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Learning to Crack the Code on Tough Feelings

crack the code on your feelings and emotions
Cracking the Emotions Enigma

Written by Clinical Psychologist, Katie Dobinson 

Experiencing difficult emotions is a normal part of the human experience. As we move through life’s challenges, our mind and body are influenced by stress and change, which can often lead to a range of feelings, such as anxiety, sadness, anger, or frustration. It’s okay, in fact, it’s normal to experience these emotions from time to time! Problems arise when we aren’t sure how to name or sit with these difficult feelings, avoid them for long periods of time, or when these difficult feelings hang around for too long. 

Learning to notice, name, sit with, and move through a difficult emotion is a skill. However, many of us aren’t taught how to do this, so if you’re not sure how to do it – that’s okay! You’re not alone. There are helpful tips you can learn to feel less afraid of these emotions, how to learn from them, and move through them. 

Why do we have difficult emotions in the first place? 

Emotions come in many different shapes and sizes. All emotions, whether they’re enjoyable, painful, or neutral – are sources of valuable information to help you identify what you might need, in order to move through the emotion and feel better.  

Negative or threat-related emotions (such as fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, disgust, hurt, anger, jealousy, sadness) are labeled “negative” because they feel uncomfortable or painful by design—they are part of the body’s alarm system. They are designed to signal to you when something needs to change, or something needs to be felt that we might have been avoiding. Let’s take a look at some of the common difficult emotions and what they might be signalling to you.



This emotion is the body’s threat-response system; when we’re anxious the body releases stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that prepare the body for ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. This is the body’s biological mechanism that detects and responds to real or perceived danger. The fight-or-flight response helped our prehistoric ancestors get through dangerous situations. They developed this stress response in order to survive. These days, for people with anxiety disorders, this same response can be triggered by situations whenever a threat is perceived by the brain. That is why the degree to which a person is fearful of the threat can be excessive, whether the threat is real or not. For example, if someone saw something they thought could be a snake, they might get scared and freeze up to avoid being bitten – even if the snake was actually mistaken for something else that was harmless.  

Anxiety is telling us there is something that we are experiencing as threatening – whether the danger is real, or something we perceive to be dangerous. It’s helping us to identify we need to use coping skills to calm the body and mind, in order to make a decision on how to act and return to a feeling of safety. 


This emotion often feels heavy. When we are sad, our chest feels tight, our energy levels may be low, and we may experience related behaviours, such as crying, talking less, or withdrawing for privacy. Sadness is an emotion that is indicating an absence, or a loss, which we need to allow ourselves to feel in order to heal and move forward. Common triggers to sadness include unwanted changes, such as relationship stress, challenges at work or in the home, or loneliness. When we are sad, our body is communicating to us that we may need to slow down and give ourselves time to feel upset, to cry, to heal from the difficult situation, and it helps us to show those around us we may need help and support. 

So what happens if we ignore difficult emotions? 

It can be tempting to push down painful emotions, such as fear and sadness.  It is understandable from time to time to push down a big, painful emotion when you need to cope with the here and now. This is ok in the short-term, but if you push down difficult emotions for long periods of time without allowing yourself to feel them, and move through them, that’s when problems can arise. 

If you avoid situations that trigger anxiety, it can become very difficult to learn that you can in fact face, and overcome these situations. For example, if you find it daunting to meet new people, you might push down the anxiety that comes up when you’re invited to a party, and instead stay home. If this happens time and time again, anxiety can linger and you may become isolated, and the feeling of fear when meeting a new person can increase. This can lead to challenges with social anxiety and have a negative impact on relationships. 

Similarly, pushing down sadness for long periods of time can lead to a range of problems. Suppressing emotions might provide short-term relief of avoiding dealing with the tough stuff. But without noticing, labelling, and allowing ourselves to feel our feelings, the emotion remains with you for a longer period of time. This can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, and chronic stress.  

When you allow yourself to feel difficult emotions, this is like working out your ‘emotion muscles’ as you would at the gym. The more you face your fears, rather than avoid or suppress those challenging feelings, you’ll learn that these emotions don’t need to be avoided. Allowing yourself to sit with a feeling will help the feeling pass, rather than ignoring it. This builds emotional resilience, deepens self-awareness, and can strengthen relationships when you’re able to communicate how you feel to others.  

Techniques for processing difficult emotions 

The good news is you can learn to notice, sit with, and process the more difficult emotions so that they don’t linger for as long. The more you practice these skills, the easier to becomes to notice and process the feelings that you might otherwise want to avoid. Remember, it’s a strength to be vulnerable and acknowledge your emotions, not a weakness.  

1. Pay attention to sensations in your body

Emotions often present themselves first as physical sensations in the body. Try to tune in and notice changes in your body for emotional cues. You may find it helpful to ask yourself “what temperature is my body, do I feel hot or cold?”, “is there a sensation of tightness, or heaviness, in my chest?”, “do I notice movement in my abdomen, or tension in my limbs”. Our bodies tend to heat up when we’re anxious, and cool down when you’re in a state of depression or sadness. Similarly, we might notice tension, butterflies in the stomach, or shakiness when in a state of fear, or a slow, lethargic heaviness when sadness is present.  

Try to label these feelings when they show up, without placing judgement or criticism on them. Simply name the feeling, and observe how it feels/changes within the body.  

2. Do things that help the emotion be expressed

Once you’ve labelled the emotion, it can be helpful to do an activity that will allow you to feel it, and move through it, in order to help the intensity of the emotion be released. Examples of activities include: 

  • Exercise 
  • Connecting with someone 
  • Controlled breathing 
  • Journaling 
  • Self-expression – art, poetry, dance  

Journaling is an excellent way to get to know your feelings more. Writing down how you feel, what’s on your mind, and allowing yourself to do so without passing judgement is a helpful skill for processing emotions.  

Others find creative outlets to be very helpful. Creating art, collaging, listening to music, drawing, or making something can help us sit with a feeling that might be painful or heavy, whilst allowing our mind to also focus on another task at hand. You may notice after doing some creative activities, the intensity of the negative emotion has decreased.  

Moving the body is another great way to release built-up emotions. Find a form of movement that you enjoy, whether it’s dance, boxing, walking outside, running, swimming, or simply breathing slowly in a relaxed position. Remind yourself it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling, and that movement and exercise will help to release stress, and can often reduce the fight-flight response when feeling anxious.  

Practice these skills with self-compassion and an open mind. It might take a little while to find an activity that works for you, and that’s okay. Remember that you’re practicing something new, sitting with a challenging feeling, and it will get easier with time.  

3. Seek support

We all need support from time to time, and sharing our emotions with others is one of the most effective ways of reducing intensity of negative feelings, and improving our overall mental health. Talk to a trusted loved one about how you’re feeling, and remember it’s never too soon to ask for support. You can talk to your local doctor or mental health professional for tailored clinical support, or get started with an evidence-based THIS WAY UP self-help program today (browse our programs here). 

Still unsure of how you’re feeling?

When you’ve been stressed out and not feeling quite like yourself it can be difficult to know what to do or even how you really feel. To help you check your levels of stress, anxiety, or low mood we have developed a free and anonymous Take-a-Test Tool. 


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