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Coping with Conflicting Emotions

There is a common misconception in our society today that making a “good” decision will lead us to feel great, optimistic, hopeful, relieved, happy, and any other positive emotion that you can think of. In general, there is a misconception that we should be feeling happy all of the time. However, thinking in this way will inevitably fail us because it is not natural. We are, in fact, built to experience a variety of different feelings at every turn.

Humans constantly and consistently experience changes in emotions in reactions to a myriad of life circumstances. Emotions including, but not limited to, sadness, loss, excitement, regret, isolation, optimism, hope, shame, guilt, anger, etc. are all common reactions to such experiences. It is our responsibility to recognize these reactions in order to make sense of them in our mind and body.

Have you ever had a sleepless night thinking of all the alternatives to any given situation? This is your mind’s response and attempt to make sense of the complexity of your emotional reactions. Allowing yourself to recognize and accept the presence of these emotions within your conscious experience can also help you take a step back from them. When you are able to step back from your naturally complex human emotional reactions you will likely find that you have increased awareness and understanding of how these emotions developed in the first place. You can then ask the important question: What do I truly want and need for myself in this moment?

That said, it is HARD to do this on your own especially when feelings and thoughts are fresh in your mind and body. The following 5 things will help you to take a step back to better understand what is actually going on and level you back to baseline:

  1. Deep breathing. I cannot stress this one enough. Just BREATH. I’m not suggesting that you try to keep yourself from thinking anything. Rather, focus on thinking about your breath. It is amazing what even a few minutes of deep breathing can do to help calm down your nervous system and subsequently your body and brain as well.

  2. Focus on sensations in your body. Notice where you feel tense and breath into these places. If you notice it, for example, in your belly, then breath into your belly. If you feel some kind of sharpness in your body try to breath so that you imagine the edges of that sharpness begin to dull. Your body holds so much of your emotional experience, much of which actually triggers your mind to react as well. Focusing on present-moment sensations in your body can therefore help you to ease your mind.

  3. Get out of your routine. If you’re trying to fall asleep, get up and grab a drink of water. Maybe even stretch for a few minutes if you can. Literally get out of your head and move around for a minute or two. While you're doing so, focus on the features around you, the light, smells, sounds, etc. Focusing on new sensation will help to release the grasp that your emotions seem to have on your mind. One great exercise for getting back into the present moment is called 5x5x5x5. Notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, five things you can smell, and five things you can physically feel.

  4. Write down your thoughts and feelings. The point of this exercise is to externalize your experience. The key is to get your thoughts and feelings to a place where they look like images on a screen in front of you. Writing them down on paper serves that same purpose. Write everything that comes to mind and let the pen and paper absorb it all. This can prove quite cathartic.

  5. Listen to a meditation app. Sometimes coping on your own can prove too difficult and it helps to hear someone else’s voice to calm your nerves and focus your mind. If you are feeling especially overwhelmed by thoughts and emotions it can feel too difficult to listen to a meditation with long pauses. I recommend trying out Sarah Blondin’s meditations on Insight Timer. Her recordings sound like poetry and can provide some much needed comfort when you are feeling alone or don’t know who to call for support. Calm or Headspace are also great apps for meditative guidance.

Of course, talking to a trusted other like a friend, family member, or mental health professional can be a good alternative or adjunct to some of these solo activities. Remember, emotions do not last forever in our systems and a typical emotion, when experienced in its entirety, will pass by in about 90 seconds. You’re not alone in your experience and practicing the above exercises will help to take the edge off of some of the intensity that you might be feeling.

Dealing with conflicting emotions is often a difficult journey but it is a very human one, one that eases with time as you begin to approach your own thoughts and emotions with acceptance and understanding. So whether you made the difficult decision to end a relationship, change career paths, or just leave an unhealthy work environment, at the end of the day our minds are doing the best that they know how to make sense of our feelings. So, help your mind out and practice taking care of yourself with these simple exercises.


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