“What do I do when I get upset?”

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This is a common question that many of us who ‘re-live’ distressing feelings ask. And it is no wonder. With so many of us having experienced trauma in our lives, reliving an old sense of distress is widespread.

So what can you do at the time?  Here are a few suggestions.


This may seem a little obvious to many of us, but it isn’t obvious for a lot of us when we are in the moment. The instinct is always to be propelled away from the emotion. To avoid, to run, to kill it off with drugs, alcohol, or internet sites. Yet we know that only by facing the emotion will we come to understand it. In this regard, facing our emotions represents a change of attitude. Feelings are worthy of our consideration. Feelings provide the clue to the emotion that is concerning us. The challenge is to orientate toward the emotion itself.

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face….. we must do that which we think we cannot” – Eleanor Roosevelt


Mindfulness (awareness without judgment) is a great starting point, but it is not the end point. There has been a lot of hype about this one of late, and I have mentioned several of my concerns here. We need a strategy that takes us beyond tolerating emotions. We are observing because we want to make a difference in how we respond to our emotions, not merely build up our indifference. None-the-less we need to be aware of all of our emotional experience so observation of our internal experiences is essential.

When we observe the emotions we put distance between us and the emotion we’re feeling. Consider these questions:

How quickly does it come to you? How quickly does it leave you? What adjectives would you use to describe it? Can you think of a metaphor for your experience?


This too seems a little obvious. Naming the emotion you have is how, I suspect, human beings have always coped with unruly feelings. Naming an emotion brings it out from the implicit realm. Even just this one action has been thought to alter the activity of the amygdala which is the area of the brain that activates distress.

The old counselling axiom stands the test of experience: “If you can’t name it, you don’t own it – it owns you”. Try these questions: What are the emotions? How many different emotions are there? How intense is each one?


Human beings are not merely thinking beings. We are physical beings, spiritual beings, social beings as well as being thinking beings. We are beings that have a history. We live in the now, but we have come from the past. We live in the future, but our feet are planted on the ground in the present. Our task becomes one of integrating all of these aspects together: What is the emotion? How did it start? What thoughts were linked to it? Did you make any predictions? Do any memories come to mind? Where do you feel it in your body? What actions are associated with it? What did you believe was going to happen in the future when you felt anxious?


The task is to not see to the emotions, but now that you have them all integrated, is to see through the emotions. All of the actions, thoughts, emotions and bodily reactions speak of what is on your Heart.  This is where things are about to really get productive.

What does the experience say about what is your connection / value?

What does the experience say about who you are (your identity)?

Can you sense what you’re now on the verge of? When people give voice to what is on their Heart by answering these questions, they bring issues to light that are typically hidden. Now – take it horizontal: When what is on your Heart comes to light, take this to someone you know and trust. Do not take this to someone you don’t trust but talk to a friend or family member that you do – tell them about it what is on your Heart. Ask them not to respond but just to connect and understand you. If you’re the praying kind – take it vertical: Offer up what is on your Heart to God, connect and be understood.

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