Ask a Psychologist: How to Deal With Emotional Pain

Keep In Mind You Will Never Look This Good Again, photograph, Danielle Ezzo, 2018
Keep In Mind You Will Never Look This Good Again
Photograph, Danielle Ezzo, 2018

Emotions can be a problem.

Mona had an argument with her boss and felt so angry that she couldn’t sleep. In the morning, a gripping fear immobilized her. She called in sick.

After a breakup with her boyfriend, Donna felt heartache so crippling she considered taking her own life.

Instead of eradicating emotions, feel them more, and give them a good story.

Emotional pain had taken over these women’s thoughts and their lives. They would likely have chosen a lobotomy over the wreckage their emotions caused.

Luckily I don’t perform such surgery.

In fact, I suggest the opposite: Instead of eradicating emotions, feel them more, and give them a good story.

At some point in our lives we all experience intense emotional pain. Unfortunately, there are two major myths that interfere with effective management of our emotions. First, we believe that painful emotions are intolerable and should be avoided. And second, we assume that feelings, once felt, can’t be changed.

In many ways we all avoid hurtful emotions. We numb our bodies, avoid triggers, seek numbing substances, and project our feelings onto others. Instead of truly feeling our emotions we react to them. We try to distance ourselves from our experience.

Marsha Linehan developed a psychotherapy called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for managing intense emotional pain. In order to regulate our painful emotions, Linehan says, we must actually put our full attention on the specificity of the pain.

Mona practiced observing and describing her physical sensations of emotional pain: “trembling in my arms, tension in my jaw, tightness in my chest, punch in my gut.”

Mona discovered that feelings, when they are physically felt, actually begin to subside.

While observing what was coming through her body, Mona also noticed that part of her struggle was with her thinking. Her thoughts kept telling her she was in danger and needed to run. She discovered that if she could avert this catastrophic thinking, observing her body was easier. Mona needed to attend to her body without the mental triggers. Feeling with the thoughts on hold was certainly more manageable. “Stop the thoughts and feel the body” became Mona’s mantra.

Indeed, the stories we tell ourselves about our emotions are a problem. They are also the solution to regulating emotions.

If we want to shift our emotions, we have to shift our stories.

In “How Emotions Are Made,” Lisa Feldman Barrett surprises us with new research that says emotions are the product of our construction. It works like this: We feel certain arousals in our bodies and apply stories to these sensations based on our expectations and experiences thus far. Sometimes the stories are bad and upsetting; sometimes they are exciting or comforting.

If we want to shift our emotions, we have to shift our stories.

Donna’s story was that her boyfriend dumped her because she was not good enough. She believed that if he couldn’t love her for her flaws then no one would. Hence she felt despair and hopelessness. First, she took the time to observe the painful sensations in her body. Once her feelings ebbed a bit, Donna noticed that her story about the breakup was re-triggering the emotional pain. So she crafted a new story. Perhaps she was perfect because of her flaws. Perhaps her so-called flaws are what make her interesting and different.

Donna is complex. And so are our emotional experiences.

If we think about it, it makes sense that our brains and bodies react in extreme ways to our emotions. It’s for our survival. After all, it wouldn’t serve us to see irony in the face of a charging tiger. But in most everyday situations, there are many perspectives, points of view, and ways to feel. If we see things as black and white, we miss the complexities in our stories and become reactive. Reactivity causes more pain. It keeps us in a fight/flight emotional state that threatens our biology and hinders our relationship with the world. If we want to overcome our reactivity to emotions, we have to embrace their complexity.

Dr. Linehan invites us to think dialectically, which means to embrace multiple possibilities—even opposites—when dealing with emotional pain.

Dr. Barrett claims that “fine-grained categorizations” are the best approach to regulating our emotions. In a study examining fear of spiders, researchers compared three approaches to regulating fear. The first was cognitive reappraisal: “The spider is friendly and will not hurt me.” The second was distraction: Instead of focusing on the spider, you go to your happy place in your mind. The third and most successful approach was to tell the story of the experience with great granularity: “Before me is a spider that is disgusting, nerve-wracking, very frightening … and a little intriguing.”

The more diverse and complex your storymaking, the more flexible you will feel.

It turns out that when we find things a little intriguing, or identify an aspect outside of what we expect, we are actually able to change our emotional reactions.

So, how to deal with painful emotions? Consider a two-step approach: First, put your complete focus on the body and its specific experience of the emotion. Observe and describe what you notice happening in your body.

Once the physical pain subsides, construct a new story about the emotion that makes room for a little intrigue, irony, and surprise. This will help you see the story with a new perspective and consequently feel alternative, even opposing, feelings. The more diverse and complex your story-making, the more flexible you will feel. When we are more flexible, living with our emotions—even the painful ones—becomes more tolerable.

Emotions, though they can be painful and difficult, need to be felt. And how we feel them can be managed by the creative stories we construct.

Floating Not Falling, photograph, Danielle Ezzo, 2017
Floating Not Falling
Photograph, Danielle Ezzo, 2017

About the artist: The subjects within Ezzo’s images are re-materialized and given new form. Women’s identity is a central theme to the artist’s work as it connects to aging, photo manipulation, defining beauty and the changing landscape of photography. The coalescence of real and fictional plays with the medium’s convoluted relationship with representation.

Read “Can a woman over 50 magically recreate herself?” by Cecilia Dintino in our print issue Magic, or read more articles on Health.