3 Steps To Handling Strong Emotions by Dr. Randall Rheinheimer, Ph.D., MFT

What do you do when you experience strong emotions?  Do you react and regret it later?  Or do you try to downplay it and hope it goes away?  These are two common reaction to intense emotions.  The first reaction is an attempt to get relief from the from the emotion, which often results in negative consequences or the need to apologize.  The second reaction is an attempt to repress or deny the emotion.  In this article I want to give you an option that enables you to process the emotion, that is to feel the full intensity of the emotion and process it in a manner that that avoids acting out while fully acknowledging it.

 Processing emotion involves three steps; identify the emotion, verbalize it, and understand it.  This process is often too hard to do on our own.  We need another person to listen and understand, in order to tame the emotion.  I have broken down this process into a three-step sequence, however in reality these steps may happen seamlessly.

The first step is to identify the emotion that we are experiencing.  This step is straight forward, label the emotion that is being experienced.  It is also helpful to use labels that fit the intensity.  For example, a strong emotion of anger may be labeled as angry or enraged, as opposed to frustrated.  This is important as we want to be fully engaged in the emotion and not downplay it.

The second step is to begin verbalizing the intense emotion with words that express your experience of it.  This step may take some time, when you initially find the words for the emotion, it may temporarily intensify.  This means that you are fully engaging with the emotion and that you need to continue to verbalize it until it begins to subside.

The third step is the most important.  The emotion must be understood, and it must be understood by both you and by another person who is engaged with you.  When we try this process alone, we are likely to end up blaming others, or ourselves, rather than understanding why we are experiencing the feeling so strongly.  Experiencing intense emotions alone, is often what makes it intolerable.  Sharing in a supportive relationship, allows someone to be in the well with us.  This experience is not only containing but it is often healing as well (as many who have been through our process groups would attest to).  Sharing the emotion with another also gives us a perspective outside of ourselves. 

Identifying the emotion, verbalizing it and having it understood in the context of a supportive relationship allows us to process through it.  When we process the emotion, we are less likely to become overwhelmed, flooded, unable to function, or act it out.  We are also able to deal with it in a manner that allows us to move on and not be encumbered with the repressed emotion.

I hope and pray that you will find “safe people” that you can share your strong emotions with and experience the containment and healing that God has for you.


  1. Diane Dyck on July 25, 2019 at 6:47 am

    I’m curious how this can be applied in a residential setting specifically for clients with mental illnesses like bipolar and schizophrenia. Often when residents become agitated and perseverate methods like distraction are used, then medication if that fails. Perhaps practice during calm moments? In the heat of an upward spiral sometimes staff have to be concerned with personal safety.

    • Alite on July 25, 2019 at 10:13 am

      So… now we have identified the emotions, have verbalized it, and even understood what on Earth do we feel. And how do we suppose to heal ourselves that we stop feeling rubbish and don’t feel it any more in the future?

      • JClarke on April 16, 2020 at 11:36 am

        Hi Alite,

        To respond to your question, I want to expand on what Dr. Rheinheimer described at the end about the healing power of sharing emotion with another. We just need to be clear on what is at the core of our emotional experience. If all we can identify is anger, we might be missing key information that could be helpful. Early in my career I heard that “anger is fear’s bodyguard.” I wholeheartedly believe this, we just need to slow down enough to explore this which is part of the understanding. As Dr. R described, this is best done with a safe other.

        An example of this might be a moment when I find myself angry, I can identify the anger as what it is, I can even share with another that I am angry. However, I might only understand that I’m angry because my business partner didn’t include me on an important decision and it feels disrespectful. I want to protest that with anger. Under that, however, is a fear coming up for me that I might not be valuable to my business partner or viewed as not worthy of having a voice. I can share that with my business partner in order to open some dialogue that can help repair… and I can also do some truth seeking to challenge myself. For example, my faith study can help me to challenge those fear based statements, to grow in knowing who I am in Christ and that I am a valued human being, worthy of having a voice. So, what can help us move forward in a different way might come in working to challenge our fearful (or otherwise unhelpful) narratives in moments like that… on our own and possibly with the other person involved, if it is safe to do so.

  2. Eva on July 25, 2019 at 8:34 am

    Hi. From what I have read, learned and experienced there is a 4th step to processing emotion and that is action. Emotions also give us energy to act, to do something to change a situation. Some very basic and primitive ways of processing: fear by running, anger by fighting but those methods are often not appropriate or helpful. In today’s society a healthy way to process anger is by setting boundries. I think that this is a very important part of processing emotion that is often not mentioned, discussed or taught. Also, some emotions are signals that need to be overcome in order to move forward – when learning something new people are often afraid (the first few times I drove a car on the freeway, I actually shook with fear, but didn’t stop, didn’t run away from the situation and after gaining some experience my fear gradually went away and now I drive with no fear).

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