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Responding to Difficult Emotions: What to Do with Your STUF

By Joel Minden, PhD 

It’s important for clients to see the connection between difficult emotions and behavior. When anxiety, sadness, and anger consistently lead to avoidance, passivity, or explosive outbursts, it’s helpful to work on paying more attention to emotions, responding with acceptance, and making value-driven rather than emotional choices.  

But emotions are complicated. In emotionally charged situations, we might be aware of our physical reactions, thoughts, impulses, or the emotional labels we use, but noticing all elements of emotions, and the interplay among them, takes practice. 

The acronym STUF is useful for helping clients improve their ability to recognize the four parts of difficult emotions: 

  • Sensations (muscular tension, rapid heart rate, heaviness in limbs, sweating, shaking, numbness) 
  • Thoughts (“Something awful will happen,” “I can’t do anything right,” “My boss is a selfish jerk”) 
  • Urges (worry, criticize self, leave the situation, take a midday nap, drink alcohol, do something to reduce the intensity of the emotion, yell at someone) 
  • Feeling labels (panicked, freaked out, stressed, sad, miserable, frustrated, irritable, angry) 

When clients describe a recent setback, it’s valuable to think together about their emotional response—their STUF—and write down the four parts of the emotion, their behavioral response to it, and the impact of the choice. You can also consider collaboratively the aspects of STUF to notice in the future, and the choices they’d prefer to make. 

Joel Minden, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for anxiety. He is a diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy; adjunct professor in the department of psychology at California State University, Chico; and author of the blog, CBT and Me, on www.psychologytoday.com.

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