How to Control and Manage Your Emotions in a Healthy Fashion
by Robert Chase, PhD
by Robert Chase, PhD
The ability to effectively manage your own emotions in order to cope/problem-solve effectively is essential to emotional maturity, happiness, and well-being.
Being able to control our emotions depends, in part, on how much we feed and fuel them – which is to say: “how much we focus on and think about what is making us feel upset”.
Continuously thinking about what’s wrong is fine if it’s done as a way to understand and fix the problem – or to motivate yourself to fix the problem.
The opposite of this, however, is continuously thinking about and repetitively dwelling upon “what’s wrong” and “how upset you feel” for no other reason than to just revel in it. Simply ruminating (or repetitively and pointlessly dwelling upon what’s bothering you — or how upset you are) does nothing other than “feed/fuel the negative emotional fire” so that it can consume or burn you even more.
Although it generally serves no purpose (and typically only makes us feel worse), there are various reasons why we may engage in this type of repetitive negative rumination.
One reason may be because, like the odd yet common temptation to continuously picking at a scab that needs to heal, there can be something strangely ‘satisfying’ about repeatedly ‘picking at our emotional scabs”.
Maybe we feel like there is something ‘dramatically heroic or poignant’ about being ‘wounded’ and feeling like ‘a victim’.
Maybe we feel that if we allowed ourselves to feel better and move on it would be letting whatever/whoever is bothering us “off the hook”. As such, staying upset can almost feel like a form of ‘vendetta’ – and that you will never ultimately get satisfaction if you allow yourself to feel better, get over it, and move-on.
It can be especially hard to let go of angry thoughts and feelings because, more than any other emotion, anger makes us feel ‘stronger’, ‘bolder’, and “more sure that we are ‘right’. As such, there is often the sense of: “Why should I let it go and move on when I’m right?!” However, the thing is, because of what anger does to our brain’s ability to think straight (discussed below), the odds are pretty good that the angrier we are, the less likely we are to be ‘right’ (or at least “100% right). Also, given the choice between “being right” and “being smart”, it’s usually better to “be smart. And, even if you are technically “right”, holding onto feelings of intense anger and upset — when it isn’t going to do any good, and even hurting you more — is definitely not smart! Hence the expression: “Living well (i.e., moving on and being happy and content) is the best revenge”.
For reasons described below, it is also possible (and even probable) that experiencing very upsetting thoughts and feelings just causes us to “get stuck” because we can’t figure out ways to “effectively self-sooth and problem-solve” (which is what “coping” is, by the way).
The way the human brain works is that experiencing very intense and threatening emotions (anxiety, fear, upset, sadness, shame, anger, etc.) causes us to feel ‘in-crisis”. Human beings are biologically and evolutionarily designed so that, when we perceive a crisis our Sympathetic Nervous System takes over and automatically goes into “crisis mode”. Another name for “crisis mode” is “fight-or-flight mode” because, back in primitive times, “crises” usually involved actual peril (i.e., “The tiger is attacking me. In the next few moments I will either “run and escape”; “fight and kill it”; or “be killed by it”). In such situations, it is evolutionarily adaptive for the following things to occur automatically:
1. You need to get as much oxygen and energy to your large muscles as possible to help you escape or fight. Therefore, you breathe in rapidly and deeply. Your heart pumps faster and your blood pressure rises (to quickly get that oxygenated blood to the rest of your body).
2. You need to make decisions immediately! This is no time to pause, weigh your options, logically consider alternatives, or think about whether or not you might be over-reacting. In other words, this is no time for your brain’s higher centers (or frontal lobes) to be in charge. Instead, this is the time to make fast and simple (usually all-or-none decisions) and act on them intensely — without question, doubt, or hesitation (all of which the more primitive, emotional brain excels at).
Therefore, your more primitive/emotional brain (which is no great thinker or problem-solver, but briefly great in a crisis) takes over– essentially shutting down the higher-level parts of your brain (your frontal lobes) in the process. An analogous situation might be having someone in your group who, despite being pretty simple-minded and not too bright, is huge, powerful, and a great fighter. If you were in danger or being attacked, you would want this person to “take charge” and you would happily make him/her the temporary leader and decision maker for a little while — until the battle was fought and you were safe again. However, once the crisis was over, you wouldn’t want this person to remain “in-charge”. You would want him/her to step back down and give control and decision-making power back to the brighter, more reasonable, and creative members of the group.
