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Four Strategies for Dealing with Feelings of Anguish

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SLU chapter.

Your late teenage years and early twenties can be amazing. Unfortunately, this time in your life can also usher in problems that you feel ill-equipped to deal with. There’s a reason you can find a “bereavement policy” heading on college syllabi—as young adults, we are expected to begin to take time to manage our emotional responses on our own

Though unpleasant feelings like grief, sadness, heartache and misery are awful to navigate, there remains another emotion that can be even more difficult to recover from and can cause our worldview to darken: anguish

Author and professor Brené Brown has spent much of her life working to understand human emotion. In her book, “Atlas of the Heart,” she nails down just what makes anguish so painful.

“Anguish is an almost unbearable and traumatic swirl of shock, incredulity, grief, and powerlessness. Shock and incredulity can take our breath away, and grief and powerlessness often come for our hearts and our minds,” Brown says. “But anguish, the combination of these experiences, not only takes away our ability to breathe, feel, and think—it comes from our bones.”  

What Brown exceeds at illustrating in this passage is the depth of this emotion and the rapid pace at which it can overtake us. If grief and sadness are what you feel at the funeral of someone you love who has reached the end of a long, happy life, anguish is what you feel when tragedy strikes at a sudden moment, leaving you desperate to understand why such a horrible thing happened. The aftermath of experiencing anguish rarely brings about the peace of a justification for your pain, so you have to do your best to carry on. 

Perhaps the worst part about anguish is that it is usually alleviated with time, which, in the wake of tragedy, can make your despair seem never-ending. While you work through an experience like this, it is important to practice strategies that help you grapple with reality and get to the other side. 

1. Don’t berate yourself with the thought that things will get better. 

While it is important to remember that the severity of your anguish will not last forever, you will likely not feel comforted by toxic positivity whilst in the throes of it. Forcing ourselves to think ahead to a time when things will be “better” often only makes us feel worse because we can’t see through the clouds that hover over us in the moment. Try to give yourself grace when looking toward the future and don’t frustrate yourself by pushing off your negative feelings. 

2. Accept that there may be no resolution.

One of the key components of anguish is a feeling of powerlessness or inability to fix the situation. This can extend beyond the initial lack of control you have over the situation and into the process of recovering from it. There may never be a day when your experience feels “worth it.” You may never learn a redemptive lesson about life that reassures you of the good in the world. It’s best to accept that this may just be a sour spot on the timeline of your life—accepting this may save you some disappointment.

3. Talk to people who truly understand what you are going through. 

Friends who sympathize with your problems can be incredibly helpful when you’re going through a tough time, but when you are experiencing feelings of anguish, those who can empathize with you are the most valuable people to talk to. The purpose of talking to someone who has gone through a similar experience is not to force them to relive their negative experience or for you to compare your anguish to theirs, but for you to use their triumph and strength as a goal point for yourself. They may also be able to offer advice that can help you navigate your feelings. 

4. Listen to your mind (to a certain extent). 

Sometimes going through an experience that induces feelings of anguish can cause you to feel like nothing matters. Our personal insignificance can become glaringly obvious when our safety shield of “it can’t happen to me” is broken down. When everything you do seems trivial due to life’s temporary nature, it can be helpful to lean into this sort of nihilism. If possible, try to put an optimistic spin on it by thinking about how nothing really matters, so you might as well try to do what you can to be as happy and content as possible on your own timeline. However, if your perception of life becomes completely hopeless or you begin to have thoughts of harming yourself or others, reach out to someone who can help so you can stop your mind from spiraling. 

While anguish is a dreadful and frightening emotion to experience, you can get through it. Focus on regaining your bearings, and someday, you’ll look back on the experience and be proud of yourself for weathering the storm. 

Anna Baugher is a communication student with a focus in journalism and media studies at Saint Louis University. She is a big fan of hiking in the woods, listening to Taylor Swift, and having late night talks with friends. She loves writing and has thoroughly enjoyed creating a collection of Her Campus articles.