About difficult emotions and worry

In this module we describe briefly how we humans are affected by our emotions and by worry, and why we have these experiences. The module also contains scientifically based tips on how to handle difficult emotions and worry.

Difficult feelings
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Background: difficult emotions and worry

Being a student means that working hard for several years to achieve a goal that reaches far into the future. Striving towards a long-term goal can be motivating, but it can also feel difficult and uncertain, and stir up a lot of thoughts and feelings. During your studies you might feel both hopeful and worried, motivated and afraid of failure. You might have doubts that you will make it, worries about money and thoughts about whether you have chosen the right education. Having strong feelings about your study situation and ruminating a lot about it is completely normal. However, difficult feelings and worry can also have a negative impact on you. Below, you can therefore read more about:

  • Why do we have emotions?
  • Common emotions
  • Coping with difficult emotions
  • Worrying about the future
  • Coping with worry

Why do we have emotions?

Introduction: emotions

Emotions are important to us humans. Through our emotional reactions we understand the world around us, each other, and ourselves. However, the emotions can sometimes hurt and be perceived as difficult to handle. So, what are emotions really and why are they so important to us humans? Emotions are reactions to important events around or inside of us and they affect our entire bodily system. Emotions provide us with information! Bodily posture, facial expressions, voices, thoughts and feelings as well as the brain's biochemistry are affected during an emotional reaction (Sahlin & Malmquist, 2018). Emotions also affect our impulses to act - we want to do different things depending on what we feel.

Our emotions help us act quickly. If we get scared when a car speeds towards us full speed we don't need to think long, we instantly know that we need to act to avoid danger. Emotions provide us with information and help us communicate with others through our emotional expressions. Thus, emotions serve several important functions for us. The better we can understand and identify the feelings that we have, the easier it will become for us to navigate our internal emotions and our social life.


Difficult feelings
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Common emotions

Introduction: emotions

Emotions have been studied and described in different ways in scientific the literature (e.g. Ekman 1992, Russell 1980, Feldman Barrett 2018) and they can be categorised in different ways, but the information that normal emotions provide us with and that many people can recognise are described here.

Fear signals to us that we are faced with a threat, either physically or mentally. The fear reaction helps to focus our attention on that threat and makes us prepared to escape it. To avoid the threat, we might want to escape the situation, but we may also react by "freezing" and doing nothing, in other words almost play dead.

Anger is something we feel when we face a threat or an obstacle when we attempt to achieve something that is important to us. When we are angry, we might feel tense, our jaws may clench and the muscles in our body tense up. The anger might be perceived a very powerful force that makes us want to act quickly and strongly.

Sadness is what we feel when we lose something or someone that was important to us, or when something we wished for did not happen (can be called disappointment). When we feel sad and disappointed, we may feel heavy and tired and have no desire to do anything, our facial expressions decrease and we lower our gaze.

Disgust and loathing. Disgust signals that something is poisonous or harmful to be near, eat or touch. When we feel disgust it invokes strong physiological reactions in us, for example nausea and a strong resistance to approach whatever has awoken this feeling in us. Loathing is similar to disgust but does perhaps not evoke such a strong bodily reaction and is awakened when we face people or situations that we dislike very much.

Guilt and shame are social emotions and are often awakened in relation to other people. Guilt signals to us that we have done something wrong and acted against our own values. Shame instead signals to us that have done something against the norms of our social group, that we have acted in a way that puts us at risk of being judged by others. Guilt and shame can lead to highly negative and critical thoughts about ourselves, and might make us want to distance ourselves or hide what we have done from other people.

Happiness and other positive emotions such as love, curiosity and satisfaction signals to us that something is pleasant and what we want more of it. These emotions motivate us to involve ourselves with the outside world and encourage creativity and exploration. These emotions can make it easier to try new things and activities.

These are all normal emotional reactions, but it is important to point out that emotions are complex. Modern research shows that people most often experience several emotions at the same time, and that we are all different in terms of how strongly and for how long we experience emotional reactions (Larsen, McGraw & Cacioppo, 2001, Hamann & Canli, 2004).


Manage feelings
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Coping with difficult emotions

Introduction: Coping with difficult emotions

Emotions consist of a combination of inherent and learnt reactions and are also affected by behaviours and thoughts. We cannot "switch off" our emotions, but we can use different ways to affect them and learn how to handle them in ways that turn our emotions into resources rather than obstacles.

Becoming more aware of our feelings is an important step towards learning to understand the information our feelings are trying to convey to us and to choose how we want to act on them, and the earlier we notice our feelings and are able to understand them, the easier it gets to choose how to act on them.

