Humans are very messy creatures. Unlike most animals we share the planet with, we’re self-aware and we have conscious thought. This is great when it comes to solving problems and getting to the top of the food chain, but not so great when it comes to dealing with our day-to-day lives.
Most of us experience an emotional rollercoaster every day. We can go from happy to sad in the blink of an eye, and we experience anger, disgust and all kinds of other strong feelings every day.
It’s completely normal and even healthy to feel emotions – but they can get out of control. Sometimes, while you absolutely need to process your emotions in a healthy way, you also need to find ways to distance yourself from them. This allows you to continue to deal with the demands of daily life, without letting your emotions take over. Here’s what you need to know.
The Ancient Greeks had it Figure Out
In about the 3rd century BC, the philosophy of stoicism emerged in Ancient Greece. It is a philosophy that focuses on celebrating positive emotions, reducing negative emotions, and building a better life as a result of both.
The goal of stoicism is not to ignore emotions completely – but rather to control emotions by practicing mindful detachment, so that you can be more in control. Approaching life with rationality and equilibrium can help you to live a happier, more balanced life. There are a lot of famous stoics throughout history, and you’d be in very good company.
Taking a Step Back
Remember when you were a little kid, and your mom told you to take a deep breath and count to ten when you felt angry? That’s exactly how the concept of detachment works.
When you start to feel a strong emotion, like anger, instead of acting on it immediately, you deliberately take a step back, focus, breathe, and try to think rationally instead of letting your emotions take over.
By doing this, you can get a little more perspective on the situation, and you can react in a more productive, balanced way.
Detaching from Anxiety
These days, more and more people are experiencing anxiety in a variety of situations, and it can be absolutely crippling. Practicing mindful detachment from your emotions is a great way to start learning to cope with anxiety.
Taking a deep breath and thinking rationally about the situation you are facing, and the real risks versus what your mind is telling you can help you to get your feelings of anxiety under control and cope better.
It can even help you to face situations that you otherwise might not, and when you start doing things that scare you and they aren’t as bad as you feared, you will be much more inclined to try them again.
Recognising that Emotions Can Be a Problem
Before you can start using detachment and some of the ideas of stoicism, you first need to recognise that your emotions are problematic. If you’ve always felt big emotions, you might not be able to tell what a normal reaction is, as opposed to an overreaction.
Some examples of emotions that can be harmful are:
- Being so angry that you can’t think or speak straight
- Being so afraid of a situation that you change your life to avoid those kinds of situations
- Allowing your emotions to drive bad decision making
If you are doing any of those things, or you find that your emotions are having a disproportionately negative effect on your wellbeing and life, you probably need to take steps to change the way you handle them.
Types of Detachment
There are many ways that you can use detachment and stoicism to change the way you react to situations in your life. Some of these might be:
- Distancing yourself from situations that you know trigger negative emotions, and that aren’t beneficial to your life
- Distancing yourself from people who regularly trigger strong negative emotions in your life
- Avoiding impulse and emotion driven responses when you can’t distance yourself physically from something
Sometimes, the things that trigger negative emotions can’t be removed from our lives immediately. For instance, if you discover, after thinking about it, that your job is having a negative effect on your life, you might not be able to change jobs immediately. This is where the last item on this list comes to the fore. Until you can remove yourself from the situation completely, you need to learn to ‘create space’ around yourself so you have time to process your emotions, get them under control, and not let them drive your thoughts and actions.
Since it’s not always possible to physically distance yourself from things and people that evoke strong negative emotions in you, there are a few other strategies you can try:
- Time – time tends to blunt the effects of our experiences, so if you can give yourself some time to process a problem, you might be able to react in a more reasonable, rational way
- Space – the further away you are, physically, from a negative emotional trigger, the easier it is to compartmentalise it and deal with it without becoming emotionally distraught
- Social distance – there are some people who are and will always be diametrically opposed to what you think and believe, and sometimes, limiting the time you spend with those people is what it takes to get control of your emotions
- Hypothetically – when we think rationally and hypothetically about a problem, we can often come to a much more balanced, reasonable solution.
Emotions are normal. We all feel them, and they are a necessary part of our lives. But when emotions are overwhelmingly negative, it can damage our ability to cope with day to day situations.
So, if you regularly struggle with situations that seem like they are too much, it might be time to go back to taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and forcing yourself to approach everything in a rational and detached way.
If you or a loved one are struggling and looking for help, there are many resources available. Head to our Resources page for helplines to call and tools you can use to take care of your mental health.