4 Reasons Your Emotions Feel Out of Control

If you’ve ever felt like your emotions were “too intense” or “out of control” you’re not alone. Many people experience a level of emotional intensity that seems excessive or disproportionate.

But the reason emotions feel so out of control often has less to do with your emotions themselves and more to do with habits that influence them. Which means…

If you want to feel more in control of your emotions, take control of the habits that govern them.

Learn to identify these habits, work to reduce them, and you will discover that your emotions are less out-of-control than they once were.


1. Believing your thoughts unconditionally

It’s a funny thing that we tend to be so trusting of our own thoughts.

Perhaps because our culture tends to glorify our capacity for thinking and problem-solving, we make the mistake of assuming our thoughts are always true and helpful.

This is especially the case when it comes to thoughts about ourselves or how we feel:

  • After a coworker makes a rude comment about you during a meeting, the first thought that pops into mind is “Great, now everyone thinks I’m an idiot…”
  • As you drive to your daughter’s soccer game, the thought pops into mind that with a single movement you could swerve off the side of the road and your whole family would die. Then you immediately think to yourself, “Oh my God, what’s wrong with me?” The assumption being that your thought about swerving off the road was somehow true or meaningful.

But here’s the thing:

Just because you have a thought says nothing about how true, or meaningful, or helpful it is.

Many people’s emotions quickly start to feel out of control because they insist that everything in their mind is meaningful. As a result, they end up thinking endlessly about every little thought, feeling, mood, desire, memory, and emotion that pops into consciousness.

But for all its wonders, the human mind produces a lot of junk too.

Often a particular thought is just random mental noise. But if you insist on telling yourself a story about it and what it may or may not mean, you’re inviting in wave after wave of emotion—and often not the fun kind.

If you want to feel more in control of your emotions, practice being skeptical of your own thoughts.

If a thought seems obviously absurd or ridiculous, remind yourself that it could just be random noise—as meaningless and unworthy of your attention as an unexpected gust of wind.

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” ― Marcus Aurelius

2. Relying on other people for comfort

Nothing could be more natural than to go to other people for comfort when you’re upset or in distress.

In fact, this is how most of us learn to deal with life’s difficulties—we have a supportive parent or caregiver in our life who is empathetic and comforting when we’re upset. The way they handle our painful emotions becomes a model for how we can deal with them as we mature.

Unfortunately, the optimal maturation process sometimes goes awry.

For all sorts of reasons, learning to self-soothe and effectively manage our own emotional struggles can get disrupted:

  • Some people, for example, have early traumatic events in their lives that sabotage this process of learning to self-soothe.
  • For others, they might learn at a young age that they can get relief faster and more easily by simply going to other people, and as a result, their capacity to self-soothe becomes underdeveloped as they age.

In any case, the core problem is this:

While it’s good to have other people as a source of comfort, it’s risky to rely on them.

When other people become your sole means of managing your emotional distress, it erodes your self-confidence.

This means difficult emotions will be themselves painful. But more than that, you’ll also have the fear of being inadequate to handle them yourself, which effectively multiplies the intensity of every painful emotion you experience. Being afraid of feeling sad, for example, will only make you feel worse.

The solution is to practice managing difficult feelings on your own even if you could get relief and comfort from someone else. Ideally, you would start with small things and gradually work your way up.

But regardless, you must strengthen your capacity to comfort yourself.

Your emotions will always feel out of control until you develop some confidence in your own ability to manage them well.

“As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

3. Being judgmental of your own emotions

Just because your emotions feel bad doesn’t mean they are bad.

Unfortunately, most of us are raised to believe that this is true. We grow up being taught that painful emotions are problems—like germs we need to be rid off or problems that need to be solved:

  • That we’re weak if we feel sad and discouraged.
  • That we’re broken or malfunctioning if we get anxious and worry “too much.”
  • That we’re sinful or morally deficient if we feel angry toward people.

But there’s the thing:

Emotions aren’t good or bad any more than rain or snow is good or bad.

You may not like certain emotions. Some may be uncomfortable or painful. Some may make it hard to do certain things. But to place a value judgment on an emotion doesn’t make any sense.

And the reason? Because you can’t control your emotions. Not directly, anyway.

You can’t just decide to turn up your happiness meter any more than you can decide to turn down your anxiety dial.

Emotions don’t work that way!

But aside from not being realistic, there’s another problem with judging yourself for how you feel:

  • When you criticize yourself for feeling anxious, will you end up feeling guilty for feeling anxious.
  • When you worry about feeling sad, you will end up feeling anxious about feeling sad.
  • When you put yourself down for feeling angry, you will end up feeling angry about being angry!

