Tips to Face Difficult Emotions

Posted on Friday, January 17, 2020

Author: Melisa Arias-Valenzuela, Doctoral Associate at the Ottawa River Psychology Group

A girl bitting a pencil in front of a computer

Let’s be honest, stress and university go hand in hand. During your time here, you will probably encounter some difficult emotions. In order to live the best post-secondary experience, you should deal with these things head-on! To help you stay on top of your game, here are step by step guide to managing those emotions.

Step 1: Know how you’re feeling

American psychologist Marsha M. Linehan explains it brilliantly; knowing your feelings, require some reflective work:

  • Stop and get curious about your experience, without judgement. Notice what the emotion feels like in your body (am I hungry or hangry?).
  • Name to your emotion (e.g., “this is sadness”).
  • Tell yourself that you are not your emotions and that these are temporary internal experiences.

Step 2: Pay attention to how you feel

Emotions contain valuable information- if we listen. Fear, for instance, is protecting us from immediate dangers and is prompted by events perceived as threat (e.g., performing in front of others).

When facing a difficult emotion, ask yourself these useful questions as proposed by Professor Gilbert:

  • How does it make sense that I am experiencing this emotion?
  • What is this emotion trying to tell me?
  • What is my emotion trying to motivate me to do?

Step 3: Face your emotions

Once you are aware and understand your emotions, it’s time to start thinking about how to address it in the most useful way… But how to do that?


As mentioned in “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy“ values help deciding, doing action and much more.

According to Harris, some questions to identify values include:

  • What matters most in the “big picture”? (What do I want my life to be like after school?)
  • What do I want to stand for?
  • How do I want to enhance or enrich my relationships
  • How would I like to “grow” while I address this issue or problem?

Self-compassion involves responding to any difficult emotions kindly rather than with criticism and shame. Making mistakes and feeling stressed is part of the student experience, tell yourself that all the people who have been in your shoes have felt what you’re feeling at some point, no need to make yourself feel bad; you’re not alone!

Some questions to cultivate self-compassion include:

  • What would be most useful in helping me work through this rough experience? (I got a bad grade, what do I need to work on for the next exam?)
  • How can I support myself in making difficult choices?
  • What would I say to someone I deeply care about who was struggling in the same way I am? (My friend is having a really hard time with studying for this exam, how can I cheer them up…Timbits?)

Step 4: Getting help is OK

People at the University are here to help you, use them!

Sometimes we face challenges that we are simply not equipped to deal with alone—for reasons that are not our fault—and we may need extra help.

Visit uOttawa's Counselling Services website for more information on available resources for you. There, you'll find Therapy Assistance Online (TAO), details on the walk-in counselling clinic, the portal to book a single session appointment with a counsellor, and information on drop-in wellness groups

A picture of Melisa Arias-Valenzuela

Interested in learning more? Check out the workshop Melisa will be leading: “Working with Self-Criticism: The Power of Compassion” as part of Wellness Week. Join her at 10 a.m. in 90U 152 on January 24, 2020.

About Melisa

Melisa Arias-Valenzuela is a doctoral candidate (Ph.D-Psy.D) at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a University of Ottawa alumni. She is a doctoral associate at the Ottawa River Psychology Group and she practices assessments and psychotherapy with people struggling with eating disorders and body-image related difficulties, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders as well as low-self-esteem, relational and adjustment difficulties.

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