In stressful and uncertain times (when things may feel up in the air) our emotions can deliver strong impulses which may shape our behaviour. Recognizing and acknowledging what we are feeling in these times helps us to manage our emotions and behaviour, which are important keys to our well-being. This page gives information on understanding strong emotions in stressful times, and some resources to help us manage in these situations.
Strong emotions can occur when we are feeling threatened, for example, when our basic need for safety is not being met. Unfortunately the current COVID-19 situation is likely to provoke this.
FEELING THREATENED. Threats might be real and rational, but either way our response is likely to fall into two main categories – fight (this might be physical or verbal aggression) or flight (this might be physical running away or emotional running away, for example when a person emotionally ‘shuts down’). Each of these responses will have associated strong emotions with them, for example anger, fear or worry. These can overwhelm us and lead to behaviours that we are not fully in control of, creating a chain of negative outcomes and the potential for things to go wrong.
DIFFERENCES IN RESPONSE RATES. We have different response rates. Imagine you see a dangerous animal. You will see it and respond with your ‘emotional’ brain very quickly. Your body prepares to respond by preparing for either fight or flight – your heart rate will quicken, your blood pressure will rise and your muscles tense. At a slower pace your ‘thinking brain’ might register that this is in fact a life-sized toy and you are not in any danger at all. But your body is ready and you might have already responded. This would be important if there is real danger. In stressful situations there is a risk of responding to that first ‘emotional’ interpretation. Therefore, before responding, we learn to stop and think.
BUILD UP OF EMOTIONAL AROUSAL. Emotional arousal can build up over time, rendering someone ready to ‘explode’ with aggression or another strong emotional reaction. This can be prevented if we use strategies to help us calm down. Different strategies are effective for different people but the most effective are likely to be to relax, to find a distraction or to exercise.
THE STRENGTH OF OUR EMOTIONAL MEMORY. If something happens that evokes very strong emotions in us, we not only have a memory of what happened, but may also recall the strong emotions that were generated at that time. The emotional memory is very long-lasting. It can be linked to a smell, a sound or a visual stimulus that might have been experienced at the same time but be unrelated to the incident itself. If we subsequently see, hear or smell something that was present when we were once very scared, without even realising it we may again feel an element of that fear.
INTENSE EMOTIONS. The time taken to calm down from strong emotions varies with the context, the level of arousal and the individual. During that time there is heightened risk of further incidents where we are led by our emotions and might interpret things negatively. When emotions start to calm this can be quite rapid and is often followed by a short period of feeling low or depressed.
MINDFULNESS. Mindfulness is a key activity to practise and develop, as it strengthens our capacity to manage our emotions in stressful times. Use the learn mindfulness page to support your practise, and also the coping skills page.
MANAGING OUR EMOTIONS at heightened or increased times of stress. This includes learning skills so that we: have a vocabulary to describe our feelings; can recognise feelings in others and ourselves; understand that all feelings are all acceptable and unavoidable – even anger, but that it is behaviour that may or may not be acceptable, rather than the feelings that underlie it; know that feelings need to be accepted and not denied, so responses like ‘cheer up’ or ‘don’t worry’ are rarely helpful; understand how to acknowledge feelings – to recognise and label our feelings and to be able to say ‘I feel x, y and z (whatever these feelings are)’; know how to manage our feelings – to identify ways of calming down if necessary, and to practise these so we are ready to use them in stressful times; know how to access and maintain positive emotional states; have a range of strategies to think about our feelings and express them appropriately.