Advice for when you're feeling overwhelmed with difficult emotions

Four therapists share their strategies for calming down and gaining perspective.

Four therapists share their strategies for calming down and gaining perspective

Closeup on a young woman sitting alone on a mat and meditating on the beach at sunset.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Challenging events are unavoidable. Daily life can bring arguments with loved ones, nights awake with crying kids, mistakes at work, or bad news about health or finances — and that's just scratching the surface. But how we handle the resulting feelings of frustration or overwhelm needn't be inevitable. We can reach for decompression techniques that will help us calm down, gain perspective and act with intention — rather than react on impulse and potentially make our situation worse.

Here, four therapists share strategies for dealing in those moments. Importantly, all emphasized that prevention habits — developing these new patterns through regular practice before stressful situations occur — are key to their effectiveness.

Being patient with ourselves is also key. "We're going to fail. If we have a history of struggling in stressful situations …. we have to work at [change]," said Toronto psychologist Andrew Shaul. He added that it's important to "trust in yourself" and think, "I can get this. Even if I didn't get it today, I can get it tomorrow. I can work on it."

For those of us not yet practised in these techniques, there's never a better moment than the present to start. 

Reconnect in order to recalibrate

According to Simone Saunders, a trauma therapist and the founder of The Cognitive Corner headquartered in Calgary, the best thing to do when you're feeling overwhelmed is slow down — despite the tendency to want to speed up and get through the situation quickly. 

"Even though it feels counterintuitive in the moment, when we slow down, we actually allow ourselves to recalibrate," she said. This can look like reconnecting with the body by doing some breathwork, planting the feet firmly on the ground and noticing how it feels to wiggle the toes, or stepping firmly to notice those sensations. The goal is to be able to become present in the moment and then ask, "What is it that I need to do to move forward?"

Saunders notes that this technique may be hard to access in the heat of the moment. During times of overwhelm, we may not remember to self-regulate. "I always say practice coping strategies when you're not dysregulated because it makes them that much more accessible to you when you are dysregulated." Practising may simply mean intentionally and regularly trying to recalibrate as feelings arise. 

In the midst of high conflict situations with others, recalibrating may require first stepping away. "I always recommend taking a break if you feel like you are overwhelmed," Saunders added. So, in an argument with a partner, ideally two people would communicate the need to pause, indicate when they'd return, and step away "to go outside, to get a glass of water … so you can come back with a more level head."

Practise SOBER

"When people are feeling overwhelmed, it's usually a sense of not being in control," said Shaul. He suggests using the mindfulness technique SOBER — an acronym that stands for Stop, Observe, Breathe, Expand and Respond — to find and re-establish control.

When faced with a stressful situation, stopping without reacting and observing what's going on within ourselves can create a little bit of space, allowing us a moment to slow down the breath. The expand step is about asking ourselves what else is true besides the stressful circumstance. Shaul noted that it's not about denying the stressor, merely expanding our perspective to include aspects of our lives that are more valuable and positive. "When I bring those into my consciousness, it shrinks the significance of this moment of stress and [I] feel less stress," he said, which allows one to respond in a more balanced way. 

Practising SOBER away from stressful situations can prepare us for those intense moments. "I don't work on my forehand during a game. I work on it by myself against the wall … so when in the game, it's already well rehearsed," Shaul said, using a tennis analogy. The confidence that builds is important to success when it comes to this practice.

Take a holistic approach to well-being 

Tera Beaulieu, a psychotherapist and director of the Indigenous-led Weaving Wellness Centre in Toronto, emphasizes the importance of prevention for wellness as opposed to simply coping when feeling unwell. 

Beaulieu approaches her practice from an Indigenous perspective and with a holistic lens, integrating the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical dimensions. The mental component can involve engaging in mindfulness practices like stilling the mind or focusing on the present. The emotional aspect deals with soothing and supporting oneself. The spiritual element will look different from person to person, said Beaulieu, but often for Indigenous people, it involves smudging, speaking with an elder or healer, and going out on the land. The physical aspect involves being active, eating and sleeping well. 

"We are big promoters of engaging in practices that help generate wellness on a daily basis, so that when difficult things come up, they might be more tolerable [or] easily navigated, or you are already in the rhythm of doing things that are going to help you move through that general state of overwhelm," said Beaulieu.

Having said that, Beaulieu also sees grounding practices as very effective in the moment, when people are in distress. This may involve activating the five senses and turning to the environment to move away from our thoughts, emotions and sensations in our body. "So looking, for example, at our surroundings: describing things that we can see, smelling things, tasting things, touching different objects," she said. "[This can] help us ground ourselves outside of that inner world, if that's really overwhelming for us to be present with, and can help make [things] a bit more manageable at the moment." 

Tap into calming aspects of our cultures

"I'm big on the identity," said Vancouver-based trauma therapist and registered social worker Michelle Wing, who prioritizes working with racialized individuals. They explain an approach to managing anxiety and overwhelm that involves tapping into one's ancestral culture to bring inner calm. 

Wing says that since these feelings can be a result of trying to fit into non-inclusive spaces, experiencing microaggressions or pressures to code-switch, connecting to our cultural identity can help us feel aligned with our sense of self. "Going to a place inside of us … where we feel that sturdiness of who we are, and knowing who we are, can alleviate that stress and whatever is going on externally or internally."

"[I have] people think about …. bodies of water, names of rivers, names of animals from their ancestral lands," said Wing, who then asks their clients to focus on the comforting or validating feelings that may arise as a result to help soothe difficult emotions.

Wing, whose ancestry includes Filipino and Chinese roots, shared an example of a detailed visualization of putting their hand in the Pacific Ocean and imagining the energy from their hand going to the bottom of the ocean and travelling to the islands of the Philippines, all while breathing and noticing what sensations or thoughts come up.

According to Wing, calling attention to these accessible and personal cultural touchstones — which can also include music, the recollection of food preparation or specific aromas — can be a source of comfort that can help expand our tolerance, lessening the feeling of intense emotions.


Janet Ho is a writer and mental health advocate. You can learn more about her at janetlynho.com.

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