In primitive times, this is exactly what happened. Crises (life-or-death) situations were over quickly. Within a few minutes, you either escaped, killed the tiger attacking you, or were killed and eaten by it. Either way, within a few minutes’ time, there was no longer any reason to worry or be stressed. And, if you were still alive, “crisis mode” was over and control was given up by the simple yet strong emotional brain and given back to the more intelligent and better thinking brain (the frontal lobes).
Happily, life is much safer in modern life and so most of us rarely (or hopefully never) face the types of true crises that the aforementioned emotional response system was created to handle. While truly terrible things can happen to some of us (terminal illness and other things beyond our control that threaten the existence and welfare of ourselves or those we love), most of what makes us ‘upset and miserable’ are chronic, repeated everyday hassles which gradually wear us down or just seem like a big deal, examples being:
(1) “I’m stuck in traffic and I’m going to be late!”;
(2) “I’m behind in my work!”;
(3) “I’m afraid that someone I like or care about is ignoring me, doesn’t like me back, isn’t responding to my texts or Facebook posts”;
(4) “Someone at work is being a jerk to me and giving me a hard time;
(5) “My parents won’t let me have as much phone or screen time as I want and it’s not fair!;
(6) “My kid has a tantrum every time a limit his screen or phone time!”; or
(7) “(Even though I enjoy a standard of living and level of comfort that is better than the majority of people on the planet), I don’t have the kind of job, money, opportunities I need to live even better – like some other people I know”.
Side-stepping the question of whether such things are really “crises”, they are often perceived, (and so experienced) by us and such. And as far as our brains and Sympathetic Nervous Systems are concerned, “a crisis is a crisis, is a crisis’” — and thus a reason to trigger the “fight-or-flight response”. Therefore, we are often having a ‘Defcon Emergency Level 5 response’ to a ‘Defcon Emergency Level 1 or 2 problem”.
However, as (or more) problematic than the intensity of our crisis-mode response is “how frequently it is going off” and “how long it stays on before the ‘all-clear’ is sounded and it switches off again”. It isn’t healthy, nor was it ever the intention, for our emotional crisis systems to be on more than 20 to 25% of the time. However, most of our modern day problems/crises are not “life-or-death situations” that are over within a few minutes. Instead, they tend to chronically go on and on — continuing day-in and day-out. This means that instead of feeling stressed and in crisis (and being controlled by our emotional brains) a minority of the time, we can feel (and thus be) in “emotional crisis mode” the majority of the time.
The main ‘take-home’ message here is as follows:
If you are chronically stressed and upset (constantly under strain and feeling emotionally worn- down or as if you could quickly ‘lose it’ if given half a chance), then something is wrong. Either you are truly in the middle of a real and major life crisis or, if not, you are likely over-reacting and seeing “life hassles and frustrations” as “crises”. Either way, things need to change, and fast — and such changes require the greatest possible use of your brain’s frontal lobes – the seat of your highest reasoning, logical-thinking, flexible problem-solving, and adaptive functioning skills. Therefore, you can’t afford to have this part of your brain constantly hampered and shut-down by the emotional part of your brain.
Here is what to do to take the control away from the emotional brain and give it back to your frontal brain:
When you realize that you are significantly stressed and upset (angry, anxious, scared, distressed), you should adopt an automatic/default policy of: “I will not do or say anything decisive until I have calmed down”.
As long as the situation isn’t literally a threat to life and limb, delaying before responding is likely to be adaptive and thus the way to go.
Think of it this way, once you react (do or say something) you cannot take it back or go back in time if it was not the best or correct response. There’s not much you can do about it, except to do damage control.
Conversely, you can almost always act or re-act to highly upsetting (but ‘non-crisis’) situations later on, after you have had a chance to calm down (at which point you will be doing so with the rational/thinking part of your mind on-line again). There is usually not a strict window or deadline for responding to a problem or upsetting situation if you don’t respond immediately. And if this is the case (i.e., if in a few minutes, the situation will have changed so much that you will literally have no need or opportunity to respond emotionally), then the situation could not have been important enough that this really matters much, could it?
Particularly when it comes to feelings of anger, many people think that ‘controlling their anger’ will ultimately make them ‘weak’ or ‘a pushover’ — or that the sign of “real strength” is to always stand-up for yourself and fight the good fight to prove that no one else gets to be the boss of you! (“Better ‘pissed-off’ than pissed on!”) However, think of it this way, if you can’t be in-control of (or the boss of) your own moods and behaviors, then you really aren’t in-control of yourself – at least not in an effective and dignified way. This means that, at any time, some random situation, event, or person can make you come undone and ‘lose-it’ just by upsetting you. If so, you are basically a ‘raw nerve’ and controlled by almost everyone and everything else. You might yell and scream and intimidate others who annoy you, but you’re like a fish who can’t stop itself from taking the bait, and will usually end-up making yourself look bad in the long-run. And if it is one of those rare (non-mugging/non-fist-fight) situations when angry retaliation really is called for or necessary, remember the expression that “revenge is a dish that is best served cold”).
