icon of woman feeling emotional

Mental health moment: Managing big emotions

Intense emotions come along with living through a pandemic. We are a couple months into this one, and you may be noticing some big emotions right now - in yourself, and in others around you. And sometimes, these feel scary.

Intense emotions are normal

Perhaps you're feeling terrified of getting sick, frustrated with the lack of normalcy or angry with things that feel unfair to you. Or maybe you’re seeing others irritable from boredom, exhausted from caring for others or struggling from all the losses.

Intense responses are normal, and expected, right now. But they sure are uncomfortable, and most of us would rather not have them!

There are ways to manage intense emotional reactions so that they don’t feel so overwhelming. In mental health circles, this is often called emotional regulation, distress tolerance or dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). 

In real life, it’s about using the right tools at the right time to make it through difficult moments.

Using our soothing system

Here’s one way to look at it. 

When we are managing intense emotions, we rely on three different systems: one that protects us (Threat system), one that gets things done (Drive system), and one that keeps us safe (Soothing system).

The first two have probably kicked in naturally and are being overused. It’s the third one, the Soothing system, that we need to focus on right now in order to generate calm, resiliency and a sense of safety. 

Managing intense emotions doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s about balancing the three systems so that we can move forward in healthy ways. Often it’s enough to stop and activate those things that create more soothing experiences for us. 

Three steps to managing those big ones

Here are 3 simple steps to managing those big feelings when they are overwhelming:

  1. Bring down the intensity: Splash your face with cold water, release physical tension with intense exercise, or use measured breathing
  2. Detach from the crisis: Use distraction to keep your mind off things, stay busy with meaningful activities, and get lost in the flow of an engaging hobby/activity
  3. Slow down and reset: Take a rest for self-care, let your feelings settle, and look for the kindest way to move forward.

Intense feelings come and go. We can expect at least a few of these as we continue to move through this pandemic.

Here is our opportunity to develop (or revisit) some skills that will help us do so in the healthiest way possible!

avatar Lois Didyk





Lois Didyk, MSW, RSW, is a social worker with Michael Garron Hospital Mental Health Services. She has worked for the past 30 years with Community Outreach Services and more recently, with the Mental Health SCOPE Program.