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How emotions work

All feelings have function. Think of emotions as messengers whose job is to warn you about events in your environment. If we pay attention to our emotions, we can tap into their wisdom.

We experience emotions through three “channels”: 1) thoughts, 2) physical sensations, and 3) behaviors. It’s common to experience an emotion in one of these channels before the others, and addressing one channel will often positively affect all three.

In this series of exercises, we’ll explore techniques for feeling more relaxed and positive, by working with your emotional channels. Here are a handful of difficult emotions. Notice how each one arises in all three channels:

Afraid

Afraid

Thought: “I’m going to lose my job and run out of money.”
Sensation: Increased heart rate, tigntness in chest
Behavior: Making panicky, irrational decisions, insomnia
Worried

Worried

Thought: “What if I get sick? What will happen to my family?”
Sensation: Muscular tension in the neck and shoulders
Behavior: Fidgeting, difficulty concentrating
Embarrassed

Embarrassed

Thought: “I can’t believe I did that—I’m such a fool.”
Sensation: Hot, flushed skin, cold sweat
Behavior: Critical self-talk, spiraling thoughts
Angry

Angry

Thought: “This is so unfair. Why is this happening to me?”
Sensation: Clenching jaw, increased heart rate, shallow breathing
Behavior: Yelling, stewing, agression
Disgusted

Disgusted

Thought: “I can’t take it. That is so gross.”
Sensation: Irritation, revulsion
Behavior: Aversion or urge to flee, hand-washing or urge to be clean

Four helpful exercises

Coping with strong emotions

Coping with strong emotions

Although it can feel like strong, difficult emotions will last forever, they never do. Emotions are like waves—they ebb and flow, and can feel more or less strong at different times. Resisting your feelings can give them power and strength, making them arise even more intensely. Here’s an exercise to help you learn how to surf your emotions.

01.

Notice your emotion

Do you feel the emotion in any particular part of your body?

02.

Notice your behavior

What actions are you taking, consciously or unconsciously?

03.

Notice your thoughts related to the emotion

Let your thoughts arise and pass. Try not to react or get attached to them.

04.

Notice the intensity of the emotion

You may find that it peaks, and then slowly diminishes over time.

05.

Notice that you can handle it

Do you feel the emotion in any particular part of your body?

Challenging difficult thoughts

Challenging difficult thoughts

When you experience a strong negative emotion, check in with what the emotion is telling you about the situation at hand. What thoughts are you having about the situation, and what evidence do you have that these thoughts are true? Here is an exercise to help you examine and challenge your thoughts

01.

What is the situation that’s challenging you?

02.

What are your emotions? How strongly do you feel them?

03.

What thoughts are you having about the situation?

04.

What evidence is there that these thoughts are true?

05.

What evidence is there that these thoughts are false? Is there another potential explanation?

06.

Is there a more balanced or realistic thought that arises for you now?

07.

How strong are your emotions now? Are you having any new emotions?

08.

How might you behave differently now?

Finding calm with mindfulness

Finding calm with mindfulness

Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down and listen to these guided mindfulness exercises. Each one is designed to help improve your state of mind in just five minutes. Here are some things you can do to help

Play audio
Connecting w/others6 Mins

Feel supported

A meditation for social distancing, to help you feel connection with your community.

Play audio
Square breathing2 Mins

Reduce stress

This deep-breathing exercise helps calm your nervous system, reduce stress and increase concentration.

Play audio
Letting worries fade2 Mins

Take a pause

A quick midday meditation to help you let go of stress and focus on the day ahead.

Play audio
Loving kindness2 Mins

Overcome anger

A meditation on acceptance and compassion—especially helpful for resolving conflicts.

Play audio
Body scan9 Mins

Sleep better

Center yourself in the present moment, relax your body and prepare yourself for sleep.

Cultivate positive behaviors

Cultivate positive behaviors

Engaging in pleasurable activities can improve your mood and functioning. This is different from resisting or avoiding emotions—you can still notice emotions as they arise. Start with a simple behavior. Ask yourself, “What’s something small I can do right now to start feeling better?” Try these mood-lifting activities.

01.

Connect purposefully with others

During a stressful time, it can be easy to withdraw, or not be fully present with those around you. Taking time to connect with loved ones will help you feel grounded. Eat dinner as a family, go for a walk with your kids, or video chat with friends and family.

02.

Get your body moving

Exercise is an amazing mood booster. If you can go outside, take a brisk walk or jog—bonus points if you can do it in a place with some greenery. If you need to stay indoors, take a few minutes to stretch. Watch a yoga video on YouTube if you need inspiration.

03.

Give yourself an information buffer

Don’t check the news, your work communications, or other sources of information that could cause stress first thing in the morning or right before you go to sleep. Reserve the beginning and end of your day to connect with yourself or your family.

04.

Improve your environment

Engaging your senses and making your space more comfortable can help lift your mood. Try a simple change, like reducing clutter, opening the windows, lighting a candle, or playing some upbeat music.

05.

Develop a morning and evening routine

Beginning and ending your day with built-in moments of self-care helps set the tone of your life. Ex: Eat a healthy breakfast, take a shower, walk your dog, write in your journal, etc.

06.

Clock out

Crises can bring out the best in humanity. Look for what is going right in the world and how people are supporting each other.

07.

Look for the positive

Crises can bring out the best in humanity. Look for what is going right in the world and how people are supporting each other.

08.

Tap into gratitude

Purposefully thinking about what you are grateful for each day improves your mood and outlook. Feeling grateful for someone in your life? Telling them you appreciate them can make you both feel better.

09.

Recognize what you’re doing well right now

Try not to judge yourself for your thoughts or emotions. Be kind and gentle with yourself. You are coping with this stressful situation much better than you think.

10.

Set emotional boundaries

Emotions can be contagious. It’s okay to set boundaries around how you interact with people in your life who might “pile on” to your stress level with additional negativity.

Download a PDF of these activities

Please understand that these are not a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. If you are in crisis, please call 911 (or your local emergency services phone number), and consider using these urgent help resources.

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