In Part III, we learn about emotions that are out of balance — when emotions are much stronger than necessary and stick around for so long that they hurt us.
Emotions are just another one of our body’s systems, and like any other, they can make us ill if they aren’t functioning well. For example, when we get an infection like pneumonia, daily chores and even getting out of bed become incredibly difficult. At worst, the illness might threaten our life.
Emotions, too, can make us sick. When they are out of balance, emotions can cause us to struggle with daily chores, and at worst, they may threaten our life.
1. What do out of balance emotions look like?
We all have negative emotional reactions that are stronger than necessary and push us in unhelpful ways.
To be considered out of balance, our emotions must be strong, uncomfortable, and unhelpful most days and significantly interfere with our lives for at least a couple weeks.
Out of balance emotions push us around and drain our energy, making it harder to live our lives normally. They can also drive us away from positive things in our lives that give us meaning, like our friends and family or our work.
Out of balance emotions can start in different ways:
If we’re stuck in a harmful situation, such as an abusive relationship or a war-zone, our body will repeatedly send negative emotions, signaling the danger we’re in and telling us to leave. Because we can’t escape the situation, the negative emotions can add up until they are out of balance.
Other times, out of balance emotions start after a single harmful or life-threatening situation, like being in a fire. Even when we’re able to escape, our body may continue to send negative emotions as if we are still in danger.
Because each of our bodies responds differently, many of us survive harmful situations without developing out of balance emotions.
But we can also have out of balance emotions without first going through a harmful situation. Our body can send emotions that are stronger than necessary in response to everyday events, and these reactions can also add up until they overwhelm us.
For example, our fear reactions can be so strong that we rearrange our lives to avoid what we fear. We can have stronger-than-necessary fear about almost anything, from people’s judgment of us to specific situations and objects.
From fear to sadness, all emotions can grow to overwhelm us. Strong anger reactions might cause us to blow up over small things. Despair and numbness make getting out of bed feel pointless. We can even have overly strong positive emotions that push us to do risky things without considering the negative consequences.
Out of balance emotions can lead us to be diagnosed with a mental disorder. For example, having strong emotions after a survival situation might be post-traumatic stress disorder. Experiencing strong fear can be categorized as an anxiety disorder, and strong sadness or feeling numb is related to major depression. Additionally, some of us feel emotions more strongly due to genetics, our experiences, or both.
Out of balance emotions push harder and require more effort — sometimes a lot more effort — to manage. We may seek treatment, such as therapy or medication, to help us get them back into balance. We’ll also share some ideas later in this article.
2. How do our negative emotions get stuck?
Our body sends signals, such as hunger, to prompt us to act immediately. Once we’ve acknowledged the signal, such as by eating, the signal fades.
Emotional reactions work the same way: they’re meant to come, push us to act, and fade over time.
However, these signals might get stuck, contributing to out of balance emotions.
Ignoring or repressing our negative emotions can make them stay
Negative emotions are uncomfortable, and it’s normal to want the discomfort to go away. Once in a while, briefly ignoring or repressing emotions can help us accomplish a goal, such as when we’re at work or in a competition.
But, regularly ignoring or repressing our emotions causes them to get stuck and come back stronger. The same is true when we do things to avoid feeling negative emotions, such as drinking alcohol or binge-watching TV to distract ourselves.
Consistently avoiding our emotions often backfires and can contribute to out of balance emotions. There are three reasons why.
First, when our body sends us a strong emotion, it wants us to listen. If we ignore it, our body may send even stronger signals to get us to pay attention. These messages can even take the form of physical pain or disrupted sleep.
Second, avoiding our emotions means we never get to practice effectively managing them.
Third, if we numb or repress our emotions, we often end up numbing the positive emotions too. Experiencing positive emotions, such as joy, helps keep our emotions in balance and brings meaning to our life. We miss out on that when we ignore our emotions.
Fourth, our emotions can push us away from activities we value and care deeply about. For example, we can get caught up worrying about work even when we value spending time with our family.
Strong emotions can spiral and get stuck
Strong emotions can interact with changed thinking to spiral stronger and stronger, making us feel worse and worse.
Here is an example of how quickly this can happen: we make a minor mistake at work, and we feel sad. The sadness changes our thinking — we tell ourselves we’re not good at our job. This thought makes us even sadder. The increased sadness pushes us to think we’ll never be good at our job, leading to even stronger sadness! This pushes us to think we’ll never be good at any job — now, we’re a complete failure. In a few minutes, our sadness has spiraled into despair, and a small mistake feels like a catastrophe.
