Emotions are a normal and important part of our lives. They are our body’s way of communicating to us that something is happening that we need to pay attention to. However, sometimes our emotions can get the best of us and become overwhelming. This is when it can be helpful to learn how to process our emotions healthily (3). It can involve learning about the different types of emotions, what triggers them, and how to cope with them constructively. It can also involve developing emotional intelligence skills, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.
What Are Emotions?
At their most basic form, emotions are automatic reactions to situations. They tend to be short-lived and automatically triggered by specific situations. We have no control over our initial emotional reaction, but we can choose how to respond to that emotion.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are no “good” or bad” emotions. All emotions serve a purpose and can be useful in specific situations. For example, the emotion of fear can help us avoid danger, while the emotion of anger can help us stand up for ourselves when we’re being treated unfairly.
What makes people believe that a specific emotion is “good” or “bad” is the way we respond to that emotion. When we have an emotional reaction that we deem as “negative,” such as a violent outburst or a period of depression, we tend to label the emotion as bad.
On the other hand, when we have an emotional reaction that is seen as “positive,” such as feeling elated after hearing good news, we label that emotion as good.
Not to be confused with “feelings” (which refer to our conscious experience of emotion), emotions are physical reactions that happen in the body.
Feelings are the meaning you assign to the emotional experience. For example, when two people are faced with a difficult, life-changing decision to make, one person might feel overwhelmed by the situation while the other person feels excited about the possibilities.
In this case, both individuals are experiencing the same emotion of anxiety, but they are assigning different meanings to it based on their individual worldviews.
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What Does It Mean To Process Emotions?
Processing emotions is all about learning how to understand and manage our emotions healthily and it involves:
When an incident occurs, take a step back and take some time to process what happened before reacting. This might be easy or hard to do, depending on the situation and the intensity of the emotion you’re feeling.
For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, it might be difficult to not honk your horn and give that person a dirty look. However, if you take a moment to pause and think about what happened, you might realize that the other driver was in a hurry and didn’t realize they cut you off.
This understanding can help diffuse your anger and prevent you from overreacting.
Some helpful ways to pause and process your emotions are:
- Taking a few deep breaths;
- Counting to 10 (or 20– or 100!);
- Removing yourself from the situation if possible; and
- Visualizing a calming image or scene.
Earlier, we mentioned that there are no “good” or “bad” emotions. Understanding this allows you to be more receptive to all of your emotions, even the ones you might deem as negative.
Acknowledge your emotions without judgment. Accept that you’re feeling angry, sad, anxious, etc. without attaching any value to those emotions. It helps to curiously observe your emotions as if you’re an outside observer, rather than getting wrapped up in them.
While you’re observing what’s happening inside of you, see if you can put a name to the emotions you’re feeling. This can be helpful in and of itself, as it allows you to better understand your experience.
It can also help label your emotions out loud, either to yourself or to someone else. Research has shown that this simple act can help lessen the intensity of negative emotions (5).
Once you’ve taken some time to process your emotions, you might find that you need to express them healthily. This can look different for different people, but some common examples include:
Addressing Your Needs
Sometimes, neglecting your basic needs can make you more susceptible to emotional outbursts.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself by:
- Eating regular, balanced meals;
- Getting enough sleep;
- Exercising regularly; and
- Spending time outdoors.
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Your mood can have a big impact on how you process emotions. If you’re feeling low, it might be more difficult to deal with negative emotions healthily.
This is why it is important to find activities that help boost your mood and make you feel good.
This can look different for different people, but some examples include:
- Playing with a pet;
- Spending time with loved ones;
- Listening to music;
- Engaging in creative activity;
- Exercising regularly; and
- Venting your emotions.
Letting your feelings out in a safe and controlled way can help you process them healthily.
You might find it helpful when you are:
- Writing in a journal;
- Punching a pillow;
- Screaming into the abyss; and
- Crying your feelings out.
Brainstorm For Solutions
Once you’ve expressed your emotions, it can be helpful to brainstorm solutions for the situation that caused them. This can help you feel more in control and empowered, rather than feeling like a victim of your circumstances.
Make a list of possible solutions to your problem, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem. Then, take some time to consider which ones are realistic and feasible for you.
Finally, once you’ve decided on a solution, it’s time to take action! This might mean having a difficult conversation with someone, making a lifestyle change, or seeking professional help.
No matter what, taking action will help you feel more in control of your emotions and your life.
If you’re struggling to process your emotions on your own, it might be time to seek professional help. A therapist can provide you with support and guidance as you learn how to deal with your emotions healthily.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider reaching out to a mental health hotline in your country.
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Benefits Of Processing Emotions
There are many benefits to learning how to process emotions healthily.
Some of the most notable benefits include:
Higher Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware and to understand your emotions, as well as the emotions of others. People with high emotional intelligence are better able to navigate challenging situations, both in their personal and professional lives (2).
Greater Life Satisfaction
People who can effectively deal with their emotions tend to be more satisfied with their lives overall. This is probably because they’re less likely to be bogged down by negative emotions, and are better able to enjoy the good moments.
Improved Physical Health
There’s a strong link between emotional health and physical health. People who can effectively deal with their emotions tend to have lower levels of stress, which can lead to a host of health benefits. These include a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression (4).
People who are able to effectively deal with their emotions tend to have healthier and more satisfying relationships. This is likely because they’re better able to communicate their needs and handle conflict constructively.
The things that keep you up at night, such as stress and anxiety, can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. People who can effectively deal with their emotions tend to sleep better, as they’re less likely to be kept up by negative thoughts and feelings (4).
Do You Need To Learn How To Process Your Emotions?
If you’re not sure whether you need to learn how to process your emotions, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have difficulty controlling my emotions?
- Do I often feel overwhelmed by my emotions?
- Do I sometimes act out in destructive ways when I’m feeling emotional?
- Do negative emotions often interfere with my daily life?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it might be a good idea to learn more about emotional processing. Remember, there’s no shame in admitting that you need help!
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What Are Some Harmful Ways Of Processing Emotions?
There are many harmful ways of processing emotions, such as:
Suppressing emotions is when you try to push down or ignore your emotions rather than deal with them in a healthy manner. This can lead to a build-up of negative emotions, which can eventually explode in the form of an emotional outburst.
Withdrawing From Others
Withdrawing from others is when you isolate yourself in an attempt to avoid your emotions. This can be harmful because it prevents you from receiving the support you need to deal with your emotions.
Relying On Substances
Many people turn to alcohol, drugs, food, and other substances in an attempt to numb their emotions. This might provide temporary relief, but it can ultimately make things worse.
Substances can interfere with your ability to deal with your emotions and can lead to addiction and other problems (1).
Taking It Out On Others
Bullying, yelling, and other forms of aggression are often a way of taking out emotional pain on others. This is harmful because it can damage relationships and lead to further feelings of guilt and shame.
The Bottom Line
Emotional processing is a key part of emotional intelligence. It involves acknowledging, understanding, and responding to your emotions. There’s no “right” way to do it. The most important thing is that you find what works for you and that you’re gentle with yourself along the way.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Drugs, Brains, and Behavior The Science of Addiction (2014, nih.gov)
- Emotional intelligence and organizational effectiveness (2013, nih.gov)
- How Do Thoughts and Emotions Affect Health? (2016, umn.edu)
- STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants (2005, nih.gov)
- Tame Reactive Emotions by Naming Them (2019, mindful.org)