Emotional upheavals are most commonly associated with those who’ve dealt with a traumatic experience, blocked the traumatic emotion and/or memory from conscious perception, and then later end up experiencing a resurfacing of the traumatic memory accompanied by strong emotion. It is the strong surge of unpleasant emotion, seemingly out of thin air that leads people to classify their experience as an “upheaval.” Emotional upheavals aren’t limited to only individuals that have faced trauma, they can also occur as a result of sudden, extreme life changes (e.g. a major physical illness).
These upheavals are generally associated with an emotion so potent, it feels as if we cannot escape. Our senses become overloaded and we may physically and/or mentally shut down in attempt to cope with it. The sympathetic nervous system is often kicked into overdrive, and we may end up hyperventilating, crying, kicking, screaming, or feeling severely depressed.
What is an emotional upheaval? Definition.
An emotional upheaval can be considered any [unexpected] surge of emotion that causes significant psychological distress for an individual. Most people consider emotional upheavals to be directly related to past experiences of trauma, repressed emotions, and/or mental illness. They can also be provoked as a result of unexpected lifestyle changes such as a divorce and may be associated with nervous breakdowns.
To experience an emotional upheaval is highly uncomfortable, and many individuals lack the psychological-resilience and/or social support to cope with what they’re going through.
- Potent surge of emotion: The primary characteristic of an emotional upheaval is a potent surge of unpleasant emotion or emotional pain. During an upheaval, emotions are often an unexpected rollercoaster of intense negativity that need to be consciously dealt with.
- Unpleasant: Emotional upheavals are generally considered extremely unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences. These are highly-charged, negative emotions that may change our entire outlook (at least temporarily).
- Unexpected: Unless you are consciously working your way through trauma and are expecting an emotional upheaval as part of your healing process, you probably won’t be prepared for the experience. Many people end up experiencing upheavals as a result of unpredictable life events and in some cases as their brain attempts to restore homeostatic functioning following trauma.
Note: If you are consciously attempting to work through these upheavals, it is recommended to seek a professional psychotherapist for guidance. Journeying back to your pre-trauma self (e.g. homeostatic functioning) often requires facing repressed emotions.
2 Types of Emotional Upheaval
To help you better understand upheaval, it is important to realize that there are two primary classifications of emotional upheaval.
1. Present-moment upheaval: This is the result of a traumatic experience that you’re dealing with in the present moment. Think of this as getting diagnosed with a terminal illness, the death of a loved one, pregnancy, or getting in a bad accident. All of these events are likely to trigger a severe upheaval, that have potential to lead to trauma.
Some individuals may lack the psychological coping mechanisms as well as external resources to cope with their emotional upheaval. In this case, a present-moment upheaval may be overridden by an adaptive adrenaline response that serves to flush out our experience of “pain” to keep us alive. The elevated levels of adrenaline repress some of the intense upheaval that we experience, letting us deal with the emotion at a later date.
2. Resurfacing of repressed emotion: You’ve probably heard of repressed memories and emotions. These are emotions and memories that become trapped as a result of an inability to cope with a traumatic experience. The inability to cope and/or process the emotion may lead part of it to become trapped. Our physiology changes and we shift away from homeostatic functioning into a traumatic state (sometimes characterized by over-arousal).
This second type of emotional upheaval occurs as a result of our physiology shifting back to homeostatic functioning (sometimes after a prolonged period). This shift may be a conscious one (such as making deliberate efforts through meditation to recover), but may sometimes be unconscious. If the shift is unconscious, we may not want to face the emotion necessary for complete healing.
Emotional Upheaval Symptoms
Below is a list of common emotions and symptoms that you may experience during an emotional upheaval. Keep in mind that symptoms may vary based on the individual, type of upheaval experienced, as well as the person’s psychological coping mechanisms and social support.
- Anger: You may become increasingly angry and have a difficult time controlling your anger response. You may snap at family members, friends, or other acquaintances because you don’t know how to cope with the surge of unpleasant emotion.
- Anxiety: The anxiety felt during an upheaval may be intense and unforgiving. You may feel a sense of fear about the future as well as fear about your current situation. The anxiety may become so bad that you feel like passing out.
- Apathy: Sometimes it may seem as if the upheaval will never end and/or you’ll be trapped in the emotional pain for eternity. While it will eventually pass, in the current moment, you may not believe it, so you may become apathetic and not care about your actions.
- Crying spells: Intense crying is a common symptom when attempting to deal with a surge of unpleasant emotion. You may need to cry to help release the tension or emotion from your body. Think of crying as a form of emotional release for the unpleasant experience.
