How to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings

By Susie Hopkins

It’s not surprising that mums who care for kids with disabilities are more likely than most to have to contend with a lot of difficult thoughts and emotions. During tough times it is both normal and healthy to experience a full range of emotions – including for example anger, fear and even despair – and the unpleasant thoughts that accompany these emotions. But over time they can really take their toll if left unchecked.

In this post we’ll cover some healthy ways to respond to and manage challenging thoughts and feelings before they become completely overwhelming. Importantly, you should recognise that challenging times come with challenging thoughts and feelings, that it’s completely normal. You are human, and this is part of the deal.

If you feel overwhelmed by difficult thoughts and emotions and they are interfering with your enjoyment of life much of the time over a period of two weeks or more it’s important to seek help by speaking to your doctor.

There are also some really effective strategies you can use to reduce the impact these feelings may have on you. These strategies can also help you develop more emotional resilience.

Difficult v negative thoughts and feelings

Many of us don’t give much thought to our inner world of thoughts and emotions. And when we do, we may be inclined to think of them as good or bad, or positive and negative. However, it is important to understand that thoughts and emotions are neither good or bad as such. What is more important is to learn how to respond in a healthy way to them.

Emotions have a purpose so it is more useful to see them as either difficult or pleasant instead of positive or negative. Try not to judge them and be curious about how these thoughts and feelings arise and how you experience them. By doing so you may be able to create some objectivity and hopefully not be so overwhelmed by the more challenging thoughts and feelings you experience.

Thoughts and emotions are closely related and their relationship is complex. There is a chicken and egg relationship between them. Challenging emotions often lead to challenging thoughts and vice versa. In a nutshell, thoughts are how we make sense of the world. Emotions or feelings are the sensations we feel in our body in response to what is happening both internally and in our environment.

There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that developing awareness of and acknowledging our thoughts and feelings can make us more psychologically resilient.

Observing your thoughts

When everything is going well most of us are unlikely to pay much attention to our thoughts. However, if you are worried or have had something very stressful or upsetting happen, you may experience a ‘racing mind’ and perhaps the same unpleasant thoughts occurring over and over again incessantly.

We’ve all been there. Having a child with a disability is one of the most stressful experiences life can throw at us. And when we’re experiencing such high levels of stress and worry, these kinds of thought patterns are likely to keep you up at night. When there are less distractions is when these ruminations are often most problematic.

As we all know, repetitive thoughts are accompanied by unpleasant emotions such as excessive worry, shame and even despair. If you experience thoughts in this way for extended periods of time, as opposed to only on occasion it can negatively impact your psychological resilience.

In this way, thoughts can be harmful and it can be helpful to be aware of the types of thoughts that can be harmful. Thoughts that put you or others down or that conjure worst-case scenarios for example are unhelpful. Thoughts that compare your situation to others or that repeatedly remind you of how things ‘should’ be are other examples.

To sort out helpful and unhelpful thoughts and respond accordingly you need to recognise them first. You can, with practice, develop more awareness of your thoughts, both helpful and unhelpful. When you identify thoughts that aren’t helpful it can be beneficial to question them. (You might ask yourself similar questions when someone else says something unhelpful to you).

Mentally ask yourself questions such as:

  • Are these thoughts accurate?
  • Is there evidence that what I’m worried about is a real concern?
  • Is there a good reason for these thoughts?
  • Has my imagination got the better of me?
  • What’s the worst thing that could happen?
  • What’s another way I could look at this problem?
  • Are their assumptions I have made that are incorrect?

By questioning your thoughts you may be able to lessen their power over you. Sometimes the help of a counsellor or therapist can help you develop healthier mental habits in this way. And in the same vein, I have personally found that developing more mindful awareness (purposely being aware of what you’re experiencing in the moment without judgement) is incredibly helpful in dealing with difficult thoughts.

Feeling and naming emotions and sensations

Similarly, most of us rarely, if ever, purposefully tune into how our emotions feel in terms of sensations in the body. The only time you tend to notice how your body feels is if you’re in pain or you feel unwell, or sensations that accompany being excessively hot or cold or hungry for example.

Most of the time we don’t even consciously register the bodily sensations that accompany hunger, thirst, needing to go to the toilet or an itch that we need to scratch. We simply take action without spending a moment noting what the sensations were that led us to act on them.

It can be surprising to realise that emotions are, in fact, sensations in our body.  As most of us don’t give much thought  to these sensations, we tend to assume they happen in our heads. Really tuning in and noticing sensations and feelings is a simple yet powerful way to manage your emotions. We’re generally inclined to “fudge over” or avoid feeling difficult sensations and emotions.

There is substantial evidence from a number of studies that show when we consciously notice and put into words what we’re feeling, we can settle our ‘stress response’ – the part of our nervous system that is active when we’re stressed – and enable ourselves to better manage our emotions. In other words, if we don’t allow our emotions to be there, if we avoid them, they’re likely to impact us even more.

So, when you’re experiencing challenging emotions, it can be very helpful to purposely tune into your body and your senses and name what you are feeling. It takes practice, and the more often you do so the easier it becomes.

Again, an excellent way to develop this habit of mind is to practice mindfulness or other forms of meditation. Having a more consistent mood and being able to better manage emotions is frequently reported by people who practice mindfulness, other forms of meditation and movement-oriented practices such as yoga, Tai Chi and other martial arts. These practices can help to cultivate more awareness of sensations and emotions. 

You are not your thoughts or feelings

Lastly, it can be very helpful to remind yourself that you are not your thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings come and go and change all the time. Watching them rise and fall away, just as if you are watching a storm pass by, can help you feel less overwhelmed when they’re particularly difficult.

When you are describing how you feel, it can be helpful to use language that is less personal. For example, rather than “I am so stressed” you can say “I feel so stressed” or replace “I am so overwhelmed” with “I feel so overwhelmed”. In this way you can separate yourself from what you are feeling so that it doesn’t define you.

I use these strategies, as well as relaxation strategies such as this deep breathing exercise, most days to help me manage and they make such a huge difference. But remembering to do so when the heat is on can be the hardest part. It takes practice but it gets easier. I really hope you find them helpful too.

References

Are emotions universal? Psych Central

Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy – a systematic review of randomized controlled trials

Mental Meteorology: How Noticing Your Thoughts Leads to Healthier Habits of Mind

How to Change Negative Thinking with Cognitive Restructuring – Healthline 

Interoceptive sensitivity facilitates both antecedent and response-focused emotion regulation strategies

Mindfulness, Interoception, and the Body: A Contemporary Perspective


 A service offered by this author – Parent Support and Education Program:

Do you ever wish you had a knowledgeable sounding-board to help you meet your child’s complex needs?

If the answer is yes, Susie can help. As well as being a parent to a child with complex needs, she has a Masters’ of Public Health, is a Registered Nurse and worked for many years at the Royal Children’s Hospital & the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

This online consultation service can help you with: Getting clarity on how to meet your child’s needs | Practical day-to-day tips | What specialists and therapists to see | How to get NDIS funding and much more.

For more info go here – www.lilowellness.com.au/supportservice.

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