How To Work Through Emotional Distress

“What is the relationship between happiness and melancholy?” I asked everyone. They looked at me befuddled.

“Could you give us an example of what you’re talking about?” asked Dennis.

“For example, sometimes a sour mood, feeling, or experience will blindside me and I wonder how I make it back to emotional wellbeing. And when I look back on bad times in my life, I wonder how I ever made it out alive. I guess what I’m really asking is, ‘How do you handle those negative emotions once they’ve arrived? How do you find your way back to wellbeing?’”

This was my second time attending Positivity Matters, a group centered on bringing a positive psychology into people’s daily lives. I had the opportunity to bring the topic for the day, so I brought something that has been in my mind for months: What do you do when you find yourself, or others, in a less-than-chipper mood?

I continued with the group, “My first-blush answer to that question is that the only way to make your way back to wellbeing, back to contentment, is by working through the discomfort. It’s like finding yourself lost in a dark forest with no idea of how you got there. You simply have to start making your way back to the light.”

“But really, how do you do that?” we wondered aloud.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I have some steps that work for me, but I can only speak for myself.” Below is my best answer of how to find your way back to wellbeing.

1.     Awaken – become aware of your situation. When a hiker is lost in the wilderness, the worst thing she can do is deny that she’s lost. If she does, she can quickly find herself going in circles, getting more lost and wasting precious energy. “If I just go a little bit farther, I won’t be lost anymore,” she thinks to herself. The explorers who make it home to wellbeing do things very differently. Instead of ignoring the situation, they realize that they’re lost, and begin making their way back to where things went wrong.

2.     Accept – let go of resistance around your current situation. How do you make a bad situation worse? Resist it as it’s happening. This is what the inexperienced hiker does—he denies and detests what’s already happening. “No. I know I’m not lost. I passed this marked tree on way in.” This mental resistance prevents any further progress out of the bad situation. Next time you’re in an emotionally distressing mood or situation, ask yourself, “What am I refusing to accept about this situation?”

A great strategy to work through emotional distress is to stop treating feelings as “good” or “bad”, as Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves teach in Emotional Intelligence 2.0. Labeling and judging your emotions creates a cascade of negative effects. It prevents you from becoming fully aware of them and understanding what caused them. Passing judgment on what you should and shouldn’t be feeling creates more emotions, which obscures the original problem. Third, piling emotions into “good” and “bad” prevents them feeling running their course. Instead the emotion churns around and around inside you like the hiker lost in the wilderness. Break the cycle.

3.     Investigate - become curious about your situation. Like the experienced hiker, trace yourself back to the moment when things changed. Ask yourself, “What happened? What triggered feeling?” While you’re investigating, lean into the discomfort you might be feeling. This may sound counterintuitive, but the only way to move past an emotion is to go through it. As Bradberry and Greaves teach, “The biggest obstacle to increasing your self-awareness is the tendency to avoid the discomfort that comes from seeing yourself as you really are. Rather than avoiding a feeling, your goal should be to move toward the emotion, into, and eventually through it.”

Typically, most of us, when lost in the wilderness, wait for a helicopter to find us and take us home. We turn to saviors like our significant other, our friends, or unfettered distraction. In some cases this works, but it leaves off the enormous potential for learning and growth that the situation affords.

4.     Correct – if possible take corrective action. Once you’ve recognized the situation, made peace with it and investigated what triggered it, find out what you can do differently in the future. Maybe you are sleep deprived at work because you drank coffee too late. A corrective action could be to stop drinking coffee at a certain time in the afternoon. If you got into a fight with your significant other, you could learn how to give good feedback and try again in the future. The key is to view the distressing situation as an opportunity for learning and growth. In the big picture of things, problems are just that: opportunities to get smarter, stronger, and more compassionate.

When you find yourself lost in the wilderness, how do you find your way back to the light?


News and Events

My business has a new name! Coach Cam Life Coaching LLC is now Coach Cam Personal Coaching LLC. Why the change? I help people personally, professionally, and in their businesses, not just with life goals. So if you’re doing me the huge favor of talking about my business in the future, remember that I’m a personal coach, rather than just a life coach.

·      Last Monday March 9th I was on KZUM’s Community Matters!

·      On April 14th I’ll be speaking at Firespring’s Lunch and Learn series.

·      Throughout April, I’ll be conducting a four-part series for seniors called “Turning the Tassel: A Diploma’s Just The Beginning” at The Lutheran Student Center.