Managing emotions

Emotions are part of our everyday life.  We are all born with a capacity to experience and express a wide range of emotions. The below information is designed to assist in better understanding and managing emotions and living an emotionally engaged life.    

In presenting the information below, it is recognised that in our culture gender can influence how we relate and respond to emotions and that experiences of childhood sexual abuse can produce additional challenges.    

We all benefit from:  

  • Developing our emotional literacy  
  • Understanding how gender and abuse can impact our emotional responses 
  • Enhancing skills in emotional regulation and ability to respond to distress 
  • Expanding our emotional vocabulary 
  • Identifying patterns in relation to how we each experience and respond to emotions 
  • Developing a reservoir of emotional experiences that we can draw upon. 
  • Living an emotionally engaged life.   

Developing emotional literacy 

In seeking to enhance our understanding and awareness of emotions, it is useful to note: 

  • An emotion is a physiological response to a stimuli, interaction, event, thought, context which may be visible or invisible.  
  • Some emotions are not easily identified 
  • Emotions are not discrete, sometimes you can feel a range of emotions at the same time.  
  • What we label as an emotion influences how we experience the emotion and how we respond. 
  • Sometimes you can feel a rush of ‘competing’ emotions: for example if you are about to do a bungee jump you might be feeling both intense fear and incredible excitement. 
  • Going in search of what you are ‘really feeling’ or identifying the ‘core feeling’ can limit, rather than expand options.  
  • Emotions are not facts. (Men who have experienced emotional grooming and manipulation as part of the abuse, know this only too well.) 
  • There are no right or wrong feelings/emotions.  While some feelings are uncomfortable and difficult, this does not make the emotion/feeling wrong. 
  • Emotions may be felt with differing degrees of intensity, sometimes overwhelming us. 
  • Some emotions, like shame, can be particularly challenging to deal with and can weigh heavily on survivors – when the person who should be carrying shame is the person who abused a child. 
  • People’s responses to emotions are different and can change overtime.  What is difficult for one man may be ok for another and what is difficult in one context may not be in another. 
  • Emotions can trigger other emotions and memories of abuse. 
  • “Good” or “okay” are not feelings, they are judgements or evaluations of feeling states.   
  • Feeling and expressing a range of emotions is part of living a rich, full and balanced life. 
  • Many men report feeling a numbness.    

Men and emotions 

“In Western culture, men are taught to be the tough ones: They’re not to cry, they’re supposed to have the answers, be the providers, and above all it’s not okay to show emotion…” 

Participant 274, Easton, Saltzman & Willis, 2013

Gender expectations shape both men and women’s lives, including how we recognise, understand, express, experience and manage emotions.  In our culture: 

  • Being in control, containing and repressing emotional expression is associated with ‘being a man’.   Typically, by 5 or 6yrs old, boys will have been taught that ‘Big boys don’t cry’. 
  • Men are conditioned to limit expressions of vulnerability, fear, pain and emotional distress in particular. 
  • If a man is struggling with managing emotions, it can lead to him judging himself as being ‘less of a man’: The expectation is that ‘Real men are rational, logical and always in control.’ 
  • Women generally acknowledge and express feelings such as fear, or sadness more directly, but are taught to dampen certain feelings such as anger and rage. 
  • Men’s efforts to be strong and stoic can lead them to suppress, deny, avoid or numb from emotions: negatively impacting their health.  It can also produce a pressure cooker effect, where the more we try to control and keep a lid on emotions, the more we can feel overwhelmed and out of control.   
  • Men can see an emotion as a problem to be controlled and solved. 
  • Men’s capacity to contain emotional responses can be an asset in some instances, supporting their ability to manage distress and assisting us to remain calm at times of high stress or in an emergency. 
  • Stuffing down and compartmentalising can be valuable skills to have. Pragmatic coping, adopting the ‘whatever it takes’ approach to getting through adversity, can support resilience.   
  • All people possess a capacity to expand their emotional vocabulary throughout their life.   
  • Many men already live expansive, emotionally rich and engaged lives. 

Before focussing on some skills to managing emotions, we acknowledge that men who have experienced sexual abuse, can experience some additional challenges. 

Additional challenges facing men who have experienced child sexual abuse 

Women appear to be more aware of the names of things. Such as, I’m feeling depressed, or I’ve been having a real struggle for the past couple of weeks and this is the circumstance. I don’t know what half of that stuff is called… Boys are not brought up to say, I mean I was never brought up and told, “You need to be more sensitive to your brother’s needs.” No, I was told things like, “Kick his ass.” 

