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  • Noelle Deckman, Ph.D.

Managing Intense Emotions

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

We all have moments in our lives where our emotions become really intense, which can often lead to feeling very overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s easy to identify what triggers the intense mood and other times it can seem like the mood just comes out of nowhere. The good news is, you don’t always need to know the reasons why, in order to still cope in the moment when you’re in distress. However, if you are having intense moods frequently, and if the moods are activating thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately.

If you feel like you’re generally functioning well, but have the occasional upset, these skills are for you. It is important to note that depending on your situation, these skills can be used to alleviate strong, negative emotions; however, we don’t want to use any skill for the sole purpose of avoiding experiencing our emotions either. That may sound a little confusing, but if every time we feel emotional, we just try to avoid facing the emotions we’re experiencing and end up pushing our emotions away, we can end up in the trap of not being able to process emotions effectively or heal from painful situations. Therefore, I usually suggest using these skills to bring strong emotions down to a point of being able to sit with them and process them. If you find that you need help processing your emotions, please contact me today.

The Grounding Technique

The first skill I’ll introduce is called the Grounding Technique, which shares similar qualities to mindfulness, that I’ve discussed in a priorf post. Grounding is similar to mindfulness in that we’re trying to be very present-focused by tuning into our sensory information. However, with mindfulness, the goal is to also be present focused, but we can focus on many different things, such as our thoughts, nature, our emotions, or even the food we’re eating. The Grounding Technique is a very intentional form of mindfulness solely focused on our senses in order to “ground” us in the present moment. In this way, you can see how it can be helpful in bringing strong, intense emotions down since we are re-focusing our mind very purposefully on the senses we are very experiencing in the present moment. Here is an example of how to practice the Grounding Technique:

1. Start by focusing your attention on your breath. To increase relaxation, you can also incorporate diaphragmatic breathing into this exercise, which I have introduced in a prior post. Continue practicing your breathing throughout this exercise.

2. Shift your attention to your sense of sound and describe it as much detail as you possibly can. Are the sounds you hear loud or soft? Clear or dull? If it’s quiet, do you notice any white noise?

3. Shift your attention to your sense of sight, focusing on a single object, and describe it in as much detail as possible. Is it colorful? Does it look like it has texture? Does it look soft or hard?

4. Shift your attention to your sense of touch, again focusing on a single object, even just touching a piece of the fabric from the clothes you’re wearing. Describe the feeling of the object in as much detail as you can. Is it soft or hard? Does it feel cold or warm? Do you notice any textures?

5. Shift your attention to your sense of smell. Try to notice even the slightest of scents and describe them in extreme detail. Does the air smell fresh, damp, or dusty? Does it smell clean?

6. Shift your attention to your sense of taste and describe it in as much detail as you can. Does your mouth taste minty or stale? This may be difficult, but try to your best to describe whatever taste you are experiencing.

I always encourage people to spend as much time as possible on each sense, usually a minimum of 30 seconds per sense, and also to rate your mood before and after practicing so you can gain some objective data on the helpfulness of this skill for you.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

The second skill I’ll describe comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is a treatment modality that falls under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This skill is just one part of the DBT TIP skill, which is very helpful in decreasing strong, negative emotions. Please note, since this skill activates the Mammalian Diving Reflex [1], it can lower one’s heart rate, so please check with your medical doctor prior to practicing this skill if you have a heart condition. Here are a few steps to practice this skill:

1. Fill your sink or a large bowl with ice water.

2. Standing over the sink or bowl, “TIP” your face into the ice water making sure that your head falls below your heart (it’s very important to lean or bend over so your brain falls below your heart!).

3. Once your face is submerged in the ice water, hold your breath for 30 seconds.

That is all you need to do to practice this skill since it quickly activates the Diver’s Reflex, which is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system (our “Rest and Digest” system) that helps promote a relaxation response. This also helps reset your body’s homeostasis. You can even adapt this skill for use in public by bringing an ice pack with you and going through the same steps, but just applying the ice pack to your face in place of ice water. For example, if you experience an intense emotion in public, you can just go into the restroom and quickly practice this skill to reduce your emotional intensity.

Please note:  This blog is for informational purposes only.  It does not represent a therapeutic interaction.  If you are experiencing a psychiatric emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

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