By David Joel Miller
What do you do when life overwhelms you?
Ever have someone tell you to – “Just calm down?” Some people seem to be born with that skill but others of us once overwhelmed find it easy to get worked up and upset and a whole lot harder to calm down afterward.
Adults have a habit of telling children to feel this way or that. This approach, invalidating the child’s feelings, will cause problems later. If you were told to feel a certain way or told you had no right to feel as you did, you may have learned the lesson that feelings were bad. Suppressing feelings can cause you to ignore valuable information coming from that part of the nervous system.
Learning to listen to your emotions is a valuable skill. Unfortunately sometimes our emotions start yelling in their “outside voice” and will not shut up long enough to let us think. At that point, you need to be able to control those feelings. Note that controlling is not the same thing as ignoring, as any parent of young children will probably learn.
What is left out in this instruction, “calm down, stop getting upset” and so on, is how you get yourself to feel other than what you feel.
We call this skill of being able to change your feelings to match the situation “Emotional regulation.”
Many of us learned fear; anger and other negative emotions by watching the adults around us act them out. We may have learned happiness and love that way also. What was usually missing is how you get from full emotional turmoil to calm again.
Regulating your emotions, calming yourself down, is a skill which can be learned.
One post on emotional regulation will not make you and expert in this. It takes learning the skill, practicing the skill and then over-learning the skill until rather than something you have to think about this emotional regulation is something you do automatically.
Here is a quick summary of things that may help to reduce the emotional intensity of negative feelings or to prevent them in the first place.
1. Use thought-stopping to reduce negativity.
When that thought that provokes your anger or anxiety first occurs find ways to interrupt that thought. Think of other things instead. Having a “happy place” or affirming memory can be a great help here.
2. Question this unhelpful thought.
What is the belief behind the thought? Challenge that belief. No one is “always” a certain way. There are many other ways to alter your thoughts and beliefs and the result is a change in your feelings.
3. Tell yourself things that you find reassuring or grounding.
For people who are easily overwhelmed by negative emotions getting out of the movie playing in your head and back to the current moment can be very helpful. Start with the simple things. Therapists refer to these as “orientations.” Ask and answer some right here and now questions. Things like; Who are you? (Your name, not the meaning of your life.) Where are you? What are you doing now? Who are the others around you?
Try to avoid taking detours down those “mean streets” in your head. Forget trying to “not think about things.” (See the post Don’t think about Elephants.”
Keep bringing yourself back to reality.
There are literally hundreds of ways to turn down the level of emotions and get yourself back to a safe mental place. These techniques need to be practiced beforehand otherwise while running in panic, you will never remember what you were going to do.
Watch counselorssoapbox.com for more posts on ways to regulate your emotions. You might want to subscribe to the blog if you find these posts helpful.
P. S. Stay tuned for info on the book I am working on. More on that in the posts to come.
Have you found ways to calm yourself down and regulate your emotions? Care to share?
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books
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