Emotions can amplify men’s distress 

Emotions associated and triggered by sexual abuse can be intensely distressing and difficult to manage. Common emotional responses to abuse like: ‘fear, helplessness, grief, panic, weakness, vulnerability, confusion, emptiness, anxiety and dread’, are disempowering and do not fit with expectations of how a man is meant to be/act in the world and can therefore amplify distress. 

Concern about ‘opening the can of worms’ 

Some men who have experienced sexual abuse identify not disclosing or talking about abuse because of a concern that if they ‘open the can of worms’, they will fall apart and be unable to contain the flood of emotions, and will never be able to put the lid back on.  

Emotions ‘coming out of nowhere’ 

Some of the most troubling memories and emotions men who have survived abuse confront are those that involve body sensations or emotions. This happens when the cognitive elements of memory (facts, time, place, what happened), things that help make sense of the emotion, are absent. Men talk of feelings just coming ‘out of the blue’, where they have no idea what triggered the emotional response. At these times, men can start to worry that they are ‘losing it’ or falling apart ’. 

Emotional detachment 

Another reaction to sexual abuse that can occur at the time, and can flow on throughout men’s lives, is the experience of disassociating and detaching from emotions by ‘checking out’ or ‘going numb’.  This ‘freeze’ response, part of a ‘fight, flight, freeze’ autonomic response to trauma, is a valuable survival strategy that can re-appear at times of intense stress.  Men report struggling with freezing because it is not what men are meant to do and because of the emotional confusion it produces. 

Phoenix Australia has put together this short video to explain the ‘Fight Flight Freeze’ trauma response. 

Impacts of emotional expression 

Some men identify that expressing emotional distress and crying when talking about what happened, has them worrying that others will judge them negatively, at a time when they would most benefit most from empathy and compassion. 

Emotional regulation 

Developing emotional awareness and an ability to regulate our emotional responses are core life skills.   If we possess skills that assist us in calming our nervous system and managing our emotional responses, we are better able to deal with distressing and stressful situations when they inevitably do appear.  Skills in emotional regulation increase our ability to consider and choose our responses, rather than finding ourselves ‘just reacting’. 

Emotions are experienced in our bodies 

An emotion is felt and physically experienced in our bodies.  We experience different emotions, to differing degrees of intensity in different areas of our bodies.  There is sometimes an overlap, with respect to where and the degree of intensity we feel some emotion (which can add to our difficulty in identifying what we are feeling, our emotional confusion and distress). While emotions are not always visible to the human eye, their presence is felt in our bodies.  This physiological aspect of emotions can be seen on an infrared body scan.

Intense emotions 

Some emotional responses can be so intense that they overwhelm us and our ability to think clearly and respond appropriately.  There is a temptation when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed to try and think ourselves through and out of a difficulty.  It can be helpful however, to initially focus on calming our nervous system.  If we grade an emotional intensity from 1-10, the higher the intensity, the more we emphasise calming our nervous system.  

Safety is a priority 

In seeking to increase awareness and better manage emotions, physical and psychological safety is always a priority.  It is difficult to contain and calm your emotions when you are in an unsafe environment.  If you are aware that you are feeling unsafe, a priority is to remove yourself from the current situation as soon as possible.   On occasions, you may benefit from physically taking some ‘time out’ to obtain breathing space.   

Calming our nervous system  

Once you are in safer place, it is helpful to act to calm your nervous system.  One of the quickest ways to physically calm ourselves is to take a few deep breaths.  The more oxygen we have in our system the better able we are to think and the better able we are to act and remove ourselves if we need to.    

A useful focussed breathing exercise is the 3,4,5 Breath Exercise:

  • Breathe in for the count of 3
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4
  • Breathe out for a count of 5
  • Repeat…

We encourage you to practice the 3,4,5 Breath and become familiar with other breath focussed exercises, so that you can put them to use when you feel emotions rising.   

Anchoring yourself with grounding exercises 

If you find yourself being swept along by emotions and racing thoughts, it is useful to anchor, calm and settle yourself through grounding exercises.  We encourage you to identify what grounding exercises work best for you:  

  • splashing cold water on your face,  
  • standing up and stamping your feet,  
  • going outside into nature,  
  • listening to your own ‘calming’ playlist, 
  • making and tasting a drink of tea or coffee 

If you are feeling disconnected in the present, you might use the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to focus your attention by naming: 

  • 5 things you can see 
  • 4 things you can touch 
  • 3 things you can hear 
  • 2 things you can smell 
  • 1 thing you can taste. 

For more suggestions, check out our page on grounding exercises.    

