Managing distressing emotions (part 1)

There have been previous blogs about emotions, but in this blog, we will begin to look at how to manage distressing emotions. There is a lot to talk about, and so there will be this blog (Part 1) and another (Part 2) to follow:

Let’s start with an example – rejection.

There is no doubt we have all experienced rejection at some stage, so we will use this as an example. The rejection might have been from family, a friend, a potential or established intimate partner, our workplace or via social media. Rejection is the action of pushing someone away, and it may trigger feelings of stress, shame, sadness or grief. Bullying is in part an act of rejection. Rejection goes against our innate need to connect and belong (1).

Romantic rejection is hard to deal with, especially when it comes as a shock or is carried out in an insensitive way, such as news delivered by text or email rather than in person. It can trigger hurt and anger, and thoughts about it being our fault or not being enough. It feels pretty awful and reduces our ability to think clearly.

Research has shown that the brain responds to social pain in a way that is similar to physical pain. The same areas of the brain are activated. It does hurt. The psychological effects of rejection may include trauma and depression. It can also play a significant role in anxiety (including social anxiety), and those with borderline personality disorder are often highly sensitive to it (2).

So how do we manage feelings of rejection?

Processing distressing emotions such as rejection takes time. We need to soothe the emotional pain (more on this next up), manage any related anger and work on our self-belief by quitting negative self-talk. Processing earlier traumas may also assist.

Sometimes we also need to find a different perspective, consider whether we need to change any of our behaviours, and search for any positives that may come from the experience. Seeking support from our circle or talking with a therapist can help.

Tolerating distress and soothing emotions

When feeling emotional distress, there are a number of strategies that can help. Here are 7 of them to get started with:

  1. Step back and observe the feeling and related thoughts. This involves being in the moment or being mindful, and perhaps naming the emotion. This strategy recognises that there is the part of the mind that can observe, and this part of the mind tends to be wise and more calm.
  2. We may need to focus on relaxing (such as using relaxation skills) or resting.
  3. Or use distraction from the uncomfortable feelings via daily activities (such as household tasks), exercise, patting a pet, gardening or watching a film.
  4. Come up with a list of pleasant activities that are soothing, such as having a bath, reading a book or listening to music, and turn to these when feeling distressed. Being mindful and using the various senses may help, such as looking at nature, smelling the fresh air or tasting a soothing tea. It can help to focus outside of ourselves on someone or something else.
  5. Create a ‘distress tolerance box’, decorate it and fill it with activities that help soothe us, such as favourite photos, quotes, prayers if you like, or an aromatherapy candle. Visualizations of a place in which we feel safe (such as a cottage or the beach) can also help, and we can focus on other thoughts (counting to ten, saying the letters of the alphabet, reading a book).
  6. Self-care and regular routines are seen as part of regulating emotions, as eating well, avoiding harmful substances, getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep all help. Emotions can be amplified when we are tired.
  7. We also need to plan for triggers for problem behaviours (such as emotional eating or self-harm) and have strategies ready to go, such as using our self-soothing skills, more helpful self-talk or reaching out for support (3).

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy

This therapy encourages recognition and naming of emotions. It links emotions to healthy and unhealthy behaviours. It adopts the idea of doing something that will create an opposite emotion (if anxious, listen to calming music; if sad, watching a comedy), and also pushing negative thoughts away (writing them on a piece of paper, then crumpling up the paper and throwing it away) or focusing on a pleasant memory instead.

There is a lot more to DBT, and we can talk about it more in a later blog and see the readings.

Another practical strategy

Try the STOPP strategy when emotions are distressing. This involves taking a ‘helicopter (or observing) view’ of emotions:

  • S for stopping and pausing, not acting immediately.
  • T for taking a step back (look at things as if through a window or different lens) and breathing.
  • O for observing what is going on around you, and your thoughts and feelings. Identify your self-talk and ask whether it is helpful.
  • P is putting in some perspective by seeing the situation as an outside observer and considering what they would make of it.
  • P is also for proceeding mindfully, practising what works you, and doing what is appropriate and most helpful (using the wise mind)(4).

There is more that we could talk about in relation to distressing emotions, so more will follow in coming blogs. In the meantime, take care, and you might like to check out the readings  below.


  1. Winch, G. 2013, ‘10 Surprising facts about rejection. Research finds that rejection affects intelligence, reason and more’, retrieved from www. facts-about-rejection.
  2. Weir, K. 2012, ‘The pain of social rejection: As far as the brain is concerned, a broken heart may not be so different to a broken arm,’ American Psychological Association, 43(4), retrieved from monitor/2012/04/rejection.
  3. Pederson, P. 2020, ‘DBT skills-building card deck for clients and therapists’, PESI Publishing and Media.
  4. Vivyan, C. 2009, ‘Unhelpful thinking habits’, retrieved from www. with Alternavites.pdf.


Howell, C. (due out Oct) 2023. The Flourishing Woman A mental health and wellbeing guide, Exisle, New Zealand.

McKay, M. and Wood, J. 2011, The Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Diary: Monitoring your emotional regulation day by day, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland.


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