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Dealing With Difficult Emotions

Some emotions are positive. Think of happiness, joy, interest, excitement, gratitude, and love. These positive emotions feel good. Negative emotions — like sadness, anger, loneliness, jealousy, self-criticism, fear, or rejection — can be difficult, even painful at times.

That's especially true when we feel a negative emotion too often, too strongly, or dwell on it too long. Negative emotions may be difficult, but we can learn to handle them. Here are 3 steps that can help.

Step 1: Identify the Emotion

Learning to notice and identify your feelings takes practice. In addition to focusing on your feelings, check in with your body, too. You may feel sensations with certain emotions — perhaps your face gets hot or your muscles tense.

  • Be aware of how you feel. When you have a negative emotion, such as anger, try to name what you're feeling. This is a lot better than pretending not to have the feeling at all or losing your temper. For example:
    • “That guy Ian in my study group makes me so mad!”
    • “I get so jealous when I see that person with my ex.”
    • “I feel afraid whenever I have to walk past those bullies.”
  • Figure out what caused the feeling. Understanding the source of your feelings will help you to figure out the best ways to handle them. For example:
    • “Whenever we do group projects, Ian finds a way to take all the credit for other people's work.”
    • “When I see my ex flirting with other people, it reminds me that I still have feelings for my ex.”
    • “Even though the bullies don't pick on me, I see what they do to other people and it worries me.”
  • Don't blame. Being able to recognize and explain your emotions isn't the same as blaming someone or something for the way you feel. The guy who takes credit for your work might not realize what he’s doing, and your ex probably isn't seeing someone new as a way to get back at you. Your feelings are there to help you make sense of what's going on.
  • Accept all your emotions as natural and understandable. Don't judge yourself for the emotions you feel. It's normal to feel them. Accepting how you feel can help you move on, so don't be hard on yourself.

Step 2: Take Action

Once you've identified and understood what you're feeling, you can decide how you need to express your emotion. Sometimes it's enough to just process how you feel in your own head, but other times you'll want to do something to feel better.

  • Think about the best way to express your emotion. Do you need to gently confront someone else? Talk things over with a friend? Or work off the feeling by going for a run? For example:
    • “It won't solve anything to show my anger to Ian, but I need to avoid getting in another situation where he takes control over a project.”
    • “I'll hold my head high around my ex. Then I'll put on some sad songs, have a good cry in my room, and eventually let go of my hurt.”
    • “I’ll tell a school counselor what's going on with the bullies.”
  • Learn how to change your mood. Try doing things that make you happy, even if you don't feel like it. For example, you might not be in the mood to go out after a breakup. But going for a walk or watching a funny movie with friends can lift you out of that negative space.
  • Build positive emotions. Make it a habit to focus on what's good in your life — even the little things. It could be the praise a parent gave you for fixing the Wi-Fi or how great the salad you made for lunch tastes. Noticing the good things even when you're feeling bad can help you shift the emotional balance from negative to positive.
  • Find support. Talk about how you're feeling with a parent, other trusted adult, or a friend. This can help you explore your emotions and give you a fresh way of thinking about things.
  • Exercise. Physical activity helps the brain make natural chemicals that can boost your mood. Exercise also can release stress and help prevent you from focusing on negative feelings.

Step 3: Get Help With Difficult Emotions

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can't shake a tough emotion. If you have feelings of sadness or worry for more than a couple of weeks, or if you feel so upset that you think you might hurt yourself or other people, you may need extra help.

Talk with a trusted adult like a parent, school counselor, teacher, or coach right away. If you don't have an adult you can turn to, reach out to someone at a help line. There are people to talk with 24/7. They can listen and guide you on how to get the help you need. In the United States, contact:

Reviewed by: Margaux J. Barnes, PhD
Date Reviewed: May 20, 2023

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