. If you/the person experiencing intense emotion have been diagnosed with particular mental health conditions, research them to improve your understanding so you can implement more effective strategies.
If particular issues keep arising when you/someone else experience strong emotion, try to tackle them when you are feeling calm. This might involve solving a practical problem, changing an aspect of your lifestyle and/or getting further support from mental health professionals.
It’s not your fault – but neither is it their fault.
It’s difficult for all parties to cope with intense emotions. Blaming other people, whether the person experiencing intense emotions or someone else, doesn’t help. Remember that nobody chooses to either experience intense emotions or be on the receiving end.
Get through each occurrence as best you can. Try to offer support and understanding. Pay special attention to step four so that you can work to improve the situation in future. Don’t blame yourself – even if your actions have played a part, blame achieves nothing.