Sometimes our emotions can be difficult to handle, and we can experience that anger, sadness or shame takes over. It may feel very unpleasant and the feeling itself sometimes scares us. In many cases however, difficult feelings pass on their own if we don't resist them so much. Below we describe three things that you can try when dealing with difficult emotions, if you feel like you gets stuck in them.


Tips: Coping with difficult emotions

Notice emotions. Stop for a second and try to notice what you are feeling at this moment. Can you identify what you are feeling? Is the feeling strong or weak? How does your body feel? What do you think the feeling is trying to tell you about the situation you are in?

Validate the feeling. To validate the feeling means to take on the perspective that all feelings, even the painful ones, are understandable and reasonable. We often get angry at ourselves or fight against difficult emotions, but there is a reason for why we feel the way we do. For example, telling yourself that it is understandable to be nervous before an exam, or that it is reasonable to be sad when you have experienced a loss, can make the feeling easier to live with, even when the feeling in itself is painful.

Decrease vulnerability. By taking care of yourself you make it easier to handle difficult emotions. You don't have to live a "perfect life" in terms of sleep, exercise, or diet, but you can take small steps to help your psychological and biological system to cope with what is happening in your life (Sahlin & Malmquist, 2018). You can use the advice on this page to take care of yourself and decrease your vulnerability.


Do you need more help?

Are you experiencing highly difficult emotions that are not passing with time? You may feel depressed or very anxious and notice that it is having a negative effect on your life. In this case, it might be wise to seek treatment. You can for example contact your local healthcare clinic.

References: Emotions

Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion. 6(3-4), 169-200.

Feldman-Barrett, L (2018). Så skapas känslor. Hjärnans hemliga liv. Natur & Kultur.

Hamann, S. & Canli, T. (2004). Individual differences in emotion processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14, 233–238.

Larsen, J. T., McGraw, A. P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2001). Can people feel happy and sad at the same time? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 684-696.

Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(6), 1161–1178.

Sahlin, H., & Malmquist, E. (2018). Känslor som kraft eller hinder: En handbok i känsloreglering: Natur & Kultur.

Worry about the future
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Worrying about the future

Introduction: worry

Thinking is a mental process that is going on in our heads more or less automatically all the time. Our thoughts can be perceived as words, images and/or sounds. Sometimes we choose to focus our thoughts on something specific but most often the thoughts come at their own will without us controlling them. Some thoughts are pleasant while others might be difficult.

We humans have our ability to have thoughts for better or for worse. Since we might ponder the future, we might also worry about what could happen in the future. Thoughts that involve possible dangers and threats that could occur in the future can be called worrying thoughts. Worry can sometimes help us predict dangers before they become a reality (Sweeny & Dooley, 2017) and in situations where there is high degree of uncertainty it is common to start worrying to gain a sense of control over the situation (Dugas et al., 2001). However, the worry can also become very difficult, and even make us anxious or depressed, if we get caught up in worrying and unable to move past it.


Coping with worry

Tips: Steps to cope with worry

If you notice that you often worry and that it feels hard to stop the worry, you can try to work actively on your worry in order to make it easier to cope with (Wahlund et al., 2020).

Keep a worry journal. Get to know your worry better. Write down when and where you worry and what you worry is about. Do you feel that the worry is helpful (e.g., helps to come up with a solution to a problem) or unhelpful (e.g., only revolves around the same thing over and over again without you being able to move on)?

Deal with problems. Sometimes the worry is a signal that a problem needs to be solved. If you notice in your worry journal that you often worry about practical issues, work on dealing with those issues instead of just worrying about them. Take some time out each day to actively solve problems!

Decrease unhelpful controls. Many who worry a lot are trying to control what feels frightening, but that actually just makes the worry worse in the long run. Spending a lot of time googling things that make you worry or asking others how the thing you worry about is going to work out in the future usually only helps temporarily. If you notice that you are spending a lot of time and energy on trying to control things that you worry about, try to reduce unhelpful controls and see what happens to your worry.

Student Wellbeing Centre

Student Wellbeing Centre is here for you during your study period for advice and support. We also offer webinars that cover several of these areas, which you are welcome to sign up for.

References: Worry

Dugas, M. J., Gosselin, P., & Ladouceur, R. (2001). Intolerance of uncertainty and worry: Investigating specificity in a nonclinical sample. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 25(5), 551-558.

Sweeny, K., & Dooley, M. D. (2017). The surprising upsides of worry. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(4). doi:10.1111/spc3.12311

Wahlund, T., Mataix-Cols, D., Olofsdotter Lauri, K., de Schipper, E., Ljotsson, B., Aspvall, K., & Andersson, E. (2020). Brief Online Cognitive Behavioural Intervention for Dysfunctional Worry Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Psychother Psychosom, 1-9. doi:10.1159/000512843

Content reviewer:
Emma Rydberg