Our thoughts can also spiral about our emotions themselves. We might spend a lot of time thinking about why we feel so bad, or about how to make the emotions go away. When we do this, we’re fighting with the reality of how we feel, wishing we felt differently but not actually doing anything to feel better. Like all forms of spiraling, we get caught up in our emotions, keeping them from fading.
It’s not just our thoughts that can start a spiral. In response to strong emotions, we may take actions that make us feel worse and worse, creating a spiral over days or weeks. For example, sadness may push us to isolate ourselves. We may cancel plans or stop texting our friends back, which might only make us feel sadder.
Sometimes, our thoughts and actions spiral until extreme thoughts like “I’m worthless” or “everyone would be better off without me” seem like true reflections of reality, even if they’re not. The sensations that accompany these spirals may be so painful that we come to believe that ending our lives is the only way to find relief. Strong emotions are so powerful that they can push us to believe almost anything, no matter how untrue.
3. Bringing emotions back into balance
We can’t choose our emotional reactions in the moment, but with patience and effort we can make choices that can help out of balance emotions shift back into balance over longer periods of time.
This process is like making our heart healthier. Even though we can’t control how it beats day-to-day, we can strengthen it through consistent exercise and nutritious food.
Changing emotional reactions is similar. If we want to be less afraid of public speaking, for example, we must choose to repeatedly speak in front of audiences. As our body gradually learns that we aren’t in life-threatening danger, we will feel less anxious over time.
This process can be difficult, so we recommend using three steps: Notice, Investigate and Commit.
If we try to control our emotions by repressing what we feel or wishing we felt differently, our emotions become more difficult to manage. The first step to balancing our emotions is to notice these signals when they arise and push us to act.
Noticing and acknowledging our emotions helps us to avoid getting stuck in them. If we first observe our emotions without trying to change them, they become like waves that come and fade away.
Noticing an emotion without judgment gives us an opportunity to choose how we want to act. When we’re caught up in anger and about to yell, taking a moment to notice the sensations in our body and the urge to lash out gives us a chance to decide whether we want to yell or not.
Because emotions change the way we think, our immediate reactions often feel appropriate for the situation. Sometimes it’s hard to tell until after the emotion passes, and we may later regret our choices, like saying something hurtful during an argument.
Investigating allows us to choose whether to follow or resist an emotion. Sometimes we need to follow an emotion to thrive, such as when we are receiving a push to leave a harmful or negative situation, such as a job or relationship that is bad for us. But when an emotion is stronger than necessary or pushes us away from something we value — such as friends and family, religion, or a hobby — it might be a sign we should resist the push.
Investigating our thoughts can reveal how an emotion changes our thinking and can allow us to find the grain of truth that has become distorted by the emotion.
We might ask ourselves: is this emotion helpful for what I want out of this situation?
If we notice an emotion that protects us or furthers our goals, we may choose to follow the push. On the other hand, if we notice an emotion and decide that it pushes us away from what we value, we must make a choice to resist the push.
For example, a fear of not getting enough work done will push us to work more, making it hard to prioritize time with our family. After we notice and investigate this fear, we can make a choice to resist it and commit instead to connecting with our family.
The step of committing asks us to make a conscious choice to follow our emotions or not. If we choose to resist the push, committing to a different course of action can take lots of effort.
However, resisting the push does not mean ignoring our emotions. In fact, repeatedly noticing our emotions while committing to a course of action is key to changing our emotional reactions and bringing them into balance.
If we’re struggling with strong emotions, committing can be a daunting task. We can’t control how an emotion pushes us, but practice and effort can change how we feel over time. Just like learning any new skill, we must begin practicing this process with situations that feel manageable.
4. What is mental health?
Uncomfortable, negative emotions are a critical and inevitable part of mental health — they serve an important role in protecting us!
Mental health is not defined by how successfully we avoid negative emotions. Rather, it is defined by how we relate to our negative emotions when our body sends them.
When we automatically follow the push from negative emotions or reflexively avoid them, they dictate our choices. Negative emotions are just signals, and we can use them to help us make better choices. To do this, we must learn to be okay with feeling uncomfortable.
Maybe we follow the push of the emotion, maybe we don’t — but either way, we get to choose, informed by our emotions but not dictated by them.
We all have times when negative emotions are intense and it feels like we have no choice but to follow their push. We might feel like we’ll do anything to make them go away. This is especially true when our emotions are out of balance.
But, no matter how hard, we can all learn to view our negative emotions as uncomfortable signals that can be noticed and investigated. When we get better at relating to our emotions in this way, they will arrive and fade with more ease, and our lives can be more content, adventurous, and fulfilling.
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Mental Design Institute is a nonprofit organization creating simple, clear, and scientifically informed ways to better understand mental health. We aim to reduce stigma and empower individuals through education.