So what are some specific ways that you can calm down when upset (so that you can give the reigns back to the rational/coping/problem-solving part of your brain)?
• Stop breathing for five seconds (to ‘reset’ your breath).
• Now breathe in slowly, until your diaphragm/stomach is extended and your lungs are filled with air.
• Then breathe out slowly (to at least a count of 8) and while doing this, imagine that you are breathing pure rest and relaxation into – or out through — your hands. You might also think or say something calming to yourself while doing this breathing – whatever works for you, whether it’s “relax” or “you’re ok”, or “this isn’t a big deal”, “ I can stand it”, “it won’t last forever”; etc.).
• Keep doing this for a minute or two – slowly breathing in for 5 seconds and then slowly breathing out for 8 seconds.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that the key is to breathe slowly and to exhale for longer than you inhale. This is the way we breathe when we are safe and no longer in ‘crisis/fight-or- flight’ mode. Therefore, just breathing this way literally sends an automatic physiological signal to your brain and body that “everything is safe and OK. I can calm down now”.
Breathing this way for 1 or maybe 2 minutes (often less) — can sufficiently calm down the “fight-or-flight’ response enough to get it to relax its grip on the rational, logical, flexible, forwards-thinking part of the brain – thereby allowing it to come back on-line.
Another way to help your rational/thinking brain back on-line is to try to get it ‘moving’, so to speak. If you were trying to revive a person who was woozy and out of it after being partially knocked out, you would try to get them to sit-up and get them talking and answering questions, etc. Similarly, you can start to revive and bring-back your rational brain by activating it and trying to get it into gear by simply forcing yourself to perform some simple but objective cognitive task (i.e., trying to remember as many names of Presidents or States as you can think of — or doing simple math problems in your head). This also serves as a way to momentarily distract you from what is bothering you (essentially “shutting-up” or “shifting attention away from” the emotional part of your brain”). Silly as this sounds, it can really be quite effective.
As noted earlier, the emotional brain does not deal with “the future” or “later on”. It only thinks about and concerns itself with “right now”, because that’s when emotions are experienced and that’s when true crises need to be dealt with”. It’s the higher-functioning frontal lobe (that is looking to come-out ahead in the long-term) which takes a “big-picture view” and thinks about “future concerns”. Therefore, forcing your mind to break free of a “right now” mentality and to start thinking about things from a “big-picture” (as well as a wider — “past and future”) perspective is not only adaptive, it’s literally another way to start reviving and waking-up your frontal lobes.
Additionally, pulling back and distancing from anything is a great way to get perspective. Imagine a movie showing a close-up and detailed accounting of a fierce, angry, and bloody battle between two armies. Now imagine the camera pans upwards to a birds-eye-view – moving higher and further away until the battle just looks like a bunch of ants and the battle- cries have all but faded as you are nearing cloud level. Now imagine the camera keeps going up and away – out of the Earth’s atmosphere, into deeper and deeper outer-space; past other planets, etc.. The battle going on between some people back on Earth suddenly doesn’t seem as important, does it? It now seems like one small event in one tiny part of one tiny planet in a much larger and impressive universe that is always out there, but that we almost never realize or think about.
In a similar way, pulling-back and taking a bigger-picture perspective in your head (from a particular situation, or even from your own, personal thoughts, feelings, and moods) can also help you to momentarily distance yourself from what is upsetting you – making it seem less important and intense. You can do this by asking and saying the following to yourself:
> “Will this still feel as important or upsetting later today, or tomorrow, or in a few days?”
> “Is this really a big deal and a major crises, or does it just feel this way because I am so upset right now?”
> “In my entire life, has there ever been a past problem, upset, or even just a terrible mood that wasn’t temporary and that never ended? Of course not. So this won’t last forever, either – especially if I don’t make it worse than it has to be”.
> “What’s my smarter and better choice: (a) gritting my teeth and taking a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to powering through this upsetting situation? or (b) allowing my feelings of upset to get me to respond in ways that will likely make things worse, or even cause me to humiliate or embarrass myself?
> Is this really the worst or most challenging thing that anyone has had to deal with?
