Taking control of your emotions

Ever had a bad moment when you wished you had reacted differently, but you were upset and your emotions got the better of you?

Whether it’s your child saying they hate you, your boss not listening to you or someone cutting you off in traffic, you have more power over how you respond than you may realize.

“Sometimes we forget, or perhaps don’t know, that we have some control over our feelings,” says Scott Aylwin, senior director, mental health. “We actually have a lot of control over them. When we start to pay attention and accurately give labels to our inner experiences, we can start to influence and control our emotions.”

It all starts with how we talk to ourselves. We engage in self-talk all day long. Words matter — not just the words we use with others but the words we choose to say to ourselves matter just as much or more. 

“The words you say to yourself impact how you feel,” says Scott. “When we name and identify what we’re feeling, we tend to demystify what we’re experiencing.”

We tend to just accept our self-talk as truth, without much thought. For example, we might say we’re “drowning” at work when someone asks us to do one more thing. But if we dig a bit deeper and reflect on the situation, we might find that what we are actually experiencing is a fear about our ability to meet the challenge, which is something more tangible. Once it’s tangible, we can look for strategies to address it.

“By accurately naming what you’re experiencing, you start a narrative in your head that has some limits and is more reflective of the facts,” says Scott. “Creating a true narrative almost always dials down the volume of what you’re feeling because it’s less emotional and less value-laden.”

Scott says taking control of your emotions takes work. You have to be willing to stop and connect the dots for yourself. The first step is simply knowing that you have power over your thoughts and emotions. Once you recognize the emotions you are feeling, you can take steps to address them.

“One helpful technique is to identify a role model with coping responses and virtues you appreciate and might want to emulate,” says Scott. “For example, if I’m struggling with anxiety, I might look for someone in my life who has qualities of calmness that I’d like to have and think about how they might cope with whatever is causing me worry.”

Use that person as a guide. Ask yourself what they would do in a certain situation and try it. Then evaluate how things went and how you feel.

Another technique is to track your feelings throughout the day and jot down when you feel a particular emotion: what was happening before you noticed it, what did it bring up for you and what did you do? Simply developing a habit of paying attention to your inner experience can really have profound impact.

“You have to do it for more than one day,” says Scott. “However, over time, you’ll build awareness of your emotions. This is one aspect of mindfulness.”

Scott says one of the best ways to recognize that you’re struggling is when someone tells you! If someone comments that you seem out of sorts or asks how you’re doing, pay attention. If you’re not sure how you’re doing, ask someone you trust and be willing to hear the answer. Be open to what you hear and evaluate whether it’s fair. These situations offer opportunities for conversation, and conversation is connection. 

“Connection is one antidote for most things we struggle with as humans,” says Scott. “In our heads, we can be screaming, but if we share these things out loud, the noise can start to deflate like a balloon.”

If you don’t want to talk to someone else, consider journaling. Others release their emotions through physical activity.

“You may want to talk to someone close to you, or maybe you want to talk to someone who doesn’t know you at all,” says Scott.

Use a bit of judgement about whom to use as a sounding board.

One of the reasons therapists and employee assistance programs are so effective is because that person doesn’t know you. You don’t assign them any of the same baggage in a conversation that you might with someone you know well.

“It can be scary to talk about your feelings,” says Scott. “Just let out a little, and you’ll find the world didn’t collapse because you did. Then let out a little bit more. Emotions and our self-talk are almost always louder in our heads than when we express them out loud.”

If you know someone who’s in a similar situation and seems to be coping, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation. They may be able to offer some tips or perspective, or you may find that what you see on the outside isn’t an accurate picture of how the other person is really feeling. Either way, you’ve made a connection. 

“If you bottle things up without actually coping, you run the risk of making the problem worse,” says Scott. “Just because you don’t pay attention to it doesn’t mean it goes away.” 

Resources are available if you need help

There are numerous online resources, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association. If you have an employee and family assistance program, you can access supports through it.

In the Edmonton area, you can call 780.482.HELP (4358). Outside of Edmonton, call the rural distress line at 1.800.232.7288.

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