Difficult and intense emotions can certainly feel like a bonfire raging in our mind and body. Painful emotions like anger, shame, or fear can seem like they will consume us or be impossible to control. It can be difficult to know what to do when these emotions come up, and they can make us feel like our safety or wellbeing is at risk.
In addition to being a vivid description of how intense emotions feel, the comparison of our emotions to a raging bonfire can be a helpful metaphor for understanding how to tolerate overwhelming and painful feelings. Emotions are similar to flames of a fire in that the intensity will decrease over time if no more fuel is added. Just like tending a bonfire, we can take actions that either fuel our feelings or let them safely burn out (Resick et al., 2017).
Thoughts and actions are the two main sources of fuel for an emotional bonfire. How we think about a situation and our behaviors have a direct relationship to how we feel. Negative, unrealistic, or distorted thoughts are often the biggest sources of fuel for painful negative feelings. Thoughts such as “I am a failure” or “This is all my fault” or focusing on the worst case scenarios are logs adding fuel to the emotional fire. Our actions can also act as logs being thrown on the fire. Isolating when we feel sad or lashing out when we are hurt does not soothe the underlying emotion but instead sustains these painful feelings. Instead of letting the emotion pass, these “thought logs” and “behavior logs” keep the fire raging.
How to Avoid Adding Fuel to the Fire
Challenging thoughts not based in fact is one way to take fuel away from the emotional fire (Resick et al., 2017). One way to do this is to question whether there is any evidence for the thought and whether our line of thinking is realistic. Let’s take the example of someone who made a mistake at work and responds to it by thinking “This is a disaster” and “I am a total failure who messes everything up.” Those are some powerful thought logs being added to the fire! Questioning the accuracy of those thoughts can help this person adapt a more realistic view of the situation and avoid fueling the emotional fire. Thoughts such as “One mistake does not make me a total failure” or “I can recover from this mistake” are both more accurate and allow for the emotional intensity to burn out.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when you feel your emotional fire ramping up:
- Is there any evidence to support the thoughts I am having?
- Would I talk to a friend or family member this way?
- Am I making any assumptions about what is happening or what others are thinking?
- Am I basing this thought on facts or feelings?
- Am I considering all the evidence?
Here are some questions to help identify more helpful, realistic, and kind thoughts:
- What would I tell a friend in this situation?
- What is the most likely outcome versus the worst case scenario?
- How would I cope if what I am worried about happens?
Sometimes recognizing that our thoughts are not facts is not enough to stop throwing logs on the emotional fire. In those moments, it can be helpful to practice observing our distressing thoughts rather than engaging with them to avoid tossing them onto the fire. “Dropping anchor” is a practice derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which can help increase awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings in order to respond mindfully to those experiences (Harris, 2009).
Danelle Rhoades, LCPC, psychotherapist and Clinical Operations Manager at Wildflower, writes about how to use this strategy when coping with overwhelming thoughts and feelings in her article How to Find Your Anchor in an Emotional Storm. The picture below provides an overview of how to use this tool.
Challenging or increasing awareness of thoughts can also help to avoid engaging in behaviors which fan the flames of an emotional fire. Negative, distorted, or unrealistic thoughts can lead us to act in ways that sustain or intensify difficult emotions. Shifting our thinking or taking space from those thoughts provides the opportunity to consider how we want to respond rather than acting from a place of hurt feelings. When considering what to do when overwhelmed with painful emotions, it can be helpful to ask ourselves whether an action would perpetuate or intensity difficult feelings and identify what is needed to let the emotions naturally run their course.
None of these outlined strategies are easy to do and take repetition and practice. Working with a therapist can both help increase awareness of what fuels your emotional fires and provide support in adapting new skills to tolerate the experience of letting emotional flames burn out. We cannot prevent every emotional bonfire from happening, but with practice, self compassion, and support we can learn how to sit with and move through challenging emotional experiences.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: A quick start guide to ACT basics and beyond. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Resick, P. A., Monson, C. M., & Chard, K. M. (2017). Cognitive processing therapy for PTSD: A comprehensive manual. The Guilford Press.