If you have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) then you likely experience strong negative emotions from time to time, and as a result, you may likely find that managing your emotions can be a difficult thing to do. You are not alone. Study after study has shown that people with PTSD experience more difficulties managing their emotions. PTSD can result in the experience of intense and frequent negative emotions, such as shame, anger, fear and sadness.
These emotions can be hard to manage; consequently, many people with PTSD develop unhealthy ways of regulating their emotions, such as through substance use or deliberate self-harm. Although these strategies may work initially, in the long-run they will only increase your distress. Therefore, it is important to develop healthy ways of managing your emotions, such as through expressive writing, self-soothing or seeking social support.
Identifying healthy ways of managing your emotions is only one piece of the puzzle. There are additional steps you may want to take to ensure that the healthy emotion regulation strategies you come up with will be successful. Listed below are some tips on how to improve the effectiveness of your strategies.
Identify the Function of Unhealthy Behaviors
First, if you engage in unhealthy ways of coping, you should recognize that those behaviors (although not helpful in the long-term) actually serve a purpose in the moment. For example, they may reduce distress or provide a sense of comfort. This is important information. Simply stopping an unhealthy behavior is not enough because you will be left with intense emotions that need to be addressed in some way.
When trying to stop an unhealthy behavior and replace it with a healthy way of managing your emotions, try to identify what function the unhealthy behavior is serving. You can do this by asking yourself, "How do I feel immediately after I engage in the unhealthy behavior?" You then want to identify a healthy emotion regulation strategy that serves a similar function. For example, if deliberate self-harm provides you with a sense of comfort, then you may want to identify healthy coping strategies that can also be comforting, such as self-soothing strategies.
In doing this, it is important to remember that few healthy coping strategies are going to work as well as unhealthy coping strategies in the short-term. Healthy coping strategies are designed to reduce avoidance and help you connect with and process negative emotions. However, although healthy emotion regulation strategies may mean that you have to face some distress initially, they are much more effective in the long-term and provide lasting, as opposed to temporary, relief.
Come Up with Multiple Back-Up Plans
It is not enough to have just one healthy coping strategy for dealing with emotions. Sometimes a healthy emotion regulation strategy may not work. This is especially likely to happen when your emotions are very intense or difficult to identify. Therefore, you want to come up with multiple back-up plans in case the initial emotion regulation strategy you use does not work.
It can be helpful to write down different healthy emotion regulation strategies that you can use when certain emotions come up. This prevents you from having to think of effective strategies on the fly. You may also want to use a specific combination of these strategies, such as distraction followed by seeking out social support. The more strategies you have, the better prepared you will be.
Figure Out When Emotion Regulation Strategies Will Work Best
Not all emotion regulation strategies will work in every situation. For example, when you are in a work meeting or at school, you may not be able to express how you are feeling, such as through crying or talking to someone. Therefore, you may want to use a distraction or some other strategy that can be done in a social situation. In addition, if you are alone, it may not be possible to seek out social support. You will then need to come up with a way you can manage your emotion on your own.
In coming up with healthy ways of managing your emotions, try to think of all the different situations you are in each day and what emotions generally come up in those situations. Then identify healthy ways to manage your emotions in each of those situations. By connecting your emotion regulation strategies to your daily activities, you will have a better plan of action for coping with negative emotions whenever they arise.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Finally, remember that it takes time to develop healthy ways of managing your emotions. This is especially the case if you have been relying on unhealthy ways for some time. Try to practice the new emotion regulation strategies so that you feel better prepared to manage your emotions when they come up. In addition, try to practice the strategies at times when you don't feel overly distressed. This will give you some feel of how they work and can also build up your confidence.
Through practice, you will be better prepared to manage intense emotions when they occur. In addition, through healthy emotion regulation, you will find that your tolerance for distress will increase and your emotions will interfere less with your life.