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  • Writer's pictureEaston Gaines, MSEd, PsyD

Ride your emotional wave

Updated: May 5, 2021

While you might consider yourself a regular passenger on the "enduring all things awful" flight, learning how to tolerate emotional distress can earn you a premium well-being upgrade.

You might be used to dealing with emotional turbulence by escaping or avoiding this terrible feeling. However, the urgent need to rid yourself of pain can sometimes end up exacerbating it. Breaking this pattern will likely require practice, patience, and persistence, but like any frequent flyer you know - longer flights come with better benefits.

1. Reframe Emotions

Negative emotions are not only ubiquitous to the human experience, but they are necessary and useful. Let’s break this down using fear.

  • Fear is helpful for our survival – it keeps us safe! Fear makes sense when it kicks in at appropriate times, like when there is a real threat to our safety (e.g., a bear chasing us through the woods). The physiological sensations that accompany that fear (an increase in heart rate; faster, shallower breath; sweaty palms) help us to effectively deal with that situation. Our bodies’ reactions prepare us to escape (e.g., run very quickly) or face danger (e.g., attack).

While uncomfortable, our emotions are not permanent. Instead, they fluctuate and act more like a wave, increasing in intensity, inevitably reaching some plateau, and finally passing. There may be smaller ripples ahead and they are not everlasting.

2. Accept Distress

Avoiding and escaping are sometimes helpful. However, if you’re reading this, I imagine that the pattern is no longer working. Thus, accepting this distress is a different approach to managing emotional turbulence.

  • This acceptance is not about resigning yourself to misery or wallowing in negative emotions. Instead, it is about mindfully watching your emotions in the here and now. To this end, your emotions are not viewed as some tumultuous, chaotic vortex that you’re sucked into and from which you react impulsively. Instead, we get curious as to what our emotions are trying to tell us.

Can you observe these feelings from a distance?

Can you release the impulse to react to, engage with, or stop these emotions?

3. Practice

Observe your emotions: Pay attention like an onlooker to what you’re feeling in the present. Notice shifts in intensity, moods, and bodily sensations. Regardless of what the feeling may be doing to your overall emotional state, remember that you are not your emotions – you are the watcher of sad emotions. Describe: Comment on your experience – out loud! This self-talk might sound like “…there is fear, I can feel it in the fast beating of my heart” or “there is sadness and I can feel it in the heaviness of my shoulders” or “I sense anger and I can feel it in the tightness of my jaw”. It just is: Become curious and non-judgmental about the feeling. The fear or sadness is not deemed good or bad, right or wrong, it is just present.

Imagine: Using imagery can be helpful in allowing yourself to adopt the detached observer perspective. Different images work for different people.

For example:

  • Using the image of a wave in the ocean, you might have previously panicked in the wave, fiercely trying the keep your head above water, thrashing your arms against the wave, getting exhausted, and feeling close to drowning. When you are being mindful of your emotions, you don’t fight the wave but instead allow the wave to carry you over its peak and down, safely, to the other side. You can imagine yourself riding your emotional wave until the waters inevitably become calmer.

  • Others like to think of their distress as an express train. Though the train is impossible to stop, and it would be dangerous to try to get on board while it is moving, you can watch your emotions pass by like an express train until it safely passed through the station.

  • Some people like to imagine their emotions as clouds in the sky. While you can’t stop the clouds from drifting by, you watch your emotions float by you in their own time, eventually passing out of sight.

Remember, being mindful of your emotions is a skill that can flourish with some gentle tenacity. It can often be helpful to practice these skills when you are not distressed, so you can learn to better apply the skill when standing at the crest of the wave.


Saulsman, L., & Nathan, P. (2012). Facing Your Feelings: Learning to Tolerate Distress. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.

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