• Some emotions are harder to handle than others, like anxiety, stress and sadness

  • Therapist John Lambie offers his techniques from mindfulness and CBT for managing challenging emotions

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

Negative emotions—like anxiety, sadness, and anger— are normal parts of being human and most people will experience them on a weekly, even a daily, basis. They are not bad in themselves but if they are too intense they are distressing and it is good to know some useful evidenced-based hacks for coping with them.

So, let’s jump in with seven ways to cope with negative emotions. You can think of these as a toolbox. If one doesn’t work in a particular situation, try another one. Note that these techniques will not necessarily be enough on their own for coping with deeper anxiety or depression—but they will be useful for everyday fluctuations in mood and emotion.

1. Talking

Straight in at number 1 is talking about your emotions! This may seem an obvious one, but many people still (wrongly) believe that talking about your emotions makes them worse. In fact, studies show that people who talk about their emotions after a stressful event, although they are more emotional in the short term than people who don’t talk about them, are less emotionally activated by the event 48 hours later than people who don’t talk about them [1].

Even just labelling your emotions with a word — “I’m sad now”— has been shown to reduce emotional arousal in some studies [2].

2. Slow breathing

This one is very simple and you can use it anywhere. Normally, when you have a negative emotion your sympathetic autonomic response is activated (this is the well-known fight or flight response which includes raised heart rate, faster breathing, and increased sweating).

You can put a “brake” on the fight or flight response by slowing down your breathing rate. Try breathing in to count of five and out to a count of five. This helps to activate the parasympathetic response in which you feel more calm.

3. Reappraising your thoughts

Anyone who has had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) will be familiar with this one. You start by looking at negative thoughts that are generating your emotions – e.g. “I can’t cope”, “she hates me”, “I’m a failure”, etc. Reappraisal means you look at the evidence for and against the truth of the thought, or you consider what you would say to a friend you had this thought.

For example, if you think “I am a failure” you write down any evidence for this, but also any evidence against it. You then come up with an alternative, more realistic thought: “I sometimes fail at things and I sometimes succeed”. There is good evidence that changing your thoughts can change your emotions [3].

4. Facing your fears (feel the fear and do it anyway)

A powerful technique, especially for anxiety (but also can work for depressed mood) is to face your fears, in a way that feels manageable to you. The more you repeat facing a fear the more the fear reduces [4].

Although full-blown exposure therapy would normally be carried out with a therapist, there are definitely versions of this that you can try in everyday life. For example, if you have presentation anxiety at work, you could ask three friends if you can give them each a presentation, so you repeat giving a presentation three times.

5. Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment, non-judgmentally. This means you don’t push negative thoughts and emotions away but equally you don’t get caught up in them. You see your thoughts as thoughts. For example—“there goes the thought ‘I’m lazy’”. You don’t automatically believe the thought, you just observe it.

Similarly, with emotions, you just observe them—“here’s my anxiety”. You can go a step further than just being non-judgmental and observe with kindness. “Hello anxiety, my little friend” (this phrase is from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh).

There is a detachment to mindfulness. You are not your emotion, you are observing your emotion. There is also acceptance in it: “my sadness is there, I don’t need to change it”. This stance does not remove the emotion, but it eases the suffering associated with it.

6. Self-compassion

We mentioned observing yourself with kindness—basically, this is self-compassion. You notice you are suffering (e.g. with anger, fear, jealousy, pain, sadness, etc) and say to yourself: “suffering is normal. It is part of the human condition. What I need now is a moment of kindness”. Imagine how you would be kind to a suffering friend or a pet and try to give yourself that compassion.

Don’t worry if you think your problems are not as bad as other people’s—suffering is not a competition! All humans suffer regularly.

You can use phrases in your mind (“It’s OK sweetheart”) or subtle actions like gently squeezing your arm as though giving yourself a slight hug (I do this on the bus and no one knows I am secretly sending compassion to myself!).

A soothing action (e.g. a parent soothing a baby) can down-regulate the fight or flight response, so self-compassion basically taps into an evolutionary calming system [5].

7. Problem solving

Finally, we come to an obvious technique that should not be forgotten, namely problem-solving. What we mean here is looking at ways to solve the problem that is causing the emotion.

Sometimes the causes of our emotions are biased negative thoughts—e.g. “she still hasn’t replied to my email, that means she hates me”. But, sometimes, actual negative events are causing our emotions.

What if you are being bullied at work, or your boss has actually said you are being made redundant? Here, it pays to write down the problem and brainstorm possible solutions and rate how effective you think they will be. Try one out and see if it helps with the problem. If it doesn’t work, try the next one on the list, and so on.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about seven ways to cope with negative emotions. I can honestly say that I use all of the techniques regularly (sometimes several of them in one day!) and if one doesn’t work I try another one. These techniques will not get rid of your negative emotions – and they are not meant to, we need our emotions—but they can help ease the suffering associated with negative emotions, a little bit.

Dr John Lambie is a verified Welldoing CBT therapist in Cambridge and online

Further reading

What's the difference between fear and anxiety?

When your thoughts and mood spiral: try this chain analysis technique

What is your anger telling you about yourself?

Why a compassionate approach to living with anxiety is key

Why do some people get more stressed than others?


[1] Mendolia, M., & Kleck, R. E. (1993). Effects of talking about a stressful event on arousal: Does what we talk about make a difference?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 283.

[2] Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116-124.

[3] Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent-and response-focused emotion regulation: divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 224-237.

[4] Sloan, T., & Telch, M. J. (2002). The effects of safety-seeking behavior and guided threat reappraisal on fear reduction during exposure: An experimental investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(3), 235-251.

[5] Gilbert, P. (2009). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15(3), 199-208.