Can’t control your emotions at the moment? You’re not alone

Written by Amy Beecham

Are your feelings hitting you like a tidal wave at the moment? You’re not alone. Stylist’s Amy Beecham explores the psychology behind emotional outbursts.

I have always considered myself an emotional person. I’m usually in tune with myself enough to know when I’m overwhelmed and need a quiet moment, or when a big old cry is the only cure to get me out of a funk.

But recently it feels like something has shifted. My feelings seem to have taken on a new kind of poignancy. Waves of sadness hit me deeper than before and my stomach churns with nervous expectation at even the slightest conflict. Frustration seems to rise out of nowhere, and I’ve noticed that I become increasingly defensive when criticised.

According to psychologist Dr Paul Ekman, there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, enjoyment, fear, sadness and surprise (his research also suggests there’s strong evidence for a seventh emotion: contempt). But as the difficult world around us places us under more stress and strain, they merge and morph into one another, making it harder for us to understand what we’re really feeling. 

For me, these moments are like thunderstorms: they rage for a short while but eventually clear. But that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like I’m on the verge of an emotional outburst at any given moment.

“Emotions help us to act on important events minus the need to contemplate through our actions in length,” explains Dr Sharmin Aktar, counselling psychologist for Private Therapy Clinic.”

Dr Aktar stresses that as much as we may wish to control them, emotions are automatic and one does not choose what to feel at a given time.“It’s impossible to ‘control’ our emotions, as we cannot flip a switch to feel a specific way,” she continues. “This common misconception about attempting to control our emotions may even lead to frustration, further adding to the already difficult situation.”

What causes emotional outbursts?

When I ask Dr Aktar what could be to blame for my emotional instability, she points to a likely build-up of unprocessed emotions, which she says can often result in an outburst. “When there is no longer any capacity to keep how we feel locked away inside us, there has to be some release,” she says. “No matter how difficult, it’s important to ensure our emotions are processed and not just avoided.”

“It’s imperative therefore that we deal with things fully in the moment (or as soon as possible),” agrees psychotherapist Nova Cobban. “That’s not always going to be easy, pleasurable or desirable, but it is necessary for us to retain a degree of emotional stability.”

As Cobban shares,just as you would deal with a parking ticket before the fine increased, or get your MOT done before you got a penalty – you recognise that dealing with emotions in real time might have a cost attached, but it is a cost that is lower than the one you face if you fail to deal with it. But as someone who has never had trouble speaking their mind or sharing their inner thoughts, how can I be neglecting my emotions without even realising? 

Even for the most tuned-in of individuals, Cobban says that our emotions can take us by surprise. “Sometimes our deepest feelings turn up when we don’t expect it and seem out of proportionbecause they were in the ‘shadow bag’ and we ignored them for too long,” she explains. “But they were still there, only now we don’t get to control which of them comes back out at times when we are vulnerable because we haven’t been looking after our wellbeing.”

Instead, Cobban suggests that we need to learn how to feel our feelings, not judge them or create a narrative about their meaning, but to simply allow them to be felt. “If you approach emotions as waves of energy that will pass and reveal deeper meaning, they can become less scary and more beneficial, much like allowing the ‘pain’ of paying your tax so you can reach the feeling of peace once it’s off your plate,” she advises.

Once you recognise an emotion or feel an outburst on the horizon, she suggests taking the time to stop and sit with it, experiencing it as a wave through your body, then as the wave passes look at what comes next. “That next emotion will tell you much more about what is really going on and allow you to take steps towards getting what you really need, rather than putting it in the shadow bag for another day when it will become unrecognisable from the place where it began,” she adds.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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