Are there every day, real-life situations and events happening elsewhere that make my situations seem ‘small’ in comparison? Are there other people who would see me as extremely lucky and give anything to trade places with me and have my life or my problem?
• We tend to assume that moods just ‘happen to us’ and, like storms, the best we can do is wait until they pass. But, unlike storms in nature, we can influence – and even change – our own moods (so long as our brains frontal lobes are on-line – i.e., as long as we can remain reasonably calm– even if feeling angry or upset, as well).
• One way to alter your mood is to instantly do something else. Thus, if the situation allows, literally do some activity that is likely to make you feel happier, more relaxed, or occupied (taking a warm bath, watching a comedy show/movie on TV, having a favorite treat to eat; etc.).
• If this is not possible (or if you cannot literally leave the place or situation that is upsetting you right now), then you can do something else or go somewhere else in your mind.
> Simply imagine not feeling the way you are feeling by closing your eyes and taking a few moments to strongly imagine feeling relaxed and comfortable and even in a good mood.
> If you feel angry, sad, or upset — or like your life is unfair — consciously focus on three things in your life which make you happy or for which you feel truly grateful. You might also want to compare your own situation to those of others in the world who, objectively, have to deal with far greater hardships – and who would give anything to be in your shoes.
> if you are anxious about some upcoming and intimidating event (i.e., a presentation, an interview, a test) start to vividly imagine that this thing has already happened and gone much better than expected (or even ‘really really well!).
> Calm yourself down quickly by using visual images and sensations rather than just words and self-talk. The emotional mind is far more in-tune with and influenced by our visual/right brain than by our verbal/left brain. Thus, as a way of rapidly conjuring and tapping-into good feelings when highly upset, vividly picture and imagine some scene or situation that is relaxing and calm to you – including any associated sensations of ‘smell, touch, sounds). Then come back to the current moment – bringing those good feelings back with you.
> Imagine deciding not to let the current situation bother you (it is your choice) – or imagine yourself coping with it calmly and confidently — and how good this feels.
> Picture your upsetting emotions, thoughts. Worries, and tensions as ‘water’ — and then imagine them pouring and draining out of you like water out of a pipe.
> Using humor (thinking of something funny, or even getting yourself to laugh at the upsetting situation) is one of the best ways to instantly neutralize fear and anger. It’s very difficult to feel angry or anxious when you are genuinely smiling or laughing.
The important thing is just to do or think something different in order to change or distance yourself from your bad and upsetting mood or situation. Don’t be passively carried along by, or allow yourself to get ‘stuck in’ the current of the negative mood — as this just “feeds the fire”.
Most people assume that, when it comes to emotional reactivity, “the body follows the lead of the mind (and thus of our thoughts and feelings)”. Based on this belief, most people assume that, in order to calm-down physically, we first have to calm down mentally. However, brain research has actually shown that this is often not how it works. More often than not, we start to have an emotional physical response even a few moments before our conscious/thinking brains have even registered that anything bad or upsetting has happened. That is, acute physiological stress experiences often happen first, closely followed by mental thoughts and feelings of “something being wrong”. As such, our bodies have a lot more control over how we feel and think than previously recognized. If you don’t believe this, do the following right now. For the next 30 seconds, make a negative angry face, hunch your shoulders, and make tight fists with both hands — and see if you don’t start to feel a bit angry. Then, for another 30 to 60 seconds, make your face and body-posture take on a sad, upset, crying, expression and posture and see if you don’t actually start to feel a bit sad and down). Then for the next 30-plus seconds, stand up straight and strong, thrust your arms up as if in a celebratory pose, and make a huge, open-mouthed, smile — and see if you’re mood doesn’t brighten, embolden, or even begin to feel a bit jubilant.
So part of changing your emotional state involves dealing directly with the physical changes. As stated above (in Step 1) physical changes are led by the way we breathe – so always start with the relaxing breathing technique, previously described in Step 1.
You can also “physically act the way you want to feel”. So, if you are feeling tense or angry, you can ask yourself, “what facial expression and bodily posture would I (or someone else) have if they were feeling cool, confident, safe, and relaxed?” — and then assume that posture. If you are feeling sad and hopeless about things, physically act the opposite. If you are alone or have some privacy, stand-up straight; broaden your shoulders; stand legs braced with your feet apart, place your hands on your hips (as if you are assuming the “Superman’ or ‘Wonder Woman’ pose). Make sure your head is up and facing forward (not looking down); and put a slight (or ‘half-smile’) on your lips – whether you “feel this way or not”. Then hold this pose for at least 30 seconds. This not meant to be a permanent solution, but it can really help (or get you started in turning your mood around) in many instances.