- Depression: It is common to feel intensely depressed during the upheaval as well as after experiencing the emotion. The depression may be a result of a returning emotion, but may also be induced as a result of feeling helpless or at the mercy of the emotion. Nobody wants to feel pain, and the pain may feel inescapable, leading to serious depression.
- Dizziness: The combination of intense uncontrollable emotion and difficulty coping can lead to physical symptoms such as dizziness. Some people experience dizziness as a result of hyperventilating and/or being so “shocked” that they feel faint.
- Hatred: For some people, the upheaval brings forth feelings of intense hatred towards themselves or others. This may lead to unconscious retaliation in the form of violence or mistreatment of another person. Be sure to consciously control your hatred so that you do not get yourself into trouble.
- Hopelessness: Some people feel hopeless when the upheaval hits because they feel as if it will never end or they will be stuck in eternal emotional pain.
- Hyperventilation: When the emotion hits unexpectedly, you may actually hyperventilate. To calm yourself down, it is recommended to take deep breaths, use a paper bag to regulate breathing, or consider using a biofeedback device to get yourself under control.
- Hysteria: This is essentially a synonym for an emotional upheaval, but generally refers to excessive uncontrollable emotion. This results in feeling overwhelmed followed by some sort of physical response such as prolonged crying or shaking.
- Loss of control: The worst feeling is that you have no control over your experience. The emotion is painful to face and it feels as if you’re losing your mind. You may not know what to do and may try to distract yourself from feeling the inevitable.
- Screaming: Sometimes to let the emotion out, you may end up screaming as a way to “vent.” While this may not be an appealing option for everyone, some
- Shaking: The powerful surge of emotion may result in actual physical shaking. You may have so much intense emotion built-up and don’t know how to deal with it mentally, and it expands to the physical body. This is a result of an overactive sympathetic response and may make you feel hysterical.
- Stomach knots: It’s common to feel tension in your body as well as knots in your stomach. This is a result of the anxiety and fear of facing the emotion.
- Suicidal thoughts: If you experience suicidal thoughts, obviously seek immediate professional help. Many times the emotions are so powerful, that they render us completely hopeless and we become suicidal. You may want to also read about some ways to cope if you feel like you want to die.
What causes emotional upheavals?
It should be made clear that not everyone experiences emotional upheavals for the same reasons. One person may experience an upheaval during a healing activity like meditation that triggers a repressed memory or emotion, while another may experience a potent (present-moment) upheaval as a result of a divorce.
- Arousal: Our entire physiology changes in response to the emotion that we’re experiencing during an upheaval. If you’re experiencing a present-moment upheaval, your arousal may become elevated by sympathetic functioning. If you’re working through repressed trauma, your parasympathetic nervous system activation may trigger the upheaval (because your sympathetic was in overdrive).
- Brain activity: It can be speculated that blood flow and regional brain activity changes when someone experiences an emotional upheaval. Likely certain regions become more activated (e.g. the limbic system) and the prefrontal cortex (involved in emotional regulation) may become dampened.
- Brain waves: Your brain waves may become completely chaotic during an emotional upheaval. Some people may experience an increase in fast-paced beta waves, while others may actually show more slow waves such as alpha and theta. The dominant brainwave range may play a role in the upheaval. If you were to hook an EEG up to your head during the upheaval, you’d likely notice significant fluctuations from the norm.
- Major life changes: The root causes of all upheavals are generally major life changes or experiences that provoke significant fear. Examples could include: pregnancy, getting diagnosed with a terminal illness, undergoing surgery, disabilities, moving to a new country, the death of a loved one, etc. All of these experiences can result in significant psychological distress and possibly trauma.
- Mental illness: If you have some sort of mental illness (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder), you may be more prone to emotional upheavals as a result of the condition – which may have a genetic link contributing to faulty neural circuitry and/or neurotransmitter levels. When the illness remains untreated or unmanaged, it could lead to upheavals of unpleasant emotion. Those that treat their conditions properly and/or have developed good coping strategies will be less likely to be affected by upheavals as a result of a mental illness.
- Traumatic experiences: Anyone that’s experienced a traumatic experience will likely experience emotional upheavals when the shock of the trauma initially strikes, as well as when they are attempting to undergo psychological healing. Those that have been diagnosed with PTSD – regardless of whether it’s from war, sexual assault, death of family members, an accident, etc. – are likely to experience emotional upheavals.
- Recovery: En route to overcome PTSD or a drug addiction, sometimes you’ll likely end up facing an emotional upheaval as part of your recovery. While not everyone experiences them during the healing process, most have found that certain emotions and/or trauma become repressed until they’re ready to deal with it.
- Resurfacing of trauma: When attempting to consciously deal with an exaggerated stress response as a result of trauma, you may attempt to reduce activation of the sympathetic nervous system. While this work, it may also lead to a resurfacing to memories and/or emotions that are associated with the traumatic event that you experienced.
