There are probably hundreds of cliches to help us remember, but in the grips of an intense negative emotion, it’s easy to forget. Our emotions are temporary. It may seem like they will last forever, but they won’t. When we think our negative emotion won’t end, we’re more likely to do something impulsively to try to escape it, such as drinking, drugging, binging, shopping, actions we may regret later.
Research tells us that individual emotions last only seconds to minutes. Like waves in the ocean, our emotions reach a peak intensity and then fall. So, why does it feel like they last so much longer? It’s because individual emotions have a way of perpetuating themselves—or, as we say in DBT, they “love themselves.” For example, hearing a sad song may kick up a single wave of sadness that can influence you to think about other sad things in your life. These thoughts kick up more emotion waves. All of the individual emotion waves together can add up to a longer period of time.
Rather than get swept away by the wave of an intense emotion, another option is to surf it out. Here’s how. First, step back and observe it. You might try labeling it, e.g., “sadness is arising.” Second, hang loose. Let go of the muscle tension in your body and breathe, rather than brace yourself physically against the emotion as it arises. Accept it, allowing it to rise and fall on its own. Don’t try to block the emotion or push it away. By the same token, don’t try to hold onto it or amplify it. Remember, you are not your emotion. You have felt differently before and will again.
To cultivate the skill of riding out your emotion, start practicing with less intense emotions or swells first. Then, with repetition, you’ll develop the ability to ride out more intense emotions.
When it comes to our emotions, as Jon Kabat Zinn says “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Dr. Lisa Napolitano is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other mindfulness-based treatments. A licensed psychologist in New York and Florida, she is the Founder and Director of CBT/DBT Associates, a boutique psychology practice group. Dr. Napolitano is an expert in the treatment of stress, anxiety, worry, and emotion regulation problems. She has specifically designed her treatment approach for executives, attorneys, and other high-functioning individuals whom she believes shouldn’t have to sacrifice their careers to manage their stress and work on developing their potential.