Cultivate an observing, mindful approach  

Another useful skill you might want to develop and put into practice, is to adopt an observing approach.  Identify and become familiar with a range of mindfulness exercises.  Take time to check out our range of mindfulness exercises that can support you to ground yourself and to notice and observe your: 

  • Breath
  • Physical comfort 
  • Emotions 
  • Thoughts  

Mindfulness exercises can help us gain some distance from emotions, where we can stand back and become aware of and observe what is going on without becoming overwhelmed.  

By adopting an observing approach, we can begin to see an emotion for what it is, an emotion.   

While emotions can be intense at times, we do not need to act on an emotion.   

We can learn to sit with an emotion, to breathe and choose how we respond.  

Purposefully, engaging and sitting with an uncomfortable emotion and taking time to explore its history and how it operates, can reduce its purchase and impact on our lives. 

An emotion is not who we are, it is something we feel at a particular time.   

Increasing our emotional vocabulary and awareness, is key to living a more emotionally balanced and engaged life.   

Emotions are influenced by our thoughts 

What we say to ourselves when we are feeling emotionally heightened and overwhelmed matters.  We can all become caught up with negative thoughts and critical self-talk.  As well as physically calming ourselves, it is useful for us to become aware of and distance ourselves from unhelpful thoughts and patterns of thinking.   

Catastrophising, stewing and over-generalising are unhelpful patterns of thinking that can capture our attention and increase our emotional distress.  We might also want to develop an awareness of our expectations, for how we are interpreting and thinking about our own and others actions and how these might be amplifying or might decrease our emotional responses.  

Developing an ability to recognise and disengage from unhelpful patterns of thinking assists us in containing and managing emotions.  Check out our page on unhelpful thinking patterns. 

Encourage yourself and recognise your ability to manage distress 

We all benefit from encouragement and support to help us through tough times.  When we are experiencing intense, distressing emotions, we benefit from positive encouragement.  Now is not the time for us to drag up and spend time with past mistakes or hurts: Positive encouragement and self-compassion will better assist in containing our emotional response.   

Recognise your skills in managing emotional distress. Many men who have experienced abuse have been confronted by distressing emotions and thoughts for many years.  Recognise that you have the ability to manage intense feelings and push through at difficult times.  Commit yourself to enhancing your awareness and skills. 

Actively seek out and engage in rich and rewarding emotional experiences 

We all benefit from developing a bank of emotional memories connected with happiness, fun, personal connection, closeness, strength, and resilience that we can draw upon when we are feeling unsettled or overwhelmed.   

If we are starting to feel overwhelmed and distressed, we might call forth these positive memories and feelings to calm and reassure ourself that these feelings are not permanent and will pass.  

You might want to check out this useful Phoenix Australia video on ‘Managing Emotions Tips’ 

Emotionally engaged living  

Start to increase your emotional vocabulary 

‘I am so glad for these professionals I have now, because they have really challenged me to learn not everything’s called “anger.” Some things are called “frustration,” some things are called “annoying”… I mean you’re not always mad. So for me being a man, I didn’t know that I was, like, pissed off. There was rage and there was anger. Then there were other feelings you didn’t talk about like intimacy, love, that mushy stuff.” [1] 

Learning about emotions is not all about control and regulation: it involves expanding our emotional vocabulary in order to live a more emotionally engaged life.  If we only have a limited number of words available, this can get in the way of identifying what is going on for us.  It can lead to emotional funnelling, where we seek to identify and express all of our experiences within a limited vocabulary (sad, happy, angry, disgusted, surprised, fearful).  

Like learning any language, a good vocabulary helps us to identify and better communicate what we are feeling. Not having the words to describe how you are feeling can be isolating, can produce confusion and frustration. It can also make conversations with partners, family and friends about struggles extra difficult. 

A useful tool that can assist us in expanding our emotional vocabulary is the Feeling Wheel designed by Gloria Willcox (1982).

Personal Stocktake 

When you have some quiet time and are in a space where you feel comfortable and safe, take a look at the Feeling Wheel.  It is worth familiarising yourself with the many different feelings on the wheel.  People typically, start from the inner sections and work outwards, noticing how emotions can cluster and be gathered around a particular theme.  

In setting yourself the task of expanding your emotional vocabulary, always prioritise your safety and wellbeing. 

If you are in a good space, you might take a moment to identify and document:  

  • What did you learn about expressing emotions when you were growing up? 
  • What emotions are you most familiar with? 
  • What emotions are you least familiar with? 
  • How do you calm and centre yourself when you are feeling strong emotions? 
  • What helps to ground you and supports your ability to manage distress? 

