Ways To Manage Intense Emotions In PTSD

If you have PTSD, you may experience very strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, guilt, or shame, to name only a few.1 When you feel several of these PTSD emotions in quick succession, it can be very hard to know what you’re feeling at any given moment.

If it often happens that you don’t know what you’re feeling, you may be headed for problems such as:

  • Feeling out of control and anxious about what emotions are coming up next
  • Feeling unable to manage your emotions and stay in control
  • Choosing an unhealthy way to cope with your PTSD emotions, such as avoidance or self-medication with illegal drugs or alcohol. In extremely upsetting situations, some people may use dissociation (“blanking out,” or feeling that your emotions are disconnected from you) to distance themselves from all aspects of an emotion.

Why It’s Better to Know Exactly What You’re Feeling

When you know exactly what you’re feeling, you have the right information for figuring out how to make yourself feel better. You can choose the way to cope with your PTSD emotions that are most likely to be effective. But, you may wonder, aren’t treatment methods effective? Yes, but not every healthy coping strategy works the same for every emotional experience. For example, expressive writing might work better for sadness than for anger, whereas taking a “time-out” would probably be more effective for escalating feelings of hostility.

How can you identify exactly what you’re feeling? First, you need to know the different forms emotions can take. Managing intense emotions in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an important part of treatment. When people have PTSD, they are likely going to experience very intense negative emotions and finding healthy ways of managing these intense emotions can be a very difficult thing to do. As a result, intense emotions often result in a wide range of unhealthy and impulsive behaviors, such as substance use, binge eating, and deliberate self-harm. Fortunately there are some things you can do to better manage (as well as prevent) intense emotions.

Parts of an Emotion

Every emotion has three parts:

  1. Your Thoughts: Ideas or images that pop into your head when you’re feeling an emotion
  2. Your Physical Sensations: The physical changes in your body (for example, increased heart rate, or nausea) when you’re feeling an emotion
  3. Your Behavior: The action you feel like taking when you’re feeling an emotion

If you’re like most people, with or without PTSD, you probably haven’t been aware of the three parts of your emotions or the different ways those parts may affect how you feel. For example, sometimes one part, such as uncomfortable thoughts, can “come on” so strongly that it’s difficult to get in touch with the others. If you were to experience this, you might simply try to push away or suppress your uncomfortable thoughts, which, of course, would keep you from identifying them and choosing an appropriate coping strategy that would make you feel better.

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Identifying Your Emotions According to Their Parts

Listed below are some forms that the three parts of commonly-felt PTSD emotions may take.

Fear

  • Thoughts: “I’m in danger. Something terrible is going to happen.”
  • Physical Sensations: Racing heart, “tunnel vision,” shortness of breath
  • Behaviors: Getting away from a situation, “freezing,” crying

Sadness

  • Thoughts: “My situation is never going to change. I’m all alone in this.”
  • Physical Sensations: Low energy, slower heart rate, nausea
  • Behaviors: Isolating yourself, crying

Anger

  • Thoughts: “Life is unfair. Everyone’s out to get me.”
  • Physical Sensations: Racing heart, muscle tension, jaw clenching
  • Behaviors: Yelling, picking a fight, slamming doors

Next time you experience an emotion, try to identify all three parts of it. (If you can’t, knowing even one or two can be helpful.) Then match them up against this list to see if you’re feeling one of these three common PTSD emotions. If you don’t get a match, use the three parts you’ve identified to further investigate what you’re feeling.

Choosing a Coping Strategy to Match Your Emotion

Once you’ve identified at least one or two thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors connected to an emotion you’re feeling, you can start thinking about the type of coping strategy that might be best for managing it. For example, if you’re experiencing an emotion that causes increased heart rate and muscle tension, you may want to try a coping strategy to bring those physical sensations down, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing.

Now that you’ve learned how to identify your PTSD emotions, hopefully you’re feeling better about managing them. Fortunately you can choose from a number of healthy coping strategies.

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Emotions: What Are They and Why Do We Have Them?

Before discussing how to manage intense emotions, it is first important to understand why we have emotions in the first place. Even though some emotions may feel very uncomfortable and destructive, emotions are important and serve a necessary function.1 This article presents some basic information on why we have emotions, and how to increase emotional awareness. Knowledge such as this can prevent emotions from feeling out-of-control or unpredictable.

Using Distraction to Cope With Strong Emotions

Strong emotions can be very difficult to manage in the moment. However, distraction is a coping strategy that can be used to help you get through these difficult times. Distraction is anything you do to temporarily take your attention off a strong emotion.2 Sometimes focusing on a strong emotion can make it feel even stronger and more out of control. Therefore by temporarily distracting yourself you may give the emotion some time to decrease in intensity, making the emotion easier to manage. This article presents a number of easy-to-learn distraction techniques that can be used immediately.

Practicing Self-Care to Improve Your Emotional Health

Many of the healthy coping strategies listed in this article are focused on what you can do when you are experiencing an intense emotion.3 However there are a number of things you can do to prevent the occurrence of intense emotions. Taking care of yourself (for example, getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising) can do wonders in reducing your vulnerability for intense emotions. This article describes some ways that self-care can improve your emotional health.

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Self-Soothing Coping Strategies

Uncomfortable and intense emotions can sometimes occur unexpectedly. Therefore it is important to learn emotion regulation strategies that you can practice on your own. Emotion regulation strategies that you can do by yourself are sometimes described as self-soothing or self-care coping strategies.4 Effective self-soothing coping strategies may be those that involve one or more of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound). Learn some examples of self-soothing strategies for each sense.

Practicing Mindfulness of Your Emotions

Mindfulness is an excellent strategy for managing intense emotions. Intense emotions can be very distracting, and they can take all our attention away from the present moment.5 Mindfulness can help bring us back into the present moment, as well as reduce the extent to which we get caught up in our emotions. This article takes you through a basic mindfulness of emotions exercise.

As the name implies, grounding is a particular way of coping designed to “ground” you in the present moment. In doing so, you can retain your connection with the present moment and reduce the likelihood that you get caught up in, or overwhelmed by, an intense emotion6. Some basic grounding exercises are presented in this article.

Anger Management Techniques

People with PTSD can experience high levels of anger and irritability. In fact, irritability is even considered to be one of the symptoms of PTSD. Anger can be a very difficult emotion to cope with, and it can be destructive. Fortunately, there are some healthy ways of regulating anger when it occurs.7 This article describes one such strategy, taking a personal time out to give your anger some time to subside.