How to Tolerate Your Emotions When They Feel Overwhelming

Most of us grew up in households that encouraged suppression and avoidance of big, large feelings. Why? Because most of our parents did as well, as did their parents before them. What we have then, are generational teachings of suppression, avoidance, distraction and reactivity which never teach us how to hold, explore and, eventually, contain our emotional experiences, and so we don’t. Instead, we shove them down, run away and pretend they aren’t there, while also deeply longing to feel connected to and engaged with life, not knowing that it is through our feelings and emotions we are able to accomplish this. The ways these patterns get started really are quite simple, but when we’re disconnected from our bodies (the place where feelings and emotions live) it can feel so confusing and complex to untangle. This is what happens when the mind tries to do the work of the body, because the mind is meant to interpret, not guide. 


For example: Let’s say we had a father who left on a business trip when we were young and, in response, we felt really sad and afraid. Because our mother wasn’t well-versed in holding space for her own feelings, she wasn’t able to hold space for ours either, and, instead, offered us a popsicle to soothe our crying and discomfort. In that moment, our young, impressionable brain made an association. “When I feel sad, I can make it better with sugar.” Twenty-five years later, we have disordered eating patterns we can’t resolve or get to the bottom of because we’re so driven by avoiding and suppressing our feelings, we can’t possibly see the condition for what it is: A coping strategy. 


With this new awareness, we have the chance to come back to ourselves and our feelings, but how to we accomplish this? Do we demonize our mother for not knowing more about psychology, biology and emotional literacy? Do we take on all the shame and blame ourselves for not seeing this sooner or being able to handle our feelings better? No. Neither of those are productive or helpful. What we do instead is find compassion for both our parents and ourselves. What we do is recognize that while these painful patterns, habits and beliefs have been destructive and dysfunctional, they have also been life-savers for us many times. What we can do is find gratitude for our ability to cope at all given our limited ability to intellectually make a decision at such a young age and then intend to replace that particular strategy with something more functional and helpful. 


In this culture of mind, we’ve been disconnected from the language of the body for centuries upon centuries, and as such, all have many maladaptive and less-than-helpful coping techniques. It’s common and okay. Rather than verbal, rational expression, body language is the communication of feelings, sensations, urges and emotions. Yet, what happens for most of us when we begin to explore this unknown territory is we feel so overwhelmed and underequipped, we instinctively reach for the pacifiers to quell the fear. We overeat, we shop, we pick up our phone, we hook up, we get high, we grab a drink, we exercise compulsively, we turn on the TV, we turn on a podcast, we turn on anything with a screen and some sound, we drive around aimlessly, we watch porn, we surf web videos…. Anything to bring down our arousal and help us forget that we’re scared, lonely, hurt, angry, sad, confused, stressed or any other distressing emotion or experience. Why? Because we never learned how. 


But this is a really confined, restricted way of living. For when our parameters for feelings safe and in control are so small, our lives must be ‘just so’ in order for us to function optimally. And nothing about small, rigid parameters leaves us feeling free, expansive and light in the way we desperately crave. In other words, by suppressing and avoiding feelings of all types, our bodies become Xanax; Comfortably numb, but also quite dead inside. Why? Because it is emotions and feelings and sensations that make life so deliciously interesting, engaging and compelling in the first place, and without them, we cease to feel fully alive. 


So, how to come back when exploring our feelings feels like stepping onto a runaway train? A train that is moving so fast we aren’t sure how to jump off? We give ourselves resources. Resources are like being on a runaway train, but also knowing you have access to the brake at any time. Under this new impression, we feel safe and able to explore our emotions without feeling like we’re going to lose control, which is ultimately the reason we avoid them in the first place. When we’re young, our parents are our ideal resources. They hold us and let us know with their bodies and nervous systems that we’re safe and okay and that they’ve got our back while we do the work of exploring our sadness, our fear, our anger or any other distressing emotion. However, as adults we must become our own resource as we learn to self-regulate and build confidence and tolerance in our ability to be our own stable rock. 


In the beginning, finding an embodiment practitioner can be helpful to help you feel safe, but one of the easiest ways to do this on our own is through the breath. By coming back to our breath, especially our hands on our belly while we breathe deeply, we can go back and forth between our emotions and our anchor, helping us to gradually and incrementally increase our tolerance and skill in navigating and holding space for our emotions. There is no rule that says once the train is going, we have to ride it out. We don’t. If we’re feeling brave, we can let it gain some speed and try our hand at holding on while feeling the intensity of the experience. But, if that’s overwhelming and too much, we can gently pull on the break and slow things down as well. This is the beauty of resources and self-regulation. We take back our power and recognize our very real, very central role in being the creators of our own experience. 


The takeaway? In order to feel fully alive, we must also feel. In order to feel, we must be willing to explore, and we can do this safely by remembering we have an internal brake system. We get to decide how much, how fast, how slow, how often. With this in mind, have fun exploring both the comfort and discomfort. There’s something liberating about a life without avoidance. 

Addiction: Life-sentence or Learned Strategy?

Your Body is Not The Problem... Your Thoughts About It Are