Identify how you experience different emotions 

Learning more about emotions and how they operate are another step towards living a more emotionally engaged life.  

It is useful for each of us to identify and learn what are the signs that a particular emotion is present for us.  Each of us is unique and will experience different emotions in different ways and in different parts of our bodies.    

If it safe to do so, you might pause and take a moment: 

  • Identify and name what you are feeling at present? 
  • Where are you feeling this emotion in your body? 
  • Can you name the feeling?  
  • Is it one feeling or a number of different feelings? 
  • What emotion or number of emotions on the Feeling Wheel is closest to what you are feeling? 

Take time to identify patterns 

Emotions are an important part of being alive. It is useful to take time to identify patterns and learn more about emotions that we might struggle with, be unsure about and those emotions that we welcome and bring a positive sense of wellbeing into our lives.  

Some men have found it useful to adopt a semi-scientific approach to learning about their emotional experience through keeping a daily log or journal. 

The below log and accompanying reflective questions, are very much focussed on developing our awareness in the present, reviewing our full range of emotional experiences, identifying patterns and exploring our preferred ways of responding.   

The log is not specifically designed to manage or process triggers related to experiences of childhood trauma.  In taking time to complete or review the log, please always prioritise your wellbeing. 

Emotions Log  Notes/Observations 
Physiological signs:  What are/were the signs, sensations that you are/were experiencing? Where in your body did you experience this emotion? What caught your attention?   
Identified Feeling/s;  What emotion/s do/did you identify? Name of the emotion that best fits?  What other emotions were around (Check the Feelings Wheel)?  
Intensity (0-10).  If you were to scale the intensity of emotion between 1 and 10, where does it register?  
Trigger:  What was happening when you experienced this emotion?  What was the context?  What were you doing? Who else was around? Did someone say or do something? Note: Are you dealing with an emotional response related solely to something that has just happened, or is the response connected with a childhood or previous experience? If so, you might note how this particular situation, was both similar and different from your previous experience?         
Thoughts:  What thoughts are/were around?  How are/were your thoughts influencing this emotional response?   
Responses:  How do/did you respond to this emotion?  Does anything even need to be done other than be aware that this emotions is present? What has been your learning? What helped to anchor and calm you? Would it be helpful to talk with a health care professional?  

Keeping a log, a journal, or notes on our phone, can help increase our awareness.  It can help us ‘observe’ the contexts in which we experience different emotions, identify patterns and create a more emotionally engaged life.    

Note:  Watch out for our brain’s built in negative bias.  Journals and logs work best, when they are used to record emotional experiences that bring us pleasure, joy, fun, connection and happiness, as well as emotional responses that make us feel uncomfortable and distressed.  

Continuing to move towards emotionally engaged living 

As stated earlier, everyone has a capacity to live a full and emotionally engaged life.  

Learning about emotions and recognising their valuable role in your life is not just about controlling or regulating, it involves actively seeking out and engaging with emotional experiences.   

Things to consider: 

  • Plan pleasurable activities. Make a list of things you would like to do, places you would like to go, people you would like to spend time with, and take note of your emotional experiences.  
  • Don’t just stay in your comfort zone, push the envelope a little, but in a safe way: Watch media, films, programs, listen to music and read books that you enjoy and are emotionally engaging.  
  • Put aside a few minutes a day for quiet time. In order to slow things down and check in with yourself in relation to what you are feeling. 
  • Make use of an Emotions Log to record both welcome and emotionally uncomfortable experiences. 
  • Work to increase your emotional vocabulary. 
  • Be pro-active. Try talking with a professional such as a counsellor, who can assist you in exploring emotions, your emotional experiences and preferred responses and living a more emotionally engaged life.   
  • Engage in yoga, meditation or relaxation activities. 


This web page was created with reference to the below resources:  and the below references. 

  • Briere and Scott (2014) Principles of Trauma Therapy 2nd Edition A Guide to Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment ( DSM-5 Update) 
  • M. Cloitre et al (2020) Treating Survivors of Childhood Abuse and Interpersonal Trauma. Second Edition. STAIR Narrative Therapy.  The Guilford Press: London. 
  • Men and Emotions’ page on Mensline Australia 
  • Teram, et al, (2006). Towards malecentric communication: Sensitizing health professional to the realities of male childhood sexual abuse survivors, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27, 499-517. 
  • Y. Joel Wong and Aaron B. Rochlen, (2005). Demystifying men’s emotional behaviour: New directions and implications for counselling and research, in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 6, 1, 62-72. 

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this page is general in content and is not a substitute for professional advice.