Other ways to instantly changing from an upset physical state to a relaxed and calm one include:
• Briefly tense and then relax the large muscles of your body — starting at the top and working downwards (i.e., forehead, neck, shoulders, arms, buttocks, legs);
• If you can do so, take a bath or lay/sit down and relax;
• Have something to drink or eat (particularly if your upset may be due, in part, to thirst, hunger, or low blood sugar);
• Exercise vigorously as a way of burning off angry or nervous energy (even running in place, doing jumping jacks, etc., for a minute or two can help).
While we need some emotion to energize and motivate us, it needs to be the right emotion, in the right amount, at the right time, and applied/directed in the right way in order to get the particular job done. We wouldn’t want to use machine-gun to put kill a mosquito; and we wouldn’t want to call-in a S.W.A.T.-team to handle an everyday problem. However, when we let our emotional brain take charge of an upsetting moment or situation, it’s a lot like sending in a machine-gun-carrying S.W.A.T.-team. This is because the emotional (crisis-management) part of our mind is specifically designed to “keep you safe” through its limited range of options involving either: (1) “shock and awe” (an intense response carried out decisively and with blinding speed and force) or (2) immediately extracting you from the situation (escaping – by fleeing, avoiding, or shutting-down and essentially ‘playing dead’).
Another way of thinking about this is that allowing yourself to go into ‘emotional crisis mode’ is the equivalent of ‘calling 9-1-1’. Things would have to be pretty dire and extreme to justify calling 9-1-1, and this would not be your “immediate or reflexive ‘go-to’ option whenever something goes wrong. If you are repeatedly allowing yourself to become overwhelmed by your emotions and letting your emotional-brain respond to most everyday stresses, it’s as if you are calling 9-1-1 whenever you stub your toe or cut your finger slightly.
A final way of thinking about all of this is to compare your strong emotions is to a powerful horse that will pull your wagon for you. However, the rational/thinking part of your brain is the equivalent of you sitting in the driver’s seat holding the reigns in order to steer and control the horse. You need to work together. Without the horse, you’re just sitting still, not getting anywhere. But if you let the horse run free (without using the reigns to guide it) you probably won’t get where you need to go — or may not arrive their safely. Thus, if you are feeling extremely upset and need to quickly ‘reign yourself back in a bit, you can even think of pulling-in two imaginary reigns with your hands and silently saying “Whoa, boy/girl” to your ‘emotional horse’.
We will be physically, mentally, and emotionally weak and stretched thin if we are chronically:
• Tired (not getting enough sleep)
• Not getting proper nutrition
• Not having or allowing ourselves enough rest, relaxation, and fun time
• Not accomplishing the things we want and need to do (i.e., not working effectively)
• Not feeling that we have sufficient ‘control’ over our lives
• Not enjoying quality time and attention with people we care about
• Only thinking about ourselves – and never focusing on, trying to help, or being there for other people (or causes) around us
• Allowing problems or irritations to build-up by keeping them inside — rather than discussing them with others and solving them, if possible
• Constantly dwelling on negative thoughts, possibilities, feelings, or events
Therefore, you will be likely to ‘snap’ instantly, in response to everyday stresses, disappointments, and upsets, if your general lifestyle chronically involves:
(1) not getting enough sleep;
(2) eating poorly;
(3) not practicing relaxation and getting fresh air, exercise, and other things your body needs;
(4) not allowing yourself fun and satisfying downtime;
(5) not getting a sense of accomplishment and pride from doing your work and doing it well;
(6) not having a sense of control over your life;
(note: In some cases, this issue may reflect the need to assert more autonomy and get others to “back-off” and “give you more freedom and say in your life”. However, in many cases (particularly in children and adolescents), chronic upset and stress from perceived “lack of control” may reflect constantly being stressed by chores and work-related deadlines, and being ‘checked-up on by others” because you are not adequately taking care of your responsibilities and thus allowing things to pile up).
(7) not spending quality time with important people in your life;
(8) always and only focusing on yourself (which is easy to do when upset);
(9) keeping negative secrets, worries, and upsets inside; and
(10) constantly dwelling on possible problems or what you perceive as ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ or ‘unfair’ without also giving attention and consideration to positive things in your life.
Making sure that your daily or weekly life includes all (or most) of the above essentials (at least most of the time) will likely strengthen your “emotional immune system” and thus your emotional wellbeing and resiliency, in general.