Difficult Emotions

Over the next few days, weeks and months, a lot of people will be feeling many difficult emotions, facing new worries that this crisis has created as well as dealing with feelings that were difficult before coronavirus struck. During times of social distancing, you may find yourself ‘sitting with your emotions’ more often, and may have not have access to tools that might have distracted from uncomfortable feelings.

Beat Clinical Associate Trainer Jess Griffiths has written this guidance to help you cope with distressing emotions during this difficult time.

How do feelings become difficult to cope with?

One of the most important things to know about emotions (positive or negative) is that they have a beginning, middle, and end. Emotions come in waves and nudge us towards an ‘urge’ or action. For a lot of people who struggle with eating disorders and anxiety, the intensity of the emotion or distress is something that they’re really scared about. They are afraid that they won’t be able to cope with the emotion when it reaches its ‘peak’. Eating disorders seek to interrupt and provide some relief to the peak distress. Whether it’s not eating, overeating, taking laxatives or exercise, people typically say that they feel like their anxiety reduced when they did the behaviour. They feel like they have the answer to not feeling so bad and it works for them.

However, because they don’t allow people to properly process their emotions, unhealthy coping mechanisms cause the feeling to get bigger and bigger each time. On top of that, guilt and shame caused by the behaviour can add to their distress. This can lead to a vicious cycle. 

The most critical point in the wave of emotion is the middle, labelled as the “high distress zone”.

The high distress zone is the point at which:

  • You feel the urge to carry out your behaviours.
  • You’re most likely to experience racing thoughts about restriction, exercise, bingeing or other behaviours.
  • The thoughts you do have tend to be extreme and feel absolutely true.
  • There may be some loss of perception of time, where it might feel like you have always felt this way and always will feel this way.
  • You may feel very disconnected from the present moment and be lost in your mind or in the past or future.
  • You may feel strong and uncomfortable physical sensations.

What can you do about it?

The main aim is to get through the wave and to “sit with” and “tolerate” distress. If you did absolutely nothing, the wave would pass in time. Nothing lasts forever. However, there are ways you can speed up the process and reduce the duration and intensity of distress. Some helpful things that people have used to tolerate their distress is to grade it and make an action plan for each of those scales. For instance, if your distress is at a 3/10, you may be able to get through it by ringing a friend, writing in a journal, taking a bath, or doing some colouring. If it’s at a 7/10, you might need to do something completely different, such as ring the Beat helpline, or contact a close family member to let them know you’re struggling.

Over the next few days, it might be really helpful to put a plan together about how you might tolerate your distress at each level. Share it with family and friends.