3 Things to do When Your Emotions Hijack You

Everyone else was asleep and I was exhausted – but I was stuck wide awake. No amount of deep breathing was calming the tightness and pressure in my chest and I just kept running conversations through my head over and over – conversations with myself, with my husband, the universe, people from my past.

Weird as it is – it took me a minute to realize that I was experientially feeling upset. Until I realized that, I was just annoyed that I couldn’t fall asleep. It was like, I was feeling upset and unable to calm my mind down, without actually realizing it. Once I realized it though – that’s when I started actually making progress towards tending to myself and being able to fall asleep.
It wasn’t a huge process either. I got up, went downstairs and just sat in my living room in the dark, and felt. I didn’t think about my feelings, I felt them. I closed my eyes, focused on the tightness and pressure in my chest, and just noticed it. Focused on it. Paid attention to it. I didn’t try to deep breath it away, I didn’t wake my husband up to try and word vomit it away, I just gave it – myself and my feelings, space, time and most importantly, my attention.

About ten minutes later, I went back up stairs, laid down and went to sleep. Nothing was fixed – mind you. The things upsetting me where the same as they were five minutes prior, but I felt calmer.
I know I’m not the only one that struggles with this. I know it because I talk to my clients about this a lot and as it turns out, I have to do the same things I tell them to do anytime I need to address emotions experientially. There’s a lot of deep, long term work that can happen when dealing with our internal worlds, sure, but here’s an outline to the scaffolding a lot of this work is built on: paying attention to and learning to be in relationship with your emotions.

Step One: Stop Resisting It
Emotions are kind of like toddlers – the more you ignore them, the louder they scream because the more upset they get that no one is listening. I really can’t blame them – I don’t like to be ignored either. Like a toddler, a lot of of the time, in order to calm down, our emotional selves just need to know we’re paying attention – they don’t need us to fix everything at once, they just need to know that we will respond to them when they need us.

There’s a particular kind of fear and panic that sets in when we as humans feel afraid/scared/hurt and we feel alone/ignored/dismissed/invalidated. When you realize you are experientially engaged in an emotion (or, let’s be honest, hijacked by an emotion), make it a priority to pay attention to it as soon as you possibly can. Instead of pouring a drink or getting a snack or turning on a show or calling a friend to vent, try going someplace where you can focus and be quiet. Just sit and turn your attention to that feeling – notice it. Stop resisting it, fighting it, ignoring it or putting it off. Let yourself feel it. Think of it as a separate piece/part/person of you, a little one-dimensional character of your whole being, and look it in the proverbial eye.

Step Two: Get curious about it
Once you start feeling it – whatever it is, get curious about it*. Try and put specific words to what the emotion is. Once you can name the feeling, imagine asking that feeling why it is upset. This one is hard because there are two ways to ask “why”. If you realize you’re feeling angry, you can ask that emotion “why” in the “What-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you-for-feeling-this-way” tone of voice, or you can ask with a “oh-my-gosh-please-tell-me-what-has-upset-you-i’ll-pause-everything-to-listen-because-i-care-when-you’re-upset” kind of way. Spoiler alert – the second is the more effective way to ask because it is truly curious – not defensiveness clothed in curiosities clothing. Listen to what this part of you has to say without any pre-judgments because this is just a part of you, not the whole of you, which means this part does not speak for all of you when it talks about how it feels.

Step 3: See how you feel after #1 and #2 and if you can, offer comfort of validation
If you’ve been paying attention to these feelings like a separate person, imagine how you would response to a friend you paid attention to when they were upset and you let them just talk bout how they were feeling. You typically feel for them and offer validation and comfort – maybe through a hug or saying things like “I’m so sorry you are going through this”, or “I totally understand why that made you feel that way”. Imagine doing that for this emotion part of you.

If you get stuck a long the way (and by the way, the curiosity piece is where most people get stuck at first because they wind up distracted by secondary feelings about the first feeling they were trying to focus on), talking to a therapist can help. Sometimes when we’re hurting, we can’t find the forest for the trees and working with a good therapist is like having someone come alongside you and point out the trees again.