How to Regulate Overwhelming Emotions


Handling big, negative emotions can be challenging. When you become overwhelmed by sadness, worry, or anger, there are some things you can do to help you get through that moment. One strategy is called the Four A’s. This simple tool can help in many different situations.

The Four A’s

Lynda Silva, Ph.D.

Awareness

Try to notice the emotion when it is just starting—when the ‘wave’ is small. Breathe deeply and wait for your physiological symptoms (tense muscles, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing) to calm down.

Acceptance

Don’t deny the emotion or tell yourself you ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling that way—YOU ARE!

Assessment

Access your rational/reasonable mind to label the emotion and to assess the situation in order to decide the healthiest response.

Action

Express your emotion in the manner your rational/reasonable mind has determined is the most appropriate.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wise.png
       Figure from Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan.  

Make sure you are practicing all 4 steps! While each is valuable alone, they work best together. Start by being in tune enough with your emotions to notice (AWARE) when you are feeling something negative. If you are used to feeling a lot of negative emotions, you may start to tune them out until they become too big to ignore. Start when they are small. Try paying attention to the thoughts in your head, how tense your body feels, how fast your heart is beating to give you some clues. At this point, try to regulate your physiological (physical) symptoms through deep breathing, focusing and just being in the moment.

Once you do notice a negative feeling, don’t fight against it (ACCEPTANCE). Pushing the emotion away only makes it bigger. Allow yourself to fully feel the emotion. This can be hard if you have had scary experiences with emotions in the past, but allowing yourself to feel emotions can actually help diminish a lot of the distress you might be feeling.

Once the wave of emotion has settled down to a manageable size, you can ask yourself why you felt that way (ASSESSMENT). If you find yourself going back into intense emotion, simply go back to step 2 and stay there as long as you need to until you are able to think clearly. Try approaching your emotions with curiosity. Why did you feel that way? Emotions tell us a lot about ourselves. For example, maybe you felt your boundaries were violated, and that is why you got angry. Maybe you felt threatened, and that is why you felt scared. Our emotions are messages to us that something may be wrong, so it’s important not to ignore them.

Once you have a clearer understanding of what happened, you can decide what to do (ACTION). When choosing an action, make sure you are using your “wise mind,” a combination of both logical and emotional thinking to make a decision. This means that you think about the situation logically, while also listening to what you are feeling.

Here are some examples of types of action you can take:

  1. Internal. Sometimes, you might not need to do much except correct a thought.
    Example: “I felt really scared walking into the lunch room by myself, but I’m not in any real danger. I can get my lunch and find a place to sit.”
  2. Social. Take action that involves other people.
    Example: “That wasn’t nice of you to throw my notebook down the hall. I need my friends to respect my property.”
  3. Individual action. It may be something you need to do for yourself.
    Example: “I felt guilty showing up late to practice. Next time, I’ll watch the clock more closely to make sure I’m on time.”
  4. Ride the wave. Sometimes, it’s not clear why an overwhelming emotion suddenly appears. When this is the case, try imagining the emotion as an ocean wave. It swells up and crashes on the beach, then slowly rolls back into the ocean. If you feel a big emotion swelling up, just stay focused on being in the moment, feeling the emotion, and breathing deeply to manage physical symptoms, knowing that the emotion will pass.
    Example: “I’m feeling really anxious right now, and I’m not sure why. I am safe to fully feel this emotion and trust that it will pass.”

Comments or Questions?