When you get judgmental about your emotions, you only compound their intensity and duration.

Think about this: No one goes to jail for feeling really angry. You only get sent to jail for acting aggressively.

As a society, we don’t judge people by their emotions, only their actions.

If you want to start feeling less emotionally volatile, stop criticizing yourself for the way you feel.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campell

4. Not taking care of your body

Ever since Descarte (or maybe Plato), we’ve been fixated on the idea that it’s brain and body, or worse, brain vs body. Think of the common sayings “mind over matter” or “it’s all in your head.”

Of course, this is ridiculous…

Your brain is part of your body. And your mind doesn’t work all that well without a functioning body.

Of course, this is obvious in the extreme case—deprive the brain of oxygen via a heart attack or stroke and your mind dies along with the rest of your body. But it’s also true on a much smaller scale….

  • Ever tried to take a test or do a job interview on 3 hours of sleep?
  • Ever tried to focus or concentrate when you’re in pain?
  • Ever been hungover?

The point is:

How we treat our bodies has a profound effect on how we feel emotionally.

Many people struggle with feeling out-of-control or volatile emotionally in large part because they’re not taking care of their bodies, especially the big three aspects of our physical health:

  1. Diet
  2. Exercise
  3. Sleep

I mean think about:

How could you expect to feel good emotionally if you eat like garbage, never exercise, and chronically deprive yourself of quality sleep?

Furthermore, most techniques and strategies for improving your moods and emotional wellbeing work a lot better if you have a strong foundation of physical health.

Ever seen a toddler have a complete meltdown at 5:00 pm—going from cheerful and happy to distraught and angry in 2 seconds flat?

Well, we adults aren’t actually that much different. It’s harder to manage difficult emotions when we’re exhausted and tired!

Take good care of your body and your emotions will usually take care of themselves.

If you want to feel more in control of your moods and emotions, start by taking control of your body—what you eat, how much you move, and how well you sleep.

“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend.” ― Lao Tzu


All You Need to Know

To feel more in control of your emotions, take control of the habits that influence them. In particular, if you can identify and reduce these bad habits in your life, your emotions will steadily become more manageable.

Don’t believe your thoughts unconditionally.

Stop relying on other people for comfort.

Don’t be judgmental of your emotions.

Take care of your body.

25 Comments

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Your article is so helpful! For some reason over the past few days I feel sad,irritated and at the end of the day I feel guilt for my emotions. Judging our own emotions is really not healthy.

Yeah, it’s tough but if you can avoid judging them it gets easier to understand them. And the more you understand them, the easier it is to work through them.

Thank you Nick for another excellent article. Timing is perfect, funny how that always seems to be the case. Immensely helpful!

Nick, so much great advice in an easily understandable manner. I love getting the next article. Thank you very much.

I am just curious about why you chose negative words instead of more positive statements. I loved what you had to say, but for my own mental framework, reworked your principles in positive statements – i.e. I can accept my thoughts and also have the ability to evaluate them on whether or not they are truth or distortion, I can find my own internal counsel and inner resources, I am an emotional being and my emotions are valid, my body and mind are interconnected and caring for myself physically creates mental and emotional stability.

It’s a good point Jen. And I think that’s actually a great exercise to reframe them in more positive forms.

I often do it because a lot of writing/advice in this area is about what we should be doing more of, and so for a lot of people it’s refreshingly useful to have things put in terms of what you can not do so much of.

I couldn’t agree more, Nick. While I do appreciate a positive approach to feedback and advice, I found your article to be refreshingly simple, concise and direct, and just what I needed at the moment. Thank you!

Excellent article, I had to learn at a young age that I can only depend on myself to be healthy physically & mentally – in this regard, I’m glad to learn it was a good thing. I learned something new – “don’t be judgemental of your emotions”. As always you put it all in perspective so clearly. thank you

Thank you for this article. I have found that, learning to self-soothe, or rely on oneself as you wrote, helps me with the three other recommendations. The connection of being in habit with that and building self-confidence is a wonderful thing to consider, and the importance of building this skill up.

Thank you for the thoughtful article.

My husband has ADHD and bi-polar depression. We’ve slogged through A LOT of articles and advise and I can say with all honesty this is one of the most helpful, really a keeper! Well done! Thank you.

Your article helped me realize how much I rely on other people to comfort me when I am sad or lonely. I need to start comforting myself. Thank you!

4. Taking care of your body. I’ve noticed that being hydrated, that is, drinking enough water is mandatory. When emotions get high and hard to control, A GLASS OF WATER will often ground me back to center.
Thanks for your regular articles- you write well, and provide meaningful insight. Thank you for sharing.

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