When Emotions Overwhelm You, Just Breathe

· November 6, 2017

Emotions are like an internal compass. They guide us and, most of the time, push us to take some sort of action (though not in every situation – fear, for example, can be paralyzing). So what happens when we let our emotions completely take over? The most likely outcome is that we overreact, which can affect our self-esteem and self-assurance.

Achieving emotional balance is a process that requires practice and training. Imagine having to ride a rollercoaster every day to feel motivated and free of emotional baggage. Emotional intensity might feel good in the moment, but the ups and downs can make you feel exhausted at the end of the day. This emotional roller coaster is also likely to make you feel disoriented and make you question your life plans.

“Consistently and consciously take control of your emotions and deliberately transform the experiences of your everyday life.”

Anthony Robbins

Why do your emotions overwhelm you?

Do you need to intensely express your emotions to feel alive? Emotional outbursts are often associated with drama or exaggeration, but that’s not always the case. You may need to intensely feel and express your emotions because that’s your way of showing how you feel, and/or you don’t know how to do it any other way.

emotions overwhelm 2

Emotional intensity is also common in highly-sensitive people who are empathetic and have the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. People who are greatly affected by everything might feel guilty or be very hard on themselves. It’s not easy to manage being overwhelmed by emotions all the time.

Emotions come and go in waves

All emotions are valid and necessary for your development. They all have some sort of adaptive function. There are no good or bad emotions, and there is no better or worse way to feel them. It’s important to allow yourself to feel every emotion, finding a way to make each one more manageable.


All emotions, no matter how intense they are, will pass if you let them go. Emotions are like waves that come and go, and it’s important not to let yourself be pulled along with the tide. Try to find the healthiest way to express your emotions so they don’t drown you.

“The ability to pause and not act on your first impulse has become a crucial lesson for daily life”.

Daniel Goleman

Breathing is the key to changing your emotions

Breath is the pillar that holds up all of our emotions. The way we breathe determines the intensity of our emotions. It can even determine what type of feelings prevail over others. For example, if you take short and shallow breaths, you can channel anxiety, discomfort, or anger. On the other hand, if you can pause your breathing and concentrate on exhaling more air than what you inhale through your nose, you will be calmer. 

emotions overwhelm woman

Anxiety, fear, and stress can make you feel short of breath or cause rapid and shallow breathing. Breathing slowly can help your body stay in a more relaxed state.

Learning to breathe when your emotions become overwhelming

If you want to learn to breathe through your intense emotions, first you have to do the following:

Identify physical sensations

Observe if you feel a lump in your throat, a knot in your stomach, or a tingling in your back…

Identify the basic emotion that is causing the physical sensation

We have four basic emotions that are behind any bodily sensation that we experience. Naming what is happening to you can help give your experience meaning.

Breathe into your emotion and express it

Allow yourself the space to feel your emotion at its full capacity. Don’t try to control your emotions. That can lead to emotional repression. By simply breathing, you are already dealing with your emotions in a different way.

If you feel irritation, cool off and let it go without hurting yourself

Instead of letting frustration build up, eventually exploding, and taking it out on others, let yourself cool off. Then you can find a better way to express what you feel.

If you need to vent so it doesn’t overwhelm you, there are ways to do it without harming yourself. Squeezing a pillow or a towel or crushing a plastic bottle while you think about what is making you mad is one way to channel your anger. The more concretely you can express your emotions, the better. It’s all about spending the physical energy that contains the emotion.

emotions overwhelm stress

A practical exercise to work with breath and emotions

Exhaling (slowly breathing out) is associated with relaxation. On the other hand, inhalation (breathing in) is associated with stress and anxiety. Learning to breathe calmly requires daily practice. We can divide this practice into five steps:

  • Breathe normally through your nose with your mouth closed
  • Exhale slowly through your nose with your mouth closed
  • As you exhale, silently and slowly repeat the word “calm” or “relaxed” (or any other word you find relaxing).
  • Slowly count to four and then inhale again.
  • Practice this exercise several times a day, taking 10 to 15 breaths each time.

The more you practice your breathing, the easier it will be to manage your emotions. You will be able to avoid feeling overwhelmed or overrun by your feelings. Emotional balance is directly related to learning to use your emotions to communicate with yourself and others in a healthy way.