- Brainwave entrainment: Those using brainwave entrainment therapy in the form of slower wave frequencies may notice upheavals during the process. While some discomfort may be a result of improper training, the emotional upheavals relating to trauma may be an important aspect of healing.
- Drugs: While many people use drugs as a way to block out uncomfortable emotion, some people actually have the opposite effect. Certain psychoactive drugs may actually bring traumatic emotions from the subconscious to the forefront of our awareness, leading to an upheaval. Although the surfacing of these memories isn’t fun to deal with, consciously working through them can be of enormous benefit.
- Exercise: Sometimes all it takes is significant exercise to slow the fast-paced brain waves down for some slower wave activity to increase. When the slower wave activity increases, we may start to reconnect with emotions that we avoided in the past.
- Meditation: Many people notice when they first begin meditating that they experience upheavals of potent emotion. They may become emotionally-sensitive and/or may find that meditation worsens depression and anxiety. In this case, it is important to work with a professional so that you aren’t alone in dealing with your traumatic emotion.
- Relaxation: It is important to mention that some people experience a paradoxical form of an emotional upheaval that may be accompanied by decreased arousal in the form of relaxation-induced anxiety. Generally a relaxation-induced upheaval occurs when the brain shifts from a state that blocked out trauma (e.g. beta waves) to a state that makes us face the trauma for release (e.g. alpha waves and/or theta waves). Efforts made to relax the nervous system therefore may slow brain activity and lead to an upheaval that must be faced to return to genetic homeostasis.
- Therapy: Many therapeutic techniques (e.g. EMDR) have been known to help people deal with traumatic experiences and heal. Those that are attempting to recover from any past-trauma are likely to end up experiencing an upheaval in therapy. Fortunately most therapists are well-trained to help you through the trauma.
- Triggers: Sometimes a “trigger” or a specific cue that’s associated with the trauma you endured may lead to an upheaval. If you aren’t yet recovered from the trauma, triggers can set off potent upheavals and should be avoided until you are prepared to deal with them.
Personal experience with emotional upheavals…
I’ve personally experienced emotional upheavals as a result of PTSD. My body couldn’t cope with the overwhelming stress, and it produced a high adrenaline response which accumulated for well over a year. The adrenaline levels lead to an endogenous antidepressant response, I assume as a result of increased dopamine, stimulation, and mental sharpness. This lead to me to experience an adrenaline addiction, constantly seeking out ways in which I could keep my endogenous production of adrenaline high.
Unfortunately having high adrenaline isn’t optimal for health, and I developed high blood pressure and other health concerns. In attempt to improve my health, I knew I had to target the root cause – the elevated adrenaline and sympathetic stress response. However, in the process of reducing the elevated stress response, I knew I would have to face the unwanted emotions that were being masked by the adrenaline.
To reduce through my adrenaline and work through my trauma, I lived as healthy as possible by: managing my diet, exercising, using brainwave entrainment, meditating, and seeing a therapist once every 2 to 4 weeks. The process of healing was gradual, it wasn’t like I experienced one giant upheaval and was miraculously healed. It took a series of minor upheavals and learning how to release the pent up emotion as a result of the trauma.
The upheavals occurred over a period of several years, which was the amount of time it took for me to get over the hump and start feeling like my homeostatic self. There were moments of bigger upheavals as well – one in particular that I vividly remember was crying an entire therapy session; feeling completely hopeless and becoming apathetic as a result of feeling trapped in unpleasant emotion. With conscious efforts to make changes and continued therapy, I was able to work through the emotional upheavals and heal (i.e. return to pre-trauma homeostasis).
While I realize that my experience is unique to me and completely subjective, I feel as though sharing it may help someone get a better understanding of how upheavals may occur when dealing with trauma. Facing them can be tremendously beneficial if you are prepared to work through them, but if you’re not, may cause a significant setback.
Coping Strategies for Emotional Upheavals
There are several ways in which you can cope with an emotional upheaval. None are “right” or “wrong” ways of coping. The goal is to figure out how to consciously release the energy in a non-destructive manner. In other words, you don’t want to do anything that would harm yourself (e.g. block it out with drugs) OR harm others (e.g. punch someone). You also don’t want to keep the emotion pent up inside without expressing it.
1. Seek a therapist
Perhaps the best way to cope with an emotional upheaval is by seeking the help of a therapist. If you suspect that you have buried emotions as a result of trauma and would like to heal, a quality psychotherapist is your best bet. They will guide you through the process, offer advice, and always be a confidential friend you can talk to about your situation.
Often times we feel as if we have nobody to talk to about the emotional upheaval that we’re experiencing. Isolating yourself and keeping emotions all to yourself is certainly not a good way to cope. A therapist or psychologist may use CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) to help you get a different perspective on the trauma as well as possibly recommend some behavior changes that you could implement to improve your situation.
2. Talk to close friends or family
If you don’t have the money for a therapist, you still should talk to someone that you trust. Although a close friend or family member may not offer professional advice, simply venting about how you feel can make a huge difference. Dealing with emotional turmoil by yourself in isolation or keeping your feelings completely introverted from others will probably make you feel worse in the long run.
If you have a trustworthy sibling, parent, or understanding “best friend” – talk to them. If you don’t have anyone, it is recommended that you find someone you can trust such as a teacher, mentor, etc.
It is important to keep in mind that while the emotional pain may be intense and seem as if it’s never going to subside, it will eventually go away. In the meantime, you may have to simply accept it as part of healing or “changing.” Sure it’s not fun to deal with unpleasant emotion – your entire outlook on life may temporarily change.
However if you accept the way you’re feeling, release the energy constructively, and learn a few ways to cope, you’ll eventually feel better. Many people have a tough time accepting that they feel stuck in a state of emotional pain, but the longer they fail to accept it, the longer it may persist.
4. Channel the energy release
Although the emotional upheaval may make you feel like punching a hole in the wall or beating someone else up, realize that these actions aren’t constructive. The best way to deal with the pent up energy is by releasing it in a constructive, channeled way. When I dealt with my upheavals, I channeled my energy into my work as well as into hitting the gym. I certainly felt like literally beating myself up and others, but knew that those weren’t good long-term strategies.
- Exercise: One of the best ways to channel the energy associated with an upheaval is to exercise. You could buy a punching bag and beat it until your hands turn blue, go for a run, lift heavy weights, take up a boxing class, or play some sort of a competitive sport. Channel the increased energy you have as a result of your emotion towards exercise – this will help with the release.
- Kick/Scream/Punch: Obviously you don’t want to direct kicks, screams, or punches towards another person. However, you can position yourself on a bed, couch, or soft object while lying on your back. Then you can enter a state of catharsis and literally go crazy while screaming (loudly), punching, and kicking (almost like a child would look like throwing a tantrum). While this exercise may seem very silly, it’s a good way to tire yourself out as well as get the energy of an emotional upheaval out of your system.
- Social: Seek out close friends and/or a therapist to get some social support. If you’re with friends, talk about how you feel and try to focus on doing something fun. Focus your energy on the fun activity to decrease awareness of the upheaval.
- Work: Try to channel the energy associated with the emotional upheaval to enhance your capacity to work. Consider working longer to burn off some of the extra energy or do more on the job than you normally would. You may consider staying busy in some other activity as a way to release the energy.
5. If an activity is contributing to the upheaval…
If you’re doing an activity that is contributing to the upheaval of emotions such as meditation, you may want to reconsider. If the upheavals are becoming increasingly powerful, you may need to take things more slowly. There are three routes you can take including: scaling back, discontinuing the activity, or persisting.
- Scale back: If something in particular is causing the emotional upheavals, scale back on the activity that’s causing them. If you’ve found that increasing your meditation time results in more upheavals, scale back on the time.
- Discontinue: If a particular activity is causing the upheavals, simply quit the activity. Many people who don’t want to face past emotions unintentionally trigger the upheavals with certain activities. Should any particular activity result in an emotional upheaval, you can always discontinue that activity.
- Persist: If you want to keep pushing through the unpleasant emotion, you can. This is the best option for someone who knows they need to face the emotion to completely heal. However, if you are going to push through it, you should probably enlist professional support in the form of a psychologist or psychotherapist. Pushing through the upheaval by yourself can be overwhelming and sometimes unmanageable.
6. Consider supplements / medication
Many people would argue that taking supplements or medications further mask the emotion that they aren’t ready to face. While this may be partially true, in many cases supplements and medications don’t bury the emotion, rather they help us cope with it. If the emotional upheaval is related to a mental illness or stems from past trauma, sometimes you may want to consider herbal as well as low dose pharmaceutical options for increasing your capacity to cope.
Assuming you don’t have any form of mental illness, the goal should be to completely discontinue the supplement or medication once you’ve figured out a good coping strategy and/or feel ready. It is common for people to shun any form of supplementation or meds when they may really need them. Do not be afraid to use them if you suspect that they’re necessary.
Have you ever experienced an emotional upheaval?
If you have experienced an emotional upheaval, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Discuss what played a role in causing your upheaval of emotion and how you coped with it (or are currently coping). If you managed to overcome your emotional upheaval, feel free to share any strategies that helped you get through it. By sharing your experience, you may help someone else who is dealing with a similar experience.