Sweaty palms, racing pulse, knotted stomach, trembling hands. Almost all of us have been there and experienced that downward spiral of emotions.
Negative thoughts race out of control. Whether it’s about upsetting texts from a loved one, a frustrating incident at work, pants not fitting how we want, or some existential internal turmoil, the results are similar. We ruminate over these upsetting thoughts as our emotions spin out of control.
Feeling that lack of control over our emotions is deeply unsettling and can lead to negative consequences. However, there is some good news! There are a number of skills that we can implement to change these unwanted outcomes.
The next time you feel yourself being swept into the storm, try following these steps and see if you notice any relief.
1. Take some deep breaths with extended exhales when feeling overwhelmed.
When we are faced with a difficult situation that triggers an emotional response, it can be easy to be overwhelmed. The squall of feelings trigger that immediate physical arousal. This is the time to take a step back and take some deep breaths. This may sound like a cliché. That’s because it is one!
However, it has become a cliché for a good reason: countless studies have shown that is effective.
Try taking a breath deep into your lungs for a count of three or four. Then, slowly breathe out for double that count. If double is too much for you, try to exhale for one or two counts longer than your inhale. Research has shown that when we exhale, our bodies pump the brakes on our sympathetic nervous system which controls the fight or flight response.
Inhalation activates neural activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is closely linked to emotional responses. If you want to lessen the effect your amygdala is having on you at a particular moment, try focusing on smooth extended exhales.
Make sure not to alter your breathing too drastically, as too much of a change from your regular breathing pattern could possibly cause some distress or anxiety. The pace should be smooth and slow, emphasizing the out-breath while not becoming too irregular.
2. Write out the facts and your interpretation of them.
Make two lists:
- List A should contain the simple facts of the situation which is upsetting you. Make sure that you are not adding or assuming any facts that are not present. Try to limit the list to only what was said or done, don’t include any feelings or emotions.
- For List B, write down your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Be sure to focus on your perceptions and interpretations of the situation.
3. Compare the lists.
Compare List A and List B. Check to see if your interpretations fit the facts. Many times, we observe life through our emotional filter, which has been fine-tuned over the years by our own experiences. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, this filter can blurs reality.
Ensure that you were not adding motive or emphasis to someone’s communication. Explore the possibility that the ambiguous message didn’t mean what you first thought it did. While checking that the facts fit the situation, also make sure that the intensity of your emotional response fits the facts and is not being magnified by an inaccurate interpretation.
Maybe your significant other did leave you an unfriendly message, but does your level of distress match that? Or based on your past relationships, are you assuming your current partner has the same bad intentions as your ex? It is important to try to re-frame your thoughts and interpretations to a story that more closely aligns with the facts of the situation.
The story we tell ourselves has an incredibly powerful effect on how we feel, so it is imperative that our story is realistic. If after comparing the lists you realize that your response does fit the facts, then it is clear that there is not an issue with your interpretation. If this is the case, try to use some simple problem-solving strategies to find a solution.
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4. When feeling overwhelmed, try Opposite Action.
Once you realize that that your interpretations do not fit the facts and that your emotional response is not helpful, it is time to move to the next step. This is often the most difficult to execute, but it is also one of the most powerful tools.
When you are in the middle of your emotional storm, or once you’ve cooled off a bit, take a step back and write out what emotions you are feeling the strongest and what urges accompany them. For example, if you are very angry at work, you may feel the urge to curse out your boss. If your significant other has sent you a text that has irritated you, you may have the urge to reply with a caustic text of a few pages.
It is important in these instances to identify the emotion and urge, and then to do the opposite (or something incongruent) of that urge. In the first situation, it might mean getting away from your boss for a while. In the second, it may mean taking some time before replying appropriately.
People often struggle with this skill because they have developed self-defeating habits over the years, and these can be tough to break. If you always curl up in bed when you are sad or afraid, it can seem terrifying to think about running errands or going for a walk instead. And that is why it is important to do it.
You need to convince your mind that you are capable of functioning even when you are upset. It will be uncomfortable, but over time the distressing emotions and the accompanying urges may lessen or even disappear if you practice opposite action regularly.
5. Observe the thoughts and feelings.
If none of the preceding steps have granted you much relief, it might be time to move on to this one. This skill is based on mindfulness techniques. We are often completely intertwined with our thoughts and feelings. We judge them to be true or permanent, simply because we are thinking or feeling them, which is not the case.
Try to observe your emotions, sensations, and thoughts without judgment. See them for what they are. Envision your troublesome thoughts like leaves floating down a stream. You don’t need to engage with them. Acknowledge them and then say goodbye. Just because you think you are worthless doesn’t make it so. Notice that thought and watch it float away. The more we engage or fight with these thoughts, the more power we give them.
We are sucked further into quicksand the more we struggle, just as we are engulfed by our emotional storm the more we fight with our thoughts and feelings.
Do not take the bait.
What to Do Next if Still Feeling Overwhelmed
Hopefully one or more of these skills will decrease some of your distress when you are feeling overwhelmed. Keep in mind that as with most things in life, insights alone very rarely make a difference. Instead, practice is what helps you reach your goals. Knowing how to do a crunch or doing a crunch one time will not give you a six pack. Repetitions are what matter, so if you can implement these skills on a regular basis, you are more likely to reap the benefits.
Whether you experience any relief or not, it is important to keep in mind that you are in the middle of your storm, but all storms pass. It will be tough, it will be difficult, but it will subside. Much of the distress we feel during these times is because the sensations, feelings, and thoughts feel like they will never end. It can be very powerful just to remember that your pain and struggle are temporary.