How to get out from under an “unwanted emotion” rock
By Miriam Wollesen, Psy.D.

When unwanted emotions take over, it can feel impossible to try and do anything else other than what your emotion is urging you to do (e.g., withdraw and isolate, lash out at others, use substances, etc.). You may feel like you’re being held captive by your emotion and to get out of it feels as impossible as trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. Often times when that happens, there may be the belief that you are “too weak” or it’s “too hard” to pull yourself out from under your emotion filled rock.

A sense of loneliness can strike and even if you may get support from others, ultimately the reality of getting out of a rut starts with action from you. Unfortunately there is no magic pill or wand. Waiting for motivation to strike is like waiting for Styrofoam to decompose. So what can you do when it feels impossibly difficult to battle a bout of depression, an anxiety attack, hopelessness, etc.?

Getting started can be the hardest part when dealing with unwanted emotions. It can feel similar to mustering up all the energy you have to jump into a cold pool knowing the water won’t feel warm until you swim around for a little while. So I’ve put together some skills from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that can be helpful in taking the plunge when you feel stuck on shore by your emotions.

Skills guide:

1.) Self-validation
Imagine that you are motivational speaker for yourself. Often times when we experience unwanted emotions we can make matters worse by invalidating ourselves. Picture a coach during half-time at a game saying all of the negative and judgmental things you may say to yourself. Would that motivate a team to try harder in the second half? I don’t think so. Think about what an effective coach might say to inspire and push players forward. This is what you can do for yourself. When you feel like it’s hard to get started, you can start by validating yourself.

  • Use the phrase, it makes sense that I feel (insert emotion), given (insert situation)
  • Describe your current experience with stating the facts and acknowledge the emotions you may be feeling.
  • Show yourself compassion and understanding for why you feel the way you do.
  • Remind yourself that all emotions are valid.
  • Watch this awesome TED talk by Guy Winch:

2.) Opposite action
Sometimes the only way to break the cycle is to act opposite to what your emotion is telling you to do.

  • Identify what you’re feeling and what your emotion wants you to do.
  • If your emotion is asking you to engage in a behavior that is not going to be helpful to you (e.g., isolate in your room) then identify what would be the opposite of doing that.
  • Then do it! Get up and go for a walk, call a friend, go see a movie. Don’t analyze whether it will help or not or try to anticipate if it’s going to work. Just do it and see what happens.

3.) Mindfulness-participate
Once you are engaging in that opposite action activity, fully participate in it. It won’t help you if you are still thinking about what got you to feel that way in the first place.

  • Focus on what you are presently doing.
  • Notice if your mind wanders and bring it back to what you are doing.
  • Throw yourself to the activity all the way, like it’s the first time you’ve ever done it.