NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Managing Your Emotions During Stressful Times

Managing our emotions during stressful times can be challenging.  There are many situations where managing emotions can be challenging:

Family Stressors Can Challenge Our Ability to Manage Our Emotions
Family-related stress can also challenge our ability to contain our emotions.  For instance, a friend, Lisa (not her real name) was recently telling me how she was dreading an upcoming visit from her mother-in-law.  According to Lisa, her mother-in-law is constantly giving unsolicited advice to Lisa on just about everything--cooking, childrearing, bargain hunting, you name it.

Managing Your Emotions During Stressful Situations

Lisa is afraid she won't be able to manage her anger about what she feels is subtle criticism from her mother-in-law.  It doesn't matter what topic they're discussing, according to Lisa, her mother-in-law is a self-proclaimed expert.  Lisa says she has tried in subtle and tactful ways to tell her mother-in-law that they each seem to have their own ways of doing things.  But Lisa says her mother-in-law still insists that she knows the "right way" and she doesn't let up.  Lisa says that whenever this happens, her husband suddenly has "selective hearing" and tunes his mother out, leaving Lisa to deal with her on her own.

Learning to Contain and Manage Our Emotions is a Skill
Learning to contain and manage our emotions is a skill.  We learn this skill over time from the time we're children.  Infants want what they want and they want it now.  They haven't developed the skills to manage their emotions.

Under favorable circumstances, parents are attuned to their child and respond in optimal ways so that the child gets what s/he needs and learns, over time, that they're not always going to get what they want, like a new toy or being allowed to stay up late on a school night.  Children often test the limits with their parents and parents need to learn to set limits in a reasonable way.  Over time, under optimal circumstances, children learn how to tolerate reasonable amounts of frustration, so that when they're adults, they're not reacting emotionally whenever they get upset.

In successful therapy, psychotherapy clients learn to develop a greater capacity for emotional containment so that they can manage their emotions with a degree of self control.  Containment is different from stifling our feelings.  When you stifle your feelings, you're suppressing your emotions.  Rather than acknowledging and containing your emotions, you're pushing them down.  If this is your usual pattern, you risk developing a psychophysiological disorder (e.g., migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, body aches, etc) because the emotions remain stored in the body and can create physical problems.

When you contain your emotions, you're not disavowing them.  On the contrary, your acknowledging and observing your emotions in a mindful way, but you're able to manage them.  Hopefully, if you frequently find yourself in situations where you have to contain your emotions (like, dealing with a difficult boss), you have other outlets, whether this is going to the gym, doing yoga, journaling, or talking to supportive friends.

But none of us are perfect, and even the most tolerant, emotionally mature and flexible person can lose it during stressful times.  If this isn't a usual pattern, all we can do during those rare occasions is forgive ourselves and make amends with whoever was affected by our inability to manage our emotions.  Needless to say, I'm not talking about extreme behaviors like physical violence.

There was a time when people were encouraged to express their anger and other unpleasant feelings as a form of catharsis.  Now we know that allowing ourselves to yell, scream and carry on, as a way to let go of our negative emotions, is actually unhealthy.  It might feel good at the moment (for you, but not for those around you), but it does nothing in terms of teaching you how to manage your emotions and develop emotional maturity.  On the contrary, it's more like allowing yourself to have a temper tantrum similar to a two year old.

Stressful times, whether it's the stress of the holidays or the stress of difficult in-laws, tests our ability to   be emotionally mature in terms of how we handle ourselves.  Rather than letting lose with a temper tantrum, it's much more healthy for you and those around you to take a deep breath, go for a walk, tell yourself "this too shall pass" or whatever works to help you manage and contain difficult emotions.

In the long run, you build greater resilience if you learn to develop the important skill of emotional containment.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Exeriencng therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during regular business hours or email me.