Therapy is a powerful tool for personal growth, and it can be beautiful in its own way. That being said, as a trained counselor and as someone who has been through counseling on multiple occasions, I realize that therapy is also challenging. It makes you pick apart and then put back together all of the difficult thoughts, emotions, and events in your life. When you do it wholeheartedly, it can be a massive undertaking.
Part of what determines whether therapy is successful is whether or not it “sticks;” whether you learn to use the techniques your counselor suggests to help you face everyday challenges. The biggest part of what makes therapy successful, though, is whether or not you actually go to therapy. And I recognize that not everyone is in a position (emotionally or financially) to do that.
So here are some concrete, everyday strategies I have used for myself and my clients, and that you can try when you need to manage difficult emotions on your own.
Recognize that your emotions are normal.
Negative feelings can be tough, but they are a part of human existence. Anger, resentment, sadness, disappointment in yourself or others, low self-esteem, feeling hurt by someone else — all of these are normal and everyone experiences them. Allow yourself the luxury of being human and just feel what you’re feeling.
In my own work as a counselor in Jamaica, I've noticed a culture of emotional bravado (which I think exists in many other places, too), that prohibits emotion in a way that, quite frankly, is very unhealthy and likely perpetuates the stigma of mental illness. Emotions do not make you weak. They make you a person, which I think all of us can attest to being.
But limit your wallowing time.
Sometimes it’s necessary, and perfectly alright, to wallow. It can be therapeutic to ruminate on your feelings and can help you gain a better understanding of them. But do impose a (literal) time limit on your rumination. Once your time is up, do something deliberate and counteractive to interrupt the thought patterns that are governing those feelings, and move on with your day. For example, if you’re sitting down, stand up and walk around.
Counter every negative thought with two positive ones.
This sounds so cliché and simple, I know, but challenging yourself to focus on positive thoughts truly does make a difference. This is especially key for those experiencing depression, since your brain gets used to functioning without ‘happy’ neurotransmitters and begins to produce/receive fewer of them. Deliberately countering your self-doubt is a great way to steer yourself away from the inevitable snowball effect of negativity.
Turn your focus outwards, towards other people.
This is a technique from a therapeutic approach called “Dialectical Behavior Therapy” (which is actually very practical and accessible for controlling intense emotions). And it’s a great way to put a stop to a wallowing session.
Part of what keeps the cycle of negative emotions going is our tendency to think about ourselves all the time. In times of prolonged distress, distract yourself by doing something for someone else, like calling a friend and asking how they are, or doing a favor for someone. Negative emotions are okay (and inevitable), but they don’t have to control your day.
Find a way to let your emotions out.
When my mind is in a frenzy, I like to write down free-flowing thoughts on a piece of paper, and then tear the paper up. I don’t even re-read it, because that can lead to a cycle of negativity.
Some other suggestions for ‘letting it out’ include: writing in a journal, talking to someone you trust, creating art, or doing vigorous exercise. Practicing a safe way of expressing your emotions is a big part of therapy, and it’s something you can do any time you want or need to.
Jessica Thompson holds a MSc. in Counseling Psychology from Northeastern University in Boston, MA, USA. Her career goals include contributing to the normalization of mental health care and helping to make it more accessible. She lives and works in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica.
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