Tips to Release Stuck Emotions from a Therapist and Trauma Specialist

stuck emotions Jun 08, 2023

By Katie Honeywell, LPCMH, NCC

Consultant In Training

Have you ever had one of those moments? One instance triggers an uncomfortable emotion that seeps into the whole day, the week, or longer. You aren’t alone. Many of my clients have experienced this, and so have I. It's an icky sensation of feeling emotionally stuck. These stuck emotions can significantly disrupt our lives if they linger, affecting our relationships, work, sleep, and other critical aspects of life. 

Let’s first look into our nervous system and answer why this emotional stuckness happens. Then I will give a few suggestions showing you how to release stuck emotions from within your own body. 

I lean into Polyvagal Theory to understand our nervous system. Simply put, this theory hypothesizes that the goal of our nervous system is to feel safe, connected, curious, present, and grounded. When our nervous system perceives a threat, it will remain in a fight, flight, or freeze response until it feels safe again. Emotions like feeling rejected, humiliated, scared, and hopeless could trigger the flight, fight or freeze state, and staying stuck in one or more of these feelings means we are lingering in one of these threatened states (Porges, 2011).

Here are some tips that trauma specialists recommend to help your body move toward a feeling of safety:

1. Sometimes, when we are stuck in a particular emotion, it can feel tough to move. Many people aspire to return to work, clean the house, run a race, or go to a party. When I combine what I know of the nervous system and behavior modification these aspirations are often too much too fast. In one strategy, we take time to imagine a small motion. This could be stretching, raising an arm, brushing your hair— anything fits here. Imagine stretching your arm slowly over your head or moving toward something just out of reach. Be mindful of the changes in your body as you think about movement. Our brain responds to the imagination as if it were occurring in real life. As you imagine these movements it helps build momentum to the next step, the real thing. This is the first step toward jump-starting the nervous system into a safe state (Dana, 2022). Remember, lack of energy is not a character flaw, it's just a nervous system response. 

2. Our brain wants to ruminate on a thought or feeling and protect us. However, rumination often makes it bigger and more complex as our thoughts tell us a story about how bad a situation is. Fighting the brain's drive to ruminate can cause the feeling to multiply for some. One of my favorite ways to move away from an unhelpful feeling is by ruminating differently. Imagine the emotion you are feeling is an object. I begin by imagining, describing, or drawing this object’s shape. In addition to shape, you can also give the object weight, color, temperature, texture, and sound. As you allow this line of thinking, and see your feeling take on physical characteristics, notice any shift in your thinking or body. You may notice the disturbance associated with the emotion getting smaller or be able to experience some distance from the feeling. As the disturbance lowers or distance increases our body can feel safer and more grounded in the present moment. 

(Extra tip: Start with a small feeling like an annoying event and keep practicing. If you aren’t the best at using your imagination, some people enjoy using a collage, drawing, or clay to inspire you.)

3. Offer yourself curiosity.  Sometimes an emotion is a psychological defense (Knipe, 2019). Try to think of emotions as important information even if it feels like these stuck feelings are disrupting your life. Try offering curiosity by asking yourself these sentences, “If I did not experience (enter stuck emotion)  then (enter something unfavorable) would happen.” Next, “If I did not feel (enter stuck emotion) then (enter something favorable) could happen” (Dana, 2022). 

For example, if I am ruminating on feeling humiliated by someone, I might try saying, “If I did not feel humiliated then I would keep opening myself up to embarrassing situations.” And then I would say, “If I did not feel humiliated, I could enjoy going out with my friends.” When we reframe our thoughts as trying to be helpful or protective we may be able to lower some of the disturbance associated with them. With lower disturbances, our bodies are more likely to move from a fight, flight, or freeze state to a safe, connected, and curious state.

Some of these strategies may feel difficult at first. Practicing these exercises when feeling safe - or BEFORE you need to - makes these strategies more familiar and easier to access when sticky emotions come up. 

Consider bringing this to your therapist. If you are looking for a therapist consider using EMDRIA. If you liked these tips or ways of conceptualizing our stuck emotions, you can also look for therapists trained in EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Ego State Therapy, Somatic Therapies, or Polyvagal Theory at Psychology Today.

If you are a therapist curious about how to help your clients get unstuck consider EMDR Basic Training to offer a therapy that can help the nervous system feel safer. Also, check out Deb Dana’s work on Polyvagal Theory and her application. Portions of tips 1 and 3 were adapted from pieces of her Polyvagal Card Deck.



Dana, D. (2022). Practices For Calm and Change. New York; New York. 

Knipe, J. (2019). EMDR Toolbox: Theory and treatment of Complex PTSD and Dissociation. Springer Publishing Company. 

Porges, S. W., Porges, S. W., & Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. First Edition; The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. first edition. W.W. Norton & Company.


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