Guide on wellbeing: Unpleasant thoughts and feelings 

How can we learn to tame our unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

It is very common to feel very lost in situations where your thoughts and feelings seem to be rushing around a hundred miles per hour. Regardless of which exact situation you’re dealing with, be it anxiety, sadness, anger, or obsessive thought loops, we can all find our inner world overwhelming from time to time. 

Luckily, learning how to handle thoughts and feelings is a skill that we can get better at. We can develop our ability to appreciate our difficult feelings and thoughts, even to the degree that we appreciate the value of even the most difficult of our inner experiences. 

Why do our thoughts sometimes cause us trouble? 

It’s common to think that there’s something wrong with us if our inner experiences feel unpleasant. However, these kinds of experiences can be seen to be a natural consequence of the evolution of human language and the way our thoughts affect our feelings.  

However, our ability to use language and immerse ourselves in our thoughts also has a “dark side”. Namely, we can also create worlds of thoughts and feelings for ourselves that are not very useful for our wellbeing. For example, we might easily take the following thoughts equally seriously: “Finland is one of the Nordic countries” and “No one really likes me”. If we take the first thought seriously, it probably won’t cause any problems. As for the second idea, it’s quite different. Thoughts lead to different emotional experiences and, correspondingly, emotional experiences give rise to different thoughts. 

Mind-body relationship 

It is important to know that when we consider a situation overwhelming, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, causing a fight-or-flight reaction. In this state we feel overwhelmed and restless. Alternatively, the parasympathetic nervous system can be switched on in our nervous system, in which case we feel that we are, for example, stagnant, unmotivated, indecisive and tired. Nervous system reactions are automatic, so it’s important not to judge yourself for them. Judging oneself only increases the experience of pressure and thereby the experience of considering the situation overwhelming – which, in turn, only increases the activation of the nervous system. 

Difficult emotions contain important information 

It’s important to note that your feelings are never the wrong kind. You can see them as important messages about what is happening in your inner and outer world. For example, if you feel bad in a particular social group, your feelings may include information that someone is behaving badly towards you. If, on the other hand, you feel anxiety and intense pressure when thinking about writing an essay, it may be a sign of cold internal self-criticism. 

What can we do with unpleasant feelings and thoughts? 

Trying to change unpleasant thoughts and feelings into something else can feel like a struggle that takes a lot of energy. When a situation feels difficult or even overwhelming, instead of struggling with what you’re feeling and thinking, it can be helpful to try the following: 

  • If you find a situation distressing or uncomfortable, try to clarify the situation. Because ambiguity easily leads to anxiety, a clearer awareness of the situation calms the mind. 
  • If you feel that you have way too much to do and too many thoughts in your mind, and you don’t even know where to get started, you can do a “brain dump exercise”. Write a list of all the things that are going through your head. When you see your thoughts in written form, they often seem clearer and simpler to deal with. You can then organise them into different categories. You can first assess whether all the items on your list are actually important to you and firmly remove those that are not your personal priorities. After that, you can more easily put things in order of importance, for example with the help of a friend. 
  • Another way to clarify is to make a mind map of the situation where you are experiencing difficult feelings and thoughts. 
  • You can also try to differentiate between the problems to be solved, and the difficult emotions that just need to be experienced. If there is no solution to the problem, it is not a problem, but a difficulty that just needs to be experienced. In that case, it’s healthy to adopt a curious mind and practice allowing oneself to feel a difficult feeling as a bodily experience, such as crying, yelling (e.g. into a pillow, or in the woods), or even as pressure or tension in the body. If, on the other hand, your problem is practical in nature, there are likely to be a number of solutions to it, and it can be very useful to look at it from a fresh perspective! 
  • A warm attitude and giving yourself constructive feedback are key tools in the self-reassurance toolkit. Our inner speech affects us much more strongly than we are usually aware of. If you often talk to yourself in a cold and harsh way, it’s good to understand that it affects you in the same way as if a life partner next to you would constantly talk to you in a mean way. However, we can learn to talk to ourselves like a skilled coach, or a really good friend. That is when we get the most out of our self-criticism without feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. 
  • Practicing mindfulness can increase your ability to perceive and care for your difficult experiences. Practicing a conscious presence helps to accept even difficult thoughts and feelings in an warm way and to restore attention again and again to the present moment. While the present moment may not feel like a luxury, especially at first, we may find that in sad moments, our gloomy thoughts often take us very far away from the present moment. So the more you practice, the easier it often is to notice what is happening and what is really relevant here and now. Having such insight can calm your mind and help you see different options of what to do. 
  • You can also try physical relaxation exercises or soothing pilates or yoga, for example. They are especially suitable for situations where you feel overwhelmed. 

If you feel that your unpleasant feelings and thoughts are severely affecting your wellbeing and your ability to function, it is